On Nelson Mandela Day, remembering a Robben Island visit

Nelson Mandela cell on Robben Island

Tourists flock to Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island, a ferry ride away from Cape Town. (Julia Pelish photo)

[This article about Nelson Mandela’s overwhelming presence in South Africa was published in the Toronto Star in June 2010, just prior to the start of the World Cup. Here it is again, on Mandela’s 93rd birthday.]

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA—On top of everything else, Nelson Mandela could probably provide the most compelling argument there is against capital punishment. Convicted of treason and terrorism against South Africa in 1964, Mandela would likely have been executed were it not for international pressure to spare his life. The thought of a world without Mandela and his astounding magnanimity is sad; the thought of a South Africa without him is enough to cause a shiver.

Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 with every reason to chase vengeance. Instead, he chose a divine path of forgiveness and reconciliation that lifted the country out of apartheid and showed the world the power of grace. Now, his name has become an industry in South Africa.

You can see where he was born, the home where he lived prior to his arrest, the location where he was taken into custody, the university that bears his name, some of the houses he now owns and, of course, the place with which he is most identified: Robben Island, the 12-square-kilometre dot of sand and limestone where Mandela was imprisoned for 18 of his 27 years of incarceration.

The island off the coast of Cape Town became known as Mandela University, because the lawyer would educate both inmates and prison guards. Tours that include a round-trip ferry ride and a discussion by a former prisoner cost 400 rand (about $55). From those ex-inmates, you learn about the degradation of apartheid that occurred inside the prison too, where the subordination of black political prisoners was constantly reinforced. Prisoners who were Indian or mixed race, for example, would be given six ounces of meat with their dinner, the blacks five.

Mandela’s prison cell attracts a crowd, making it the only lock-up in the world people are eager to get into. They can’t; its bars remain shut but visitors can step into a similarly cramped pen a few cells down the tight hallway that fills with echoes. Just about everyone who walks in spreads their arms to get a sense of the space. You’ve been in walk-in closets that are larger.

“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

When you leave Robben Island, you can stop at the gift shop to purchase Mandela merchandise, including a “presidential collection” line of shirts similar to those he wore during his presidency. Another set of fashion blares “466/64”, his prison number. It indicates he was the 466th prisoner to arrive on Robben Island in 1964.

While Mandela or his lawyers approved the sale of goods at Robben Island, not everything tied to his life has his support. On the contrary, he’s often said his name is not for sale. But as his legacy builds the potential for him to be exploited grows.

“There’s a lot of people in the country making money off of his name and he’s not seeing any of it, his children’s foundation isn’t getting any of it,” says Tanya Kotze, owner of Africa Direct, one of the country’s leading travel agencies. “I wish they would let the old man be.”

No one seems ready to let go of him, however. South Africans are delighted with even a glimpse of Mandela these days, when politicians are carrying on in ways that would be laughable if the nation wasn’t on a precipice.

Nelson Mandela statue in Sandton

A six-metre bronze statue of Nelson Mandela towers over the square that bears his name in Sandton, Johannesburg. (Julia Pelish photo)

Racial tensions in some parts of the country have diminished but elsewhere the strife is palpable. The killing of a white supremacist leader this spring was preceded by the chanting of an anti-white song by Julius Malema, leader of the ANC Youth League.

Plus unemployment is at 25 per cent and there’s no end to the massive amount of jobless. People continue to pour through the border from struggling African nations, especially Zimbabwe where the government of Robert Mugabe has snatched much hope for the future.

Mandela, meanwhile, is frail. The patriarch of the new South Africa, who served as president from 1994 to 1999, is 91 and there are health issues surrounding anyone of that age. His name shot to the top of Internet search terms last week after he appeared with a group of former political leaders and activists. Even though Mandela didn’t make a statement, the fact that he was in public buoyed the hopeful who believe he will be at the World Cup opening ceremonies on June 10, the eve of the 64-game soccer tournament.

Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, said recently that the 32-team event will be “Mandela’s Cup.” The Nobel Peace Prize winner campaigned hard for the games, the first held in Africa.

The World Cup has created 415,000 jobs and more than $1.2 billion in infrastructure. But the government has also spent nearly that much on five new stadiums, some of which may sit empty for long stretches after the tournament.

The expense is one of the major concerns for South Africans. They know the tournament could lead to greater success, but it could also be a temporary party that fizzles once the lights go out and the world goes home, leaving the nation with a lot of stadiums to fill and maintain, and a beautiful country to tend to despite miserable conditions.

A reason the nation turns to Mandela is because as much as anything he represents optimism. That sentiment is displayed audaciously in Sandton, one of the wealthiest areas of Johannesburg. A popular square bears Mandela’s name and a six-metre bronze statue of him towers over it. Rather than showing a stoic, stone face, like just about every other bronze sculpture you’ll see of a luminary, Mandela is smiling gregariously, ready to dance. No matter the condition of his circumstance.


One Comment to “On Nelson Mandela Day, remembering a Robben Island visit”

  1. There is no point arguing that Nelson Mandela is one of the greeatst leaders the African continent has produced in history. Here are some of Nelson Mandela’s best quotes:“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death”. I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses .“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not ended.” “One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.” +4Was this answer helpful?

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