Monday, September 22, 2008
One Man's Lifetime
We finally had time today to pay a visit to Robben Island, once a maximum security prison, and infamously known as the place where Nelson Mandela spent much of his life. Our tour guide was an ex-inmate, imprisoned for political reasons. He described to us the living conditions at Robben Island -- a place where only black, coloured, or Asian men were incarcerated. White men and women were housed on the mainland, but these unfortunate souls were banished to Robben and forced to do manual labour; in Mandela's case, crushing rock in the nearby limestone quarry, rain or shine, winter or summer. Many men, Mandela included, have suffered permanent visual impairment from years of toiling in the glaring sunlight.
In one block, forty men were housed in a room 20 metres long. A solitary confinement cell, such as the one assigned to Mandela, was the size of a walk-in closet. Education was a privilege which could be removed abruptly at any time for any reason. Meals were atrocious, and worst of all, the meal schedule for black inmates was deliberately inferior to that of the coloured and Asian inmates -- an attempt to create a hierarchy within a group of men who had become friends.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison for political crimes known as 'sabotage'. Eighteen of these years he spent in solitary confinement at Robben Island. This man, this international hero, this nation's saviour, spent his strongest years behind bars, deprived of all of the things that make us human. Upon his release, he could have chosen to live his remaining years in peace, indulging in a retirement he well deserved. Instead, he shouldered the responsibilities of bringing a scattered, divided nation together. He is South Africa's most noble citizen and its most favoured son, because even though he was abused and wrongly imprisoned because of his race and its politics, he never turned his back on his country.