I’ve always had a lot of admiration for Nelson Mandela. Reading his book Long Walk to Freedom increased a lot of that admiration. I’m glad I was able to read it before coming to South Africa because it gave me such a good insight into some of the struggles and political background that I was previously unaware of. Mandela set aside all personal goals in life and completely dedicated his life to becoming a freedom fighter. His efforts and hardships only seemed to resolve his conviction to the development of democracy in South Africa. I was really interested in visiting Robben Island and seeing with my own eyes where Mandela spent so much of his life behind bars.
Our group of students were privileged enough to get a private tour of the Island. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and forthcoming with information. Some of it was a repeat of things I had learned from reading Long Walk to Freedom, but walking and driving around the island brought the story to life for me. As I was walking around the compound, images of moments in Mandela’s memoir started coming to life before my eyes. I started imagining spending all day in the stone quarry with the sun and sand in my eyes. And imaging what it must have been like to sleep on a tiny mat on the concrete floor for so many years. Even now it’s still hard to imagine the physical and mental strain living on Robben Island must have put on the prisoners.
Having the opportunity to listen to a man who spent time incarcerated on the island was the most insightful part of the whole experience. After we said goodbye to our first tour guide, he introduced us to a man who would continue to show us around the island and inside Mandela’s cell. He led us to a group cell that used to house 16 men, similar to the one he spent 5 years in, and we all sat down to hear his story. It was a unique perspective, most of us know the story of Nelson Mandela but we can easily forget that he was not the only person to spend time on Robben Island.
I was very captivated by his words. It was interesting to note that by the time he was incarcerated many changes had been made to the prison structure and routine. Things like mail, the number blankets and other allowances were increased or improved. Many of the men before our guide arrived in prison, including Mandela, had worked hard to make living conditions more dignified for political prisoners. Even with the improvements, life on the island was hard. Hearing the stories made me appreciate my own freedoms and privilege. We take so much for granted. It’s not until we have our rights relinquished do we sometimes realize how valuable they are to our entire being.
Seeing the conditions on Robben Island introduced me to the intense fortitude and dedication the freedom fighters showed toward their struggle. These men and women were willing to put their entire lives aside to make the lives of those who came after them free. It makes me wonder if I was put in the same situation how I would react. Our guide made the point that South Africa is now a democracy but the struggles are hardly over. Cape Town specifically has a lot of problems to continue to work out, including issues around shelter. But because of the path the freedom fighters have paved, things can slowly start to improve. Without their efforts a majority of people living in South Africa would still be denied their basic human rights.