Entry Gate on Robben Island

It was 2010. I was sitting in the living room of my first apartment confused as to why American World History textbooks consistently allotted a single unit at best and a single chapter at worst to all of African history when other regions of our world received far more coverage. It was an oversight I wanted to address as slightly as my ignorance could allow. I created a country project where each student would look into the past and present of a different country. I choose South Africa as our model country.

I was a university graduate and educator teaching myself about Apartheid in my living room. But, let me not assume that I was the only student who missed this lesson. Apartheid was the legalized racism of South Africa in which the minority white population forcibly segregated themselves from their black countrymen. It comes from the Afrikaans language and means “apartness”. It lasted from 1948 to the early 1990s.

Though there were MANY resistance leaders in South Africa the most internationally known has to be Nelson Mandela. He was imprisoned for 27 years because of his work in the resistance movement. 18 of the 27 years Mandela spent at Robben Island Prison, four miles off the cost of Cape Town. Mandela went on to become the first black South African president. His legacy of fortitude and forgiveness continues to inspire the world.

I decided to show the movie adaptation of his book, Long Walk to Freedom, in class as part of our expanded look at Africa. I clearly remember thinking, “how amazing would it be to go to Robben Island and be where he was writing the early manuscript of this book?” Exactly one week ago today, I got to do just that. I received so much more than the ability remove something from my bucket list.

Weather in Cape Town is notoriously unpredictable. For two days before my booked excursion, the tours were cancelled because of high wind. I was shocked when I called the morning of my tour and was told the boats were running. I was only one of two trips that made it that day. Had we been prisoners, we would have been stuffed into this hull of the Dias and sent over regardless of the sailing conditions.

The Limestone Quarry

The first portion of the tour took place on a bus with a guide showing us different parts of the island including the town where guards lived with their families and the quarry where prisoners mined limestone for the construction of all the roads on the island without gloves, goggles, or face masks for protection.

Then we were dropped off at the prison itself and met by our tour guide who was a former prisoner. He told us quite factually that he’d been arrested for working with the militant arm of the resistance, tortured for information (which he readily gave), and sent to Robben Island Prison where the torture continued. He now lives on the island with his family, sharing a neighborhood and career with other former prisoners and even former guards.

He recalled for us his first day on the job. He was facing a crowd of white tourists without one idea of what to say. Slowly that first tour began to ask him questions and the answers became the content of his current monologue. He spoke openly about how his therapists have encouraged his work. Memories, fears, or trauma spoken seem release their power over us regardless of culture.

Mandela’s cell is the fourth window from the left.

Then he took us to see President Mandel’s cell. We formed a long line and proceeded single file past the closet of a room. All of the leaders of the resistance were kept separate from the general population to limit their influence.

I’ve been on my fair share of prison tours (history teacher??) and I was prepared to feel the residual terror and hopelessness that so often lingers in the concrete long after the prisoners are released to life or death. But that wasn’t my experience at Robben Island Prison and I marveled at my own peaceful reaction to the place.

I warmly shook the hand of our tour guide and exited the prison into the breezy, sunny day still pondering my quizzical reaction. I turned to face the prison one last time and stoped dead in my tracks. I was frozen by what I saw: a prisoner standing in the open door of the prison that once held him.

That was it. That has to be the difference. The intentional healing of the individual people had truly changed the feeling of the place from one of captivity to one of freedom. The choice of this man to return to the place which had caused him such trauma in an effort to speak truth to the ignorant but curious was breathing life into the very stones of the place. It was incredible.

My entire trip to South Africa was fantastic and, I hope, the first of many. I can’t say that South Africa has come any further than any other nation in dealing with their internal struggles. But, the examples of individuals who overcame such adversity and still chose forgiveness over retribution was one my heart was glad to receive. It is an earthly illustration of the greater story of redemption Jesus is inviting the whole world into one person at a time.