by Hank Leukart
January 12, 2008
Free at last
Learning about South African apartheid on Robben Island.
A barbed wire fence guards the prison on Robben Island near Cape Town, South Africa. (view all Cape Town, South Africa photos)
APE TOWN, South Africa — Located on the southwestern tip of Africa, Cape Town has served as the sea link between Europe and the East for the past three centuries. One of the world’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan cities, it sits in the shadow of awesome Table Mountain and hosts a diverse group of inhabitants each of whom speak at least a couple of the city’s eleven official languages.
While visiting Cape Town this past December with my family, I toured Robben Island, the location of the prison in which Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years imprisoned. Prisons always make for a strange tourist attraction; it’s uncomfortable watching a group of tourists stampede jubilantly around a place with such a miserable history — especially when the tour ends in a gift shop selling prison triathlon shirts. Robben Island’s prison tour is especially perverse, because former political prisoners lead its tours as part of the country’s reconciliation process. Listening to a former inmate recount his prison experiences while standing adjacent to his tiny prison cell is uncomfortable to say the least.
At the prison, we learned that when South African apartheid became institutionalized in 1948 after citizens voted Daniel Francois Malan’s Purified National Party into power, mixed marriages and interracial sex were made illegal. Whites and nonwhites were separated into different townships, and laws created separate beaches, buses, hospitals, and schools. In 1960, after 67 people were killed by police who opened fire on demonstrators in Sharpeville, South Africa, the prevailing government banned its two major opposition groups, the African National Congress (led by Nelson Mandela) and the Pan African Congress. In 1964, the government sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment, and resistance groups became more vigilant and violent as a result. By 1980, South Africa was the only country in Africa with a white government despite the fact that a majority of its citizens were black, and international sanctions eventually put the white government on the defensive. Finally, on February 11, 1990, new government leader FW de Klerk freed Nelson Mandela from prison and repealed discriminatory laws. In 1993, FW de Klerk and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1994, in the country’s first free elections, the people of South Africa elected Mandela president.
The story of South African apartheid is especially chilling because its events occurred so recently. Often, it’s difficult to appreciate the lessons of history because past events feel disconnected from our modern lives. But apartheid serves as a powerful and modern example of how easily leaders and societies can so easily veer into evil.
Political prisoners, including Mandela, were tortured in a variety of ways: they were permitted to exercise outside for only one hour each day, dark-skinned prisoners were fed significantly less food than other prisoners, and they were permitted only one 30-minute visitation every six months. Prisoners also were forced to slave away in the island’s blindingly sun-soaked limestone quarry, which eventually caused Mandela to lose his eyesight.
Tourists who visit the prison’s limestone quarry during their visit can see the blinding sun and feel the burning heat first-hand. It’s hard not to intuitively hate those responsible for the hours prisoners toiled away there. But even after these experiences, in a remarkable display of benevolence following his release, Nelson Mandela emphasized forgiveness instead of punishment and revenge, and the Truth & Reconciliation Commission run by Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered total amnesty to perpetrators who confessed their guilt. In its warped way, Robben Island’s bipolar prison tour provides at least some hope that people and societies can learn from their mistakes. Mandela’s focus on healing past wounds and encouraging everyone, regardless of race, to learn from the mistakes of the past without malice was noble if not heroic.
After visiting Robben Island on Christmas Day, my brother and I decided to tackle the steep, two-hour hike to the top of Table Mountain above Cape Town to see the astounding view of post-apartheid South Africa. As we wheezed our way to the top, I whined to returning hikers that the climb was too sheer, the sun was too hot, and incessantly demanded, “How much farther?!”
The hikers, who were a multitude of races from all over South Africa and the world, spoke a variety of languages and didn’t always completely comprehend my words. But they always encouraged us, by speaking their own language, attempting English, or simply by pointing. They always smiled. They always understood.
Read about a trip to the 1920s and the birth of a baby zebra in the second part of this three-part series about Africa.