Though I have been to South Africa more than 30 times I had never made it to Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other anti- Apartheid activists were imprisoned and subjected to lime quarry hard labor for several decades. It’s now a ‘museum’ and national heritage site.
I finally made an afternoon for it today, Sunday, with my SA colleague, Larissa Donald. It was a gorgeous 30 min boat ride which provided spectacular views of Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Dolphins and seals, as well.
The island was a former Leprosy colony and we stopped at the leprosy graveyard. It then became the prison camp for Apartheid resistance fighters. A complete community on this small island with several churches, clinic and mini hospital, schools, etc. Such an infrastructure built to simply silence and punish activists.
We had an excellent tour guide named Stern, who was a prisoner here himself 1982-1990. What a great idea to hire the former prisoners to be the tour leaders – to tell their stories. He had me Hello – I was 100% engaged. He gave texture, layered the stories of life on the island. He lives on the island now with 200 other employees/families – surprisingly, some of the white guards from those days live on the island, now too, and participate in the legacy. He said ‘only the good ones – that helped us smuggle out documents and the truth’). That was amazing to me.
We visited cell wards, and Mandela and Sisulu cells. So many cells. Larissa and I commented that there is a fascinating story in every one of those ghosted cells. They should be told, too. There’s nearly 100% focus on Mandela which is understandable but so many other heroes there, as well.
So amazing — the story of these freedom fighters and the ability they had to keep their minds and spirts intact enduring 27 year prison sentences – and coming out as dignified leaders with calmness and foresight to create a new country without further bloodshed.
South Africa is not yet the country that Mandela and the others envisioned. It has the number on e AIDS deaths and cases in the world. High crime. It is complicated, beautiful and hopeful. And I am always happy to be back here.
I would like to read ‘A Long Walk to Freedom’ again after being here today. And read more on Winnie Mandela.
– Terri Ford, Chief of Global Advocacy, Policy, and Marketing