Two years and two days ago was a very sad moment in history for South Africa, and the global community. The country of South Africa lost a national hero, and the world lost one of the greatest defenders of justice and equality. On December 5th 2013 Nelson Mandela left this physical world. Yesterday, I was exceptionally lucky to get the chance to memorialize this date with a trip to Robben Island. Robben Island is the site of the prison where former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela, and many other political prisoners were held. Many of them were peaceful fighters for freedom from oppression, and almost all of them were unjustly held without any formal charges or a trial.
I was prepared for this experience to be a powerful and deeply saddening tour, because of how horrific the crimes against human rights were during apartheid. I was not prepared for the fact that all the guides were former prisoners. The painful history was real and alive in their eyes. I think hearing it straight from the victims of this brutal system, helped even the furthest removed from this type of oppression to connect with the gravity of this moment in a more personal way.
Former prisoner on Robben Island, and my amazing guide
The first guide we had gave us a rundown of the basic history of apartheid, the history of the island (it was previously a colony for outcast lepers), and the first political prisoners to be sent to the island. In the 1960s, the leader of a peaceful protest called people to burn their ID documents used to control the black and coloured people of South Africa, this resulted in a horrific massacre leaving 69 people dead. (Although I have a sick guttural reaction to the word coloured, being a Black American, it is widely used in SA to this day, and simply means person of mixed race.) The man who led this protest, Robert Sobukwe, was one of the first political prisoners on the island. He was held in a small house alone for 3 years, no one was allowed to visit and no guards were to speak with him. Once his time was served he was arrested onsite before he ever left the island and was given another 3 years, and eventually allowed one letter OR visit every 6 months. Sobukwe was never charged for a second or third offense although he was detained twice after being released, and then put on house arrest until his death. This was the beginning of the “Sobukwe Clause”, which states the government of SA can arrest and detain anyone without cause or trial.
Different meals for prisoners of different races
This clause was the way in which the government justified their round up of all the anti-apartheid leaders fighting for equality and justice. The leaders were all kept in the same prison, in single cells, without running water and exposed to the elements with only bars (no glass windows or doors) until the late 70s, when windows and showers were added to the building. The leaders were also forced to work in a limestone quarry leading to many fatal illnesses, such as cancer and infections. Their only means to gain more privileges were long and painful hunger strikes. Seeing and hearing first hand about these horrific inequalities infuriated me, and spoke to a part of my heritage during slavery, then segregation, and the current state of racial profiling and attacks. All this weighed so heavy on my soul, and I felt the pain that had saturated Robben Island and lingered still.
Photographing Nelson Mandela’s cell
Then came hope, we learned that as much as they attempted to separate, dehumanize, and kill the spirits of their prisoners… There was an aspect of apartheid rule that came to be the prisoner’s saving grace. During apartheid all was separate, which means wherever the prisoners were to “relieve themselves” was a black toilet, and no white guards were to enter. While in the prison they all had buckets in their cells, but out at the quarry while they endured hard labor, they were forced to go to the bathroom in a cave. This cave, affectionately referred to as “The Parliament” was where a new South Africa was born. All the fighters for justice shared ideas and strategies in that cave, they thought not of the present but the future, and many of their goals for justice can be found in the South African constitution of today. From this atrocity, blossomed the beautiful philosophy of “Each one, Teach one”.
This experience is something that will always be with me in my heart and on my mind. It was a heavy part of my journey, it led me to think more on my “place” in my own country, my “place” as a brown person in this world, and how far we as a globe have to go before we see real equality in every corner, and that wound of past atrocities against our basic rights as humans isn’t festering still. I feel for South Africa and they, like my own country and many others, have a long way to go before equality and justice are the true law of the land. Everyday we can get closer, and the key to reaching that dream of global peace is the education of the future generation, I believe that with all my heart. If we take the goal of peace and equality, and then “Each One, Teach One”… we will get there, in every corner of the globe.