Just off the coast of Cape Town, there is a small, rocky island. During its history, this island served as a leper colony, a military base, and a quarry, but it is famous (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) for another reason. Robben Island was a prison where South Africa’s apartheid government kept undesirable political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was one of these prisoners, and he lived and worked on this chunk of rock in the Atlantic ocean for 18 of the 27 years he spent imprisoned.
Tourists are shuttled to and from Robben Island on a ferry. We spend the ride it looking back, admiring the spectacular views of Table Mountain over the glittering city and gasping as whales breach alongside the boat. Before long, we disembark at the Robben Island pier and meet our guide, Lulamile Madolo.
He pounds on the foreboding metal gates to the prison and calls out the brute Afrikaans words he last heard on the outside. At only 23, he was thrown into Robbin Island prison for participating in student protests. He was held there for five years.
Lulamile is a small man with soft eyes and wry sense of humor. He is trying to learn how to say hello in the languages of all of the tourists. Once he masters the Norwegian greeting (hei hei!), he shares the details of his life in prison. He remembers the one pair of shoes he was given, in the wrong size. He remembers sleeping on the floor and sharing a cell with up to 60 other men. He shows us the menu he and other black prisoners were fed, and compares it to the only slightly less meager fare allotted to coloured prisoners. He recalls receiving letters from home that were so censored that they had lost all meaning. Lulamile tells us his prisoner number, his only identity on the island, and recounts the jeering and callous names that wardens would spit out at him.
Between listing off these horrible conditions, these small and large degradations that would surely destroy many men, Lulamile repeats the one message he wants us to leave with. He forgives. He forgives the guards and the system and the whole society. And he forgives because that was the message and example of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
On our tour, we see the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela slept, the flimsy blanket on the ground that served as his bed and the bucket in the corner where he relieved himself. The lights were kept on 24 hours a day and he was forbidden from talking after 8:00 PM. He could write and receive just one letter every six months. He was allowed just one visitor a year.
Much of Mandela’s 18 years on the island were spent working in a lime quarry, using hand-held tools to chisel away at the rock under the African sun. His tear ducts were destroyed from chalky dust, and the prisoners had no respite from the heat save for a tiny cave in the rock. Yet we were told that they cherished their time in the quarry because it was their one chance to talk freely. They used it to discuss their political ideas and plan a bright, new future for their country.
Years of harsh island weather are wearing down on the remaining houses and buildings left on Robben Island. Throughout the island, tiny penguins can be spotted underneath the brush. At one point near the lighthouse, a big penguin colony is out sunning themselves on the rocks. They seem to be reclaiming Robben Island as a place bigger than repressive imprisonment, bigger than hateful policies. The maximum security prison for political prisoners was closed only in 1991, a reminder of just how recently South Africa was still a country led by a racial and divisive regime and how fresh the triumph of Freedom still is here.