Wednesday, March 20, 2013

SOUTH AFRICA: Day 9 Cape Town

March 9th

Robben Island - Mandela's Prison

This was a must.  I couldn't come to Cape Town and not visit the island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 19 years (of his 27 years behind bars).  Like going to Soweto, this was kind of a pilgrimage.  Robben Island,  is a half hour from Cape Town and only accessible by ferry.  The tour of the maximum security prison is given by former inmates (!) so you hear first-hand what life was like behind those bars.

our guide was Zozo who was incarcerated at Robben Island for 19 years for inciting a work strike.

this is the hall where Mandela's cell is.  his was cell # 7.

This was his cell. 2.5m x 1.5m. The cages for the prison guard dogs were bigger (3m x 2.5m). All he had was a palate on the ground for a bed, the small table to eat and write on, and the red bucket for a toilet.  For 19 years!

Nelson Mandela's bed for 19 years.

Zozo shows us the chart of food, clothing and communication privileges for prisoners. In order to foster animosity between the Coloureds and the Blacks, the guards gave the Coloured prisoners warmer clothing for the winter, more privileges to communicate with their families and better food. Blacks were given the least and the worst of everything.  But the prisoners would not let this divide them. They stood strong together. In fact, the prisoners banded together and even created an organized academic system in which educated prisoners would secretly teach the others at all levels from elementary literacy to masters level college work.  They called it it Robben Island University.  Sometimes, they even had to hold the lessons in a cave that they used as a latrine while working in the quarry - because that cave was the only area the White guards wouldn't enter (because of the smell - so imagine what it took to hold lessons there in all types of weather....could you ever?).

This trip rocked me to my core.  I'm still thinking about everything I saw and learned on that island.  Above all the strength of the human spirit.  I asked myself if I could survive that, for so long....

One of the most heartbreaking stories was that of Robert Sobukwe, early leader of the equality movement and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress political party. He was a brilliant man, a leader, a professor, a linguist.  He was imprisoned in solitary confinement for so long that he lost ability to speak, literally, his vocal chords were irrevocably damaged and he could no longer speak.  A linguist!  Unbelievable.

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