Monday, June 10, 2013

Robben Island: imprisoned

A choppy, hour-long boat ride out of Cape Town brought us to the small island invisible from the mainland: Robben Island, Seal Island in Dutch, describing its original inhabitants. But people long ago decided that a remote, inhospitable, barren islet was just what was needed for those things that needed doing in isolated, inaccessible places. 

Knowing the outline of the history did not prepare me for the emotional encounter of the physical place. The rocks, the endless quarry, the sand and stunted trees, the relentless wind and the cold. It was significant to see Robben Island in winter. In summer, it  might have seemed delightful--a getaway, an escape. But people didn’t escape to there, and we learned of none who escaped from there.

First, it was used by the early Dutch to incarcerate difficult chieftains. As time went on, and population grew, the lepers became a conundrum, so it was used as a leper colony. We saw the leper women’s church, an Anglican relic; the leper men’s church had been torn down. In odd bureaucratic rationale, male and female lepers were held separately, to prevent children being born with leprosy. In fact, 46 children were born on the island (despite the segregation) and all of them were taken from their mothers and given to people on the mainland. Now only a graveyard marks the memory of the thousands of lepers who lived out their lives on this piece of rock because of others’ fears.

Much later the island became a prison for criminals, housing a small town for the guards’ families as well as prison buildings. 

The final denouement of Robben Island was the inclusion of political criminals during the period of South African history (roughly 1950-1990) known as the apartheid era. The political criminals lived in maximum security built for/by them from the slate quarried on the island. The buildings are stark and cold, the rooms small, the facilities barren. 

I saw the small cell that was Mandela’s “home” for 18 of his 27 years of captivity. It held a sleeping mat, a stool, a tin plate and tin cup, and a bucket. When he lived there, the windows did not have glass. I shivered in my layers of clothing. 

Nelson Mandela is lying in intensive care now, suffering from lung issues brought on by the conditions he and his fellows endured on Robben Island. We stood in the courtyard where the prisoners sat on the ground and broke stone with hammers. We rode in tourist buses to see the quarry where the men hacked the stone with pick axes. And we heard about their indomitable spirit. The spirit of hope that caused them to educate one another, learning letters written in quarry sand, and inspire one another--to never give up until South Africa was a country for all colors.

Many thoughts pierced deeply into my heart that day on Robben Island. But the forgiveness of the prisoners was the one that affected me most of all. As former inmate Mbatha described the conditions, the food, the treatment, he brought the reality of his seven years on Robben Island into full view. But he harbored no bitterness. As a guide at this world heritage site, he works alongside former guards. He admitted it was not easy at first, but he has learned to forgive.

Perhaps it was Mandela’s model which taught him. Mandela, whose choice to let go of vengeance and focus on healing has set a beautiful tone for the new South Africa. Mbatha is a joyful person, a delightful guide, and a living touchstone: we are not defined by what we are capable of, we are defined by our choices.