Robben Island Maximum Security Prison was where the South African government held black male prisoners during apartheid. For decades, this island was home for many of the freedom fighters who had dedicated themselves to the struggle for a free and democratic South Africa. The most famous inmates of the notorious prison was none other than Nelson Mandela. Mandela would become the face of those who were subjected to the horrid atrocities of life on the island. Mandela, while a remarkable man in every sense, was not alone on the island.
In its earlier years, Robben Island was a colony for lepers, so naturally it was again used for the purpose of separation and isolating people. As we toured the island, we saw the graves of the people condemned to die there from the horrible disease and it was a stark and painful reminder of the cruelty people can be capable of once they have managed to dehumanize someone else.
Yesterday, my cohort went to visit Robben Island and our tour was led in part by a former political prisoner who had served 12 years on the island for charges similar to t Mandela’s and other anti-Apartheid activists (treason, sabotage, conspiracy, etc…). As he described the horrors of his experience, I couldn’t help but think of all those who were stuck on the island because they weren’t Nelson Mandela or some other high profile inmate. The man who led our tour was one of many other inmates who endured the same harsh and inhumane conditions as Mandela. They too had sacrificed their lives and bodies for the purpose of casting off South Africa’s chains of hatred and intolerance. There were no statues for them, no celebrations held in their honor. They bore their scars away from the eyes of the world and in spite of this, they were there. They suffered daily and continued to believe their efforts and sacrifice would not be in vain. They were there. They were humiliated and tormented and they persevered. They were there. The guards urinated on them and set dogs loose on them as they were shacked to walls and left helpless. Still they were there and they were determined to continue to be present in the cause for bringing liberty to their fellow South Africans. Interestingly enough, there were hardly ever any suicides on the island. As the tour guide put it, the prisoners were willing to live and die for the struggle and there would be no other way out for them.
At the beginning of the tour, our guide spoke in the room where he and other prisoner were housed. Up to fifty of them were confined to a room hardly fit for half of them. Their beds were hard cold metal bunk beds. He spoke of how they were often forced to go without food and water or denied visitors and correspondence with their families for even the simplest infractions. When they were fed, it was serving sizes hardly fit to feed anyone much less full grown adult men who were forced to labor day in and day out in a limestone quarry on the island.
As he spoke, there stood behind him two pillars with names of people who had died on the island and were buried as paupers in nearby Bellville, a section of Cape Town. As I read the names on the lists and listened to our guide, my thoughts went to those whose lives had been lost in the struggle to create a free and democratic South Africa and have had their names lost or forgotten. Some were buried in unmarked graves and others never had their remains found or returned to their families. Even some high school students as young as 16 were sentenced the horrors of the island and several of them had met their demise on the island. Students I have worked with could have been one of the Robben Island’s lost in another time or place. The very thought of this was unsettling and I haven’t shaken the feeling even after leaving the island.
Our tour guide paused for questions and was asked by a member of the tour group how he could continue to return so frequently to the island where he endured such hardships. He said he was able to do it because the story needed to be told and it was his story to tell. Being in the presence of such grace and courage was staggering. The man who led our tour showed us scars he had gotten during his time on the island. His own body was a reminder of his strength and resilience. His body, his voice and his words are reminders of those who were forgotten on Robben Island. For the first time in my entire life, I had felt inadequate in someone’s presence. Here was this man who had gone through hell and was brave enough to go back there almost daily to ensure no one forgets the plight of those who walked through the flames with him. Most importantly, he used his own story to show the horrors of unchecked hatred mixed with power. He told us he wanted his story to heal and to teach and to show the world the power of the human spirit. I hugged him at the end of our tour and I felt the tears in my eyes. He comforted me and said now that I know I his story, use it to ensure no one else suffers as he and the others of Robben Island did. I agreed to take him up on his task and thanked him for his strength and his grace. I promised to do all I can to make a world where people will know his story. I want to make a world where no one else is subjected to the pain of he and the others. I promised to remember him and his suffering. I promised to remember him and the people indigenous to the Americas who laid their lives to resist colonialism. To never forget those in countries in Africa who paid the ultimate price for freedom and the rights afforded to them on the simple basis of their humanity. I vowed to never forget people in the American South who died for the purpose of freedom and equality in what is supposed to be the land of the free. Nor will I ever forget countless nameless people who gave up their lives to see the world move further down the road to true freedom.
If you’re reading this, I urge you to remember all of those people on all of the Robben Islands all over the world. We owe it to them to see that the world becomes a place worthy of their sacrifices.
Thank you for reading.
Inside Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. While the picture didn’t capture the whole cell, there is very little space not shown in the photo.