Window on the soul of a nation

Why a trip to Robben Island in South Africa will resonate forever

South Africa is a land of contrasts where scenes of stunning natural beauty grace a country disfigured by its past. It is against this backdrop that I was introduced to the barren landscape of a former maximum-security prison on Robben Island.

Robben Island was first used by the Dutch to incarcerate political prisoners in the 1600s. For the next two centuries, lepers, the mentally ill and enemies of the British crown also lived here under insufferable conditions. During apartheid rule, more than 3,000 political prisoners were banished to the infamous island.

The most renowned of these prisoners was Nelson Mandela. For 27 years, this tall man existed in a tiny cell equipped with only a thin mat, a few blankets, a small table and a pot as a toilet.

A bus tour around the island’s grey-concrete buildings led to the limestone quarry where Mandela and his compatriots toiled every day for decades. We were told that although hard labour in the blinding sun caused many health problems, Mandela was grateful for the opportunity to be outdoors and to converse with his fellow prisoners. A cave in the quarry was referred to as “the meeting place of South Africa’s future parliament.”

Once inside the prison, we were met by our guide, Modise Phekonyanye. Now middle-aged and dressed in a track suit, Phekonyanye was imprisoned at Robben Island at the age of 16. Seated in the communal cell where he lived for six years, the soft-spoken but very intense man commanded our attention from his first word.

Phekonyanye explained how, as a member of a student group opposed to the forced use of the Afrikaans language in schools (a policy used to oppress black children unfamiliar with the language), he and others were rounded up by the government and sent to Robben Island. He did not own a weapon; he did not engage in violence. His crime was trying to improve conditions for his people.

As the former prisoner began detailing the torture he and other inmates endured at the hands of their captors, a young white woman at the far end of the room began to sob. Our guide paused to ask what was wrong. She stood up, and in a clear South African accent said, “I’m sorry.” Phekonyanye appeared stunned. He thought a moment before saying that in 32 years no one had ever expressed that simple sentiment to him. The two embraced, and while it may be a cliché, there was not a dry eye in the house.

Phekonyanye and the other youth at Robben Island – some as young as 13 – were poorly educated and virtually illiterate when they arrived. Although Mandela had lobbied for a prison school, his requests went unheeded. So he and other senior prisoners took it upon themselves to organize and operate a secret school, providing the equivalent of a high school education.

Phekonyanye said this academic education paled in comparison to the moral lessons gleaned from being in the company of men like Nelson Mandela. Bent on revenge when he arrived at Robben Island, he learned forgiveness and reconciliation from Mandela who advised angry young prisoners to “embrace” their captors. Phekonyanye gradually realized that perpetuating hatred would only bolster those who sought to divide his country. Imprisoned as a teen for trying to make things better, he says he came to understand he needed to continue on that path in order to make those painful years meaningful.

Phekonyanye went on to earn two Masters degrees and is now working to establish a skills training centre near his home in South Africa. Like Mandela, he recognizes that education is the key to a better life for his countrymen.

On the ferry ride back to Cape Town, Phekonyanye introduced us to the white man behind the concession counter who had been one of his prison wardens 30 years ago. The two men now call each other “friend”. As I watched the sun set over the looming Table Mountain, I marvelled at the power of Mandela’s vision to transform a nation.

Photo Credits: Rebecca Shepard

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