27 April 1997 – South Africa’s Freedom Day – and 3 years since Mandela had won the Presidency. A small group of us travelling overland through Africa took the day trip out to Robben Island. A bus met us at the jetty and we drove around the island first. We went to the quarry where the prisoners dug a schoolroom and taught each other to read. A quick stop at the old car painted with a welcome message to the All Blacks rugby team. Past the house Robert Subukwe was kept in by an act of parliament – 6 years longer than his sentence.
And then to the prison to get out and walk. The island had been handed over to the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology and they had invited back prisoners to work as guides. Our group was guided around by Lionel – who had served 7 years here as a prisoner.
In flicking through my journal from that day, he had so many stories to tell us. About their punishments for “offences”, having to pay for study, receiving one censored letter every 6 months and so on. He took us to Mandela’s cell – and we all took turns looking into the smallest of spaces – trying to imagine it holding for so long the man who was now President.
The one thing that stays strongest with me from that day was the last building we stopped in inside the prison complex.
One room where the prisoners spent their time talking. This is the place Lionel got emotional. He said the wardens had made a mistake by allowing them to be together – that the government should have split them up.
He said that it was in this room where they put their ideals into practice. In D Section – with prisoners from different backgrounds/political ideologies/races/education levels and so on – was where they learnt tolerance and their humanity could shine through. In this room they lived a micro-version of what they all hoped and dreamed for outside the prison walls.
Strange, isn’t it? The place the government sent Mandela to punish and break him, was the place where he triumphed.