Making Mandela's prison experience relevant today

The short trip to Robben Island exposes South Africa's stark contrasts.

Message of hope found inside the walls of a notorious apartheid-era jail

A South African student peeks into Nelson Mandela's former cell at the Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. ((Bruce Edwards/CBC))

Leaving from the Nelson Mandela Gateway ferry boat terminal in Capetown’s snazzy waterfront, the short trip to Robben Island exposes South Africa’s stark contrasts.

The island's infamous former prison, a place where opponents of the country's apartheid policies were isolated and brutalized, has the scenic Table Mountain as its stunning backdrop. It's a view Nelson Mandela no doubt kept in his mind's eye years after he was set free.

But today, the ferry is overrun with 10-to-12 year olds on a school outing and bubbling with excitement. Most of these fifth-graders, born after the end of apartheid in 1994, have never been to Robben Island. But that’s not unusual.

In fact, most South Africans will never see the place where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, because they can’t afford the R150 ($20 Cdn) boat fare. More than half of the population still lives in squalor and would feel lucky to make that much in a week.

But the government does offer discounted rates to schools. So today these 60 children have escaped their classrooms for a boat ride to an island they’ve learned surprisingly little about, much to the frustration of their guide, Vincent Diba.

He spent 11 years on the island, one of more than 3,000 political prisoners imprisoned here between 1961 and 1991. It was the price he paid to fight what these children only vaguely understand.

Table Mountain is seen in the distance from Robben Island. ((Bruce Edwards/CBC))

"At times I feel emotional because these kids are not listening," He says. "Or they don’t care about our history that I’m trying to relate to them, because they don’t have any connection with that. Or they just don’t care."

Apartheid behind bars

When the boat is anchored, the kids step off the narrow gangplank and take their first steps into the grim landscape of low-lying buildings. They were built by prisoners in 1963, with stones from the quarry where Mandela and his comrades worked for 13 years.

Diba rolls his eyes in despair as he tries, unsuccessfully, to herd the children from the boat to the main gate of the prison, without losing any of them to the souvenir shop that sells candy.

But when they’re finally rounded up and huddled together in the stone archway leading into the prison grounds, he leads them passed the main watchtower and describes how political prisoners were welcomed into Robben Island’s high security prison. He tells how they were stripped of their clothes and left to brave the cold winter rains and scorching summer heat with one pair of shorts, in a two-square-metre concrete cell.

Tour guide Vincent Diba tells the students about a prisoner's card, which listed the inmate's ethnic origin along with other information. ((Bruce Edwards/CBC))

The racist apartheid regime that was in power in South Africa from 1948 to 1994 ensured segregation continued within the prison. Inmates were classified by their skin colour. Blacks received the least amount of food on their plates at meal time. Only the lighter skinned inmates, referred to as coloureds and Indians, were given bread.

At this point, Diba is struggling to keep the group's attention. Some of the children have penned a few notes, but most are whispering amongst themselves about penguins and rabbits, which the island has in abundance. But Diba is determined to instil in them a sense of history. So before moving into the prison courtyard, he tells them what he believes Robben Island really represents.

"Robben Island represents the resistance of humankind to oppression and ignorance." he tells them. "It represents the strength and the resilience of the human spirit. And it represents hope."

A garden escape

For the first 14 years of his imprisonment, Mandela’s view of the world was a desolate courtyard, stripped of all vegetation and boxed in by tall concrete walls, crowned with razor wire. Between that and his days working in the dusty stone quarry, Mandela was desperate for some form of life. So in 1978, he convinced prison officials to allow him to start a garden in the courtyard.

Not only did the garden provide an escape from the depressing routine of prison life, it also provided Mandela with a place to hide the manuscript for the autobiography he’d been scratching out on whatever scraps of paper he could find.

Shortly after he planted this garden, his granddaughter was born and he named her Hope. In his book Long Walk to Freedom he writes:

"During all my years in prison, I had never lost hope—and now I never would. I believed deeply that this child would be part of a new generation of South Africans, for whom apartheid would be a distant memory. That was my dream."

A blast from the ferryboat’s horn bounces off the courtyard walls and Diba takes his cue.

As he nudges the children back to the dock, he considers their tepid interest in this place and wonders, somewhat begrudgingly, if Mandela’s dream hasn’t in fact, come true.

Bruce Edwards is a CBC Radio producer based in Washington, D.C.


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