Robben Island

Today, our entire visit to South Africa, studying apartheid, post-apartheid, the townships and the effects of it all culminated in our visit to Robben—Dutch for “seal”—Island, a former military base, but of course widely known for Nelson Mandela’s home (if you could call it that) for 18 of the 27 years he was a political prisoner.  For some reason, as eerie, symbolic, and meaningful as the Island was, it didn’t seem to have the great, overwhelming effect that I’d thought it would have.  Perhaps part of it was due to the gloomy weather, the lack of food in my stomach which diverted my focus on pretty much anything, or perhaps most likely, the realization that Mandela, as great as a man as he was and is, seems to be over rated. 

Now, if I said that to the average South African, I might be in a heap of trouble.  They see him in the same way we perceive George Washington, and I think that’s fair; I won’t knock their leader.  However what I want to say is what I said in a previous post: Mandela was the end product of apartheid.  Yes, he went to jail for creating the militant wing of the ANC, the MK, against apartheid.  Yes, his incarceration was terrible, and he used his charisma as a political leader to better the conditions of other prisoners at the Island.  All this aside, it was Oliver Tambo, Steven Biko and others who led the movement during the most important years of apartheid.  Whites knew the system was unsustainable, that eventually it would collapse.  It was going to collapse eventually, with or without Mandela.  In a cheerful yet ravenous rant from a cab driver as we talked about Mandela, he told us how he fought alone, defeated the system and gave Mandela a Herculean persona.  When we disagreed, he told us we “[didn’t] know our South African history.”  I wonder if the average South African knows that Mandela reluctantly accepted the position as the first democratically elected president.

While many came on the ferry with us to the Island, I couldn’t help but feel that most were neglectful of the fact that there were many others just like Mandela who were imprisoned at the Island.  Our tour guide, a former political prisoner, is just one person.  Yet they all came, as the tour guide even acknowledged, to see the one single cell that housed Mandela.  The Island also became known as the University.  Through Mandela’s insistence, prisoners were able to study and even get degrees from the Island through reading and studying books in fields of political science, economics and the like.  These were men who had little formal education and were in jail.  Surely someone somewhere saw a connection between the two and decided to remedy it.  Not only that, Mandela realized that eventually these would be people who would lead the country someday, and if they were not educated in these essential fields, the country would be doomed to failure. 

I noticed that our tour guide had the same eyes as Mandela, a result of working in the lime mines I presume, but I forgot to ask.  The mines were one of few sources of work for the prisoners.  In the Summer (our winter), the sun was so bright that it would shine off of the lime and workers would have to squint.  This froze their faces in a perpetual look with burnt tear ducts, eyelashes and eyebrows.  Yet they can still smile, and that’s what I find most amazing about their stories.


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