While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid
we will not want Robben Island to be a monument of our hardships and suffering.
We would want it to be a triumph of the human spirit
against the forces of evil.
A triumph of wisdom and largeness of spirit,
against small minds and pettiness.
A triumph of courage and determination over human fraility and weakness.
Ahmed Kathrada – 1993
I’ve been in Cape Town, South Africa for 5 days now and I’ve seen some of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Pristine beaches with coral blue waves lapping against the sun kissed shores, the majesty of the mighty Table Mountain, the splendor of Lion’s peak and Devil’s point and I’ve even managed to get a glimpse into the seedy underbelly of life in Cape Town. I’ve seen everything the tour brochures said I should see and I agree – South Africa is simply breath taking.
However, this afternoon I experienced something so moving, so profound and so stirring that I can’t even begin to describe to you the emotions that such an experience can bring – We hopped on a boat that took us out of Cape Town to Robben Island the prison fortress where Nelson Mandela spent 18 long years. Just seeing the cells where the prisoners were kept, hearing the stories from our guide, seeing the place where Nelson Mandela originally hid his now world-famous manuscript and the individual cell where he was kept – stirred up in me emotions that I did not think a simple guided tour could ever do.
Through the personal stories of our guides, shone the sheer determination of individuals, the strength of those with shared similar goals and the power of change that overcomes strong adversity – no matter what. I was forced to question – How could they not be driven to despair or madness when taking rocks from one side of a quarry to the other, only to be told to return them the next day? How could a philosophy of “Each one, teach one” be kept alive when the only place to do this was by writing on the dirt floor of a cave called the university? The shared commitment to each other and to making life better for everyone was their driving force, their beacon of light in an otherwise dark existence.
Yet the positive message that I gained from the prisoner who led my tour is that as human beings we can use our negative experiences to inspire others to be the change that we wish to see in the world. We need to realize that we should never have to allow negative experiences to cripple us. We should also realize the impact that our lives could possibly have on another human being.
I really do believe that Mandela’s life is the epitome of this, which is why so many people crave to see his cell. They crave to see where he once was in order to realize that any person can overcome horrible situations in their lives. For me, seeing his cell helped me even more to understand his drive to impact the world. It’s incredible to see his journey and how he has become the inspiring person that he is known as to the world today. More importantly, I believe, all those who visit Robben Island, can’t help but want to leave as better people than when they first came in.