I have no memory of how I first knew of Nelson Mandela, but I was a teenager when I began dreaming of meeting him in person. In 2007, I received a copy of his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, signed not by him but by my then-newfound hero Dr. Amii Omara-Otunnu. The book was a graduation present, with copies handed out to me and my classmates at the International Leadership Training Programme of the UNESCO Chair & Institute of Comparative Human Rights. I thought, then, it would be the closest I’d ever get to meeting the great Madiba.
In 2011 I wrote him a letter, which I never sent, of course, but merely stayed on my blog.
Finally last weekend, a year and a half after he passed on, I grabbed an opportunity to visit the place where Mandela was incarcerated for eighteen years: the infamous Robben Island.
The island, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was at different times used as a prison for political detainees, a leper colony and an animal quarantine site. Mandela was imprisoned here from 1964 to 1982, before he was transferred to another maximum security prison, Pollsmoor, and later to the low-security Victor Verster Prison. (He served a total of 27 years out of his life imprisonment sentence, for having been found guilty of four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government.)
Among the places we were brought to during the island tour was a common detention cell for regular political detainees. As explained by our guide Spark, himself a former Robben Island detainee (in fact, an inmate of the particular cell in the photo below), sixty people at a time shared this cell. It used to have no glass on its windows, and political detainees such as himself were not given jackets, long-sleeved shirts or long pants. Before they had beds, inmates slept on mats such as this one strewn on the floor. A number died of lung diseases, from having had to suffer long winter nights in cells such as this.
They shared this bathroom with 3 shower stalls. If anyone of the 60 inmates of the cell failed to wash up before breakfast time, he was not given food the entire day.
This is the lime quarry where Mandela and other political prisoners rendered hard labor.
Mandela described his experience here:
Despite blistered and bleeding hands, we were invigorated…It felt good to use all of one’s muscles, with the sun at one’s back, and there was simple gratification in building up mounds of stone and lime. (Excerpt from Long Walk to Freedom, Chapter 64.)
I could almost see him in his short-sleeved shirt and short pants, toiling everyday for almost two decades.
By the end of the day, our faces and bodies were caked with white dust… The sun’s rays would be reflected into our eyes by the lime itself. The glare hurt our eyes and, along with the dust, made it difficult to see. (Ch. 64.)
It was in this same quarry that many study sessions were conducted for what came to be known as the “University of Robben Island” or “Mandela University.” Having procured textbooks and other learning materials with the help of the Red Cross and through numerous subterfuge operations, where certain warders (i.e., prison guards) became allies in exchange for becoming learners themselves, Mandela created a space for advancing the education of his fellow inmates.
Teaching conditions were not ideal. Study groups would work together in the quarry and station themselves in a circle around the leader of the seminar. The style of teaching was Socratic in nature; ideas and theories were elucidated through leaders asking and answering questions. (Ch. 76.)
This, meanwhile, is the courtyard that Mandela’s cell looked into, and where he and other political inmates usually had breakfast. This was also where they were allowed a half hour to exercise — their only time out of their respective cells — every Sunday.
In the early part of Mandela’s sentence, before political prisoners were assigned to work at the lime quarry, he spent most of his days here, hammering stones. Government propaganda, however, informed the public that inmates only did “soft work” such as sewing at the courtyard, as shown in the first photo (choreographed and released to the media) below. Our guide Sparks told us that the second photo here, showing Mandela in full winter clothes and freely engaged in a discussion with another inmate at the courtyard, was arranged by the prison authorities when international media came to visit.
And here, finally, is the cell where Mandela slept for eighteen years.
All it contained were a iron sanitary bucket called a “ballie,” a table with a plate and a cup, and beddings.
At 6:45, when we were let out of our cells, the first thing we did was to empty our ballies. The ballies had to be thoroughly cleansed in the sinks at the end of the hallway or they created a stench. The only pleasant thing about cleaning one’s ballie was that this was the one moment in those early days when we could have a whispered word with our colleagues. The warders did not like to linger when we cleaned them, so it was a chance to talk softly. (Ch. 61.)
Staying in this cell was a luxury, however, compared to what Mandela endured in solitary confinement — a punishment he received numerous times for having had the audacity to conduct protests against the prison conditions, to request for better clothes and more humane treatment.
I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything. Did I make the right decision, was my sacrifice worth it? In solitary, there is no distraction from these haunting questions. (Ch. 65.)
He saw beyond the face value of these challenges he experienced: the battles he fought in prison were a mere microcosm of the battles he fought outside of it.
The campaign to improve conditions in prison was part of the apartheid struggle. It was, in that sense, all the same; we fought injustice wherever we found it, no matter how large, or how small, and we fought injustice to preserve our own humanity.
Mandela was a brash revolutionary, even regarded a thwarted terrorist, when he began his prison term. He left Robben Island in 1982 to spend nine more years in two more prisons, and finally emerged from his nearly thirty years of incarceration a mature statesman, a leader not of his race but of his entire people, the South Africans, black and white alike.
It was surreal to have stepped into a part of his life, or at least a shadow thereof. Mandela was no saint, but he was the father of his nation, who spent the last years of his life waging forgiveness and reconciliation, not to mention championing the rights of children(!). I never did get to meet him; still the Robben Island visit gave me just enough to appreciate his legacy even more.