(Back in June, when Nelson Mandela was in poor health, I posted this, and it seems fitting to post it again. Mandela died today at the age of 95.)
With Nelson Mandela, the former of President of South Africa, in failing health and with his family asking for prayers, I find myself remembering an afternoon last November when I took a ferry boat ride to Robben Island and saw where Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the government.
It was an afternoon I won’t forget.
I was in South Africa for a little sight-seeing and some mission work. I thought that meant seeing a few lions and elephants before visiting the church where we had dug a fresh-water well. The visit to Robben Island had not been on the itinerary, but when the opportunity came up I took it. And I’m glad I did.
Robben Island is 6.9 kilometers west of Cape Town and is visible from Table Mountain. It’s close enough to the mainland to be seen, but too far away for anyone to escape in the cold and treacherous waters that separate the island from the mainland. It was used as a maximum-security prison until 1991, and then as a medium-security prison until 1996 when it was closed for good. Today it’s a destination for tourists like me.
Our guide inside the prison was, like Mandela, a former inmate. In fact, all of the guides are former inmates. They and their families live on the island, which is quite beautiful for a place that’s always been used to isolate and torment political prisoners.
Since most of the inmates were sentenced to hard labor, we were driven to the mines where they worked. We learned that their work consisted of moving large piles of rocks from one point to another, and then moving them all back again, over and over. The work was designed to break their spirits.
But, miraculously, it didn’t.
Instead the men began to dream of a new South Africa. We were shown a large hole in the side of the mine and were told that at lunchtime the men sat in there to escape the sun. It was there that they wrote the first draft of the new constitution.
As we walked around, it was clear that we were on holy ground. The African National Congress, the party that Mandela led, has come to see Robben Island much as Americans see and experience Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Their national history now runs through that island.
Pictured above is the cell where Mandela spent most of those 18 years he was on the island. The group I was with – made up mostly of South Africans – stood for a long time outside looking in. Many of them had tears in their eyes. I hesitated to snap a picture, much as I would inside a church, for fear of offending them. But they understood, and they seemed to be grateful that I wanted to know what happened here.
South Africa is far from perfect. It has many problems. But what has happened in the last 20 years is astonishing, and Mandela was responsible for much of it. His death will be a loss for that country and for all of us.