In his recent speech in Cairo, Barack Obama spoke to a captivated world about the dangerous reality of ethnic and cultural friction. “Given our interdependence,” he said, “any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” In the history of the last 100 years, we find several examples of this principle. One of the most powerful in modern times is the system of apartheid in South Africa and its subsequent downfall. The American president also condemned resistance through violence, calling it ineffectual. “That’s not how moral authority is claimed; that’s how it is surrendered.” The wave of peaceful resistance to violent racial intolerance and oppression in South Africa, spearheaded by Nelson Mandela, was not only effective, but also dignified. The apartheid system was often harsh and cruel. The enduring power of South Africans of color to hold their heads high and peacefully reject the racial disparagement foisted upon them is one of history’s most powerful and poignant stories. One the great monuments of this pivotal moment in history is found just beyond the Cape of Good Hope, across from Cape Town: the prison of Robben Island.
Certain places in the world are old to humanity. Standing in Istanbul or Jerusalem, one is struck by the history of these locations and by the knowledge that even before the first histories were written, these places were well known by humanity. Other places, like Robben Island, have always been isolated, far off, and, for the greater part of history, at the very edge of the world. The Cape of Good Hope was once known as the Cape of Storms and many European ships were smashed against its rocky shores. This island is a short, half hour ferry ride from the bustling waterfront of gorgeous Cape Town over less than 10 kilometers of ocean with an extremely high concentration of great white sharks. The island itself is as dramatically beautiful as only an African landscape can be. But the prison built there feels like something in between Alcatraz and a concentration camp. Its true purpose darker than merely the incarceration of criminals.
Arriving on the ferry, tour groups are conducted first on to buses, each with its own guide, that circle around the outskirts of the site. Our guide, Neville, chose to enunciate loudly rather than use the tour bus’s crackly PA system. His voice was clear and educated. Like all the guides there, he was more than just a guide. He was a former political inmate. Neville’s speech was clear, refined, and articulate. His ethnicity was a reflection of South Africa itself; a mixture of Hindi, indigenous African and perhaps even some European (though that might have been merely his polished use of the Queen’s English).
The guide explained that the prison also reflected the apartheid system. I had always thought of apartheid as being about blacks and whites, but the truth is more complex than that. Robben Island held both coloured/Asiatic and Bantu inmates as separate classes of prisoners, but there were no white prisoners. In the United States the word “colored” is usually associated with Americans of African descent. In South Africa, the term “coloured” referred to people that could be any mixture of African, white, black, or Hindi lineage. Black, or Bantu, meant Xhosa, Zulu, Sotho, or one of the other native tribes. During Neville’s speech, I came to envision clearly this entire apartheid-based spectrum of racial classification based solely on the hue of the skin. The separation between the coloured and the Bantu inmates was merely just lines drawn upon that spectrum. A fair-skinned and fair-spoken man like our guide was more likely to become a trustee or to receive better treatment during his incarceration. After being driven around the island, we were dropped off at the entrance of the prison itself. On the way in, our attention was pointed to the dog kennels just outside of the grounds; we would later see that the dogs got more room than most of the inmates.
We received a new guide to walk us through the rooms of the interior. The previous group leader had only spent about 10 years in the prison. Our next guide had come in to the prison as a teenager and had not gotten out until the dissolving of apartheid as a man in his middle years when Robben Island was shut down. This guide explained how the political prisoners were mixed in with a population of general offenders; South Africa’s worst. The guide explained how the political prisoners were caught between a rock and a hard place; the rock being the rest of the prisoners, the hard place being the guards. The evils of separating people out based on their ethnicity seems to emanate from the gray walls; dehumanization. At that point, I thought about the Irish prison of Kilmainham Gaol. A place where the Irish were placed at the suffrage of the English. I realized that most Africans probably could not tell the difference between an Irishman and an Englishman. As I looked at the vestiges of what men like our guide suffered against for decades in a struggle centuries old, I was also struck by the arbitrary nature of prejudice and wondered what makes it afflict humanity so.
The tour, as can be imagined, was somber to this point but that started to change as we were shown the small isolation cell that Nelson Mandela spent most of his time on the island in. The guide spoke so powerfully about the conditions of the jail, of the meager food, of only being allowed one letter per six months from the outside world. This man must give these speeches at least a few times a day, and yet, his voice still rings with fire about it, the passion undiminished. His voice began to change to pride as he explained how the political prisoners worked together to get the letters of Nelson Mandela out of the prison and onto shore,where they were able to help set in motion the movement towards South African freedom.
In 1994, South Africa stepped forward and the world stepped with it. Once you’ve seen South Africa’s amazing wildlife and treasure trove of natural wonders and after you’ve sampled the South African wine and gazed agog from the top of Table Mountain at one of the most beautiful cities in the world, take a trip out to Robben Island. There you will realize that some of mankind’s most awe-inspiring achievements are social. Realize that all men are created equal and endowed with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Smile with pride to be a part of a world that is moving towards this fundamental truth. Places like Robben Island, being shut down and made into monuments to this glorious fact of modern humanity, attest to the forward movement of the planet Earth and the human race.
Written by: Jake