With the death of Nelson Mandela, I thought of Robben Island and how he survived there for almost 20 years before being moved to a prison on the mainland. Although only a 30-minute ferry ride from the luxurious beaches and cosmopolitan lifestyle of Cape Town, Robben Island is another world. At first sight, it is a small, green, flat area with low buildings and houses on one side. It is not hard to imagine feelings of fear and despair in the prisoners when they arrived. The island itself has a checkered history: leper colony, place for those deemed “insane,” prison, and now, a living museum. The island has become a monument to how the human spirit can triumph even in harsh and inhuman adversity.
The infamous lime quarry is almost tucked away from view, with a pile of stones standing proudly at the entrance, placed there in 1995 during a reunion of political prisoners who had all worked in the quarry during their time on Robben Island. Each had picked up a stone, making a small mound, signifying their deep and lasting unity, which had been forged through their fight against apartheid. Clearly visible is the cave at the back of the quarry, where so much of the education and real teaching happened. Educated prisoners such as Nelson Mandela taught others math, reading, and political debate, espousing the philosophy of each one, teach one.
Inside the actual prison is the inner yard, which was the one area allowed for the political prisoners deemed leaders, such as Mandela. In one corner, overgrown but still recognizable, is the garden that after much red tape, Nelson Mandela was finally allowed to cultivate, and from which he eventually produced vegetables despite the inhospitable soil. The cells themselves are barely large enough for one person, and would not allow a prisoner to stretch out, even when sleeping. Stark, bare, and utterly devoid of humanity, the cells are yet another testament to the human spirit and the will to survive and overcome.
Daily life on Robben Island was a constant round of daily privations and humiliations, such as the strict caste system based on skin color. The Indian and colored prisoners given more food and more privileges than the African prisoners, and some were allowed to wear shoes and long pants in contrast to the African prisoners, whose dress was shorts and no shoes.
Mandela and the other prisoners who opposed the system of apartheid exemplified the very African concept of “ubantu,” the profound sense that we are human only through the humanity of others, and it was surely their strength, unity and humanity toward each other that gave them the will to survive. It was surely in the harsh conditions of that place that Mandela’s indomitable spirit was forged, and which gave to Mandela the strength and courage to forgive his oppressors and to lead his country to reconciliation. He was the moral compass for our globe. After his 27-year imprisonment and struggle, then eventual victory, becoming the first black South African President, Nelson Mandela’s legacy lives on not only in South Africa but throughout the world.