Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Mandela's Cell

The door to the cell block in which Mandela was imprisoned (KK)
The moody weather seemed fitting, and the boat passengers—some of whom had earlier shrieked and laughed at the big waves—became more subdued as we approached Robben Island. We were with more than a hundred people of many colors and nationalities, all taking the short trip from Cape Town to the place where Nelson Mandela and many others were incarcerated during the apartheid era.

Despite the gray skies, the island at first glance looked more like a resort than a prison. Along the coastline was a group of small buildings and a white steepled church, with a lighthouse on a slight rise above them. But then we came into the harbor, where thousands of black cormorants stood on the jetties like witnesses waiting to give testimony. Grim stone buildings lined the wharf, and the sign over the gate in the high prison wall was a disturbing vestige of the time when the prison was built. In English and Afrikaans, it said “We Serve with Pride.” 

Many of the sights we saw on a bus tour around the island were unexpected—World War II gun emplacements, flocks of guinea fowl, some springbok grazing in a field. Most surprising of all was a primary school, and we learned that quite a number of people now live on the island and work at the museum. The school is for their children.

Near it, we passed a medium security prison, now empty, that our guide said was built to keep those convicted of such crimes as murder or rape apart from the people the authorities clearly considered to be the real threat. The political prisoners were the ones sent to the maximum security prison.

Maximum security. (KK)

We got off the bus there, met by a man who himself spent seven years in one of the prison’s 40-person cells. Until the Red Cross intervened in the 1970s, he told us, the prisoners there slept on mats on the floor. Forty men shared one bathroom with a few sinks, a few open stalls and a few showerheads. But at least they had access to a bathroom after late-afternoon lockdown, he said. Prisoners in solitary cells, like Mandela, did not.

The prisoners here were all male and none of them were white. How the men were housed and how many letters and visitors they could receive a month depended on the guards’ assessment of their behavior. What they got to eat depended on their race—black prisoners got skimpier rations than Asian and mixed-race prisoners. One thing they shared equally was hard labor. They all worked in the rock quarries with hand tools all day, five days a week.

Our guide, speaking with admiration of Mr. Nelson Mandela. (KK)

On the way to Mandela’s cell block, our guide paused to note that South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, was also once imprisoned there. So was the current vice president. So was the minister of justice and a whole list of other officials in the present government. I thought about my friend in Montevideo who described the current president of Uruguay as a former terrorist. Times change, prevailing views change, and in both these countries, people who once tried to overthrow the government now run the government.

The demise of South Africa’s old system is unquestionably good, and Mandela is rightly revered for leading his country toward peace, justice and reconciliation. But even though the formerly outlawed ANC is now in power, neither our guide nor the museum tried to oversimplify the story. The exhibits don’t gloss over the fact that Mandela advocated armed resistance to the apartheid regime. And the man who showed us around said frankly that he himself had been one of those who at least intended to fight violence with violence. 


I had trouble understanding our guide’s accent and so missed part of his story. What I did get was this: in the early 1970s, when he was 21, he decided that nonviolent protests were ineffective. He went to Angola to train for armed struggle. He came back to Soweto—and I didn’t catch what happened next.

I wish I had understood all he said. He may have committed crimes or he may have been wrongfully imprisoned, I don’t know. But if he did engage in violent acts, he did so in reaction to the horrifying system of apartheid. And so his story—like the museum—raised the age-old question: When, if ever, is violence justified?

It raised the question and left visitors to answer it for themselves, and that impressed me greatly. Just standing in the prison yard thinking these thoughts deepened my respect for South Africans, who have wrestled with such difficult, emotionally charged issues for decades. They have reinvented their country since Mandela’s release. They talk with justifiable pride about the rainbow nation and about South Africa’s wide-ranging human rights legislation. They acknowledge their country’s shameful history while insisting all that is behind them. “We’re united now,” they say.

And to a great extent, that seems to be true, though the scars of apartheid are still visible. The townships are still poor, segregated places, and the gap between metal shanties and lavish seaside homes is wide. Cape Town’s District Six is still mostly overgrown fields, all that remains of a once-vibrant neighborhood bulldozed when the city was declared a place where only whites could live.

Yet it was a white South African who told me about the travesty perpetrated in District Six. You see multi-racial groups and inter-racial couples out and about in Cape Town—not a lot of them, but some. And much of the rhetoric that preceded the recent election here seemed to be a competition about which party was the most inclusive, the most broadly representative.

Problems clearly remain. Like the United States, like every country created by human beings, South Africa is a work in progress. But its citizens’ frankness about the past is impressive. And the degree of recent progress is striking.
That came home to me on Robben Island when it was my turn to look through the bars at Mandela’s prison cell. I had seen pictures, and it was as tiny and bare as I expected, a small, stark rectangle with a sleeping mat, a wooden stool and a bucket to use as a toilet. One barred window looked out on the concrete prison yard, the barred door into the long, bleak corridor of other cells.



I marveled as many have before me at the spritual strength it took to spend years on end there and in other prison cells and come out advocating reconciliation. But what struck me even more was the fact that Mandela’s time in this cell was not really that long ago.

It gives me hope to realize what tremendous changes can take place in less than a lifetime. If a system as repellent as apartheid was so entrenched just a few decades ago and is now gone, what other horrors might we one day be able to eliminate?


Our guide, a former political prisoner, leaving the prison at the end of the tour. (KK)

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