Following Nelson Mandela In South Africa, Robben Island, Capetown

Following Nelson Mandela In South Africa   Robben Island, Capetown 

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  Nelson Mandela 20 April 1964

I had a lump in my throat when I heard that Mandela had died.  Now that life has taught me how hard it is to truly forgive and make amends with our own private struggles, I had no words to describe how I felt that day.

When Mandela became president he set out to repair a brutalized nation. Within five years, South Africa was reinvented from a country with UN sanctions against it, to the Rainbow Nation. No other leader has achieved such a remarkable change of direction in so short a time.He led his nation on the long walk to freedom and reconciliation and we watched and joined in the joy that such a change was possible.

South Africa was back on the map. It had become a major tourist destination and I wanted to know as much about this great man as I could learn during my visit.

Nelson Mandela was born in the Eastern Cape and grew up in Qunu. There are tours, museums and memorials showing his childhood. In Mthathta there is the Nelson Mandela Museum which has different sectors in the villages where he lived.

My trip started at Robben Island where Mandela had been imprisoned for 18 years.  I had heard it was run down, the boats weren’t good and that parts of it were too long. i wanted to see this piece of history and form my own opinion.The tour sells out quickly so it is good to get tickets in advance.


It was a beautiful Capetown day. I enjoyed the ferry ride talking to someone who worked on the boat. He said some of them were the original boats used to transport the prisoners.


The views of Table Mountain and Capetown are spectacular.


Upon arriving, I was immediately surprised by how big the island actually was. I was picturing it more like Alcatraz.  Ex-political prisoners act as tour guides and many live on the island with their families Their school was recently closed so the kids have to take the ferry back and forth every day. A lot off times the ferry doesn’t go out because of the wind.


Our prison tour guide was very friendly and informative.   It was hard to hear and understand a lot of what he was saying. Luckily, I was there with my great Capetown guide  Lazarus ( http://www.wilderness-touring.comwho explained a lot to me and to everyone who asked him questions. 


The prison itself was quite impactful on its own.


  It was dark,sad, and disheartening to be there and to hear the stories of how these prisoners were treated


He took us back into the prison and into the Maximum Security wing, where the senior ANC members were held. Mandela was amongst them. The cells are tiny. No more than 6 feet square, with just a thin mattress, a bookcase, a stool and a bucket.

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Suddenly it was my turn to stand right in front of Nelson Mandela’s cell where he spent 18 years of his life. I was standing  in front of the place where a terrible wrong had been committed.


Our tour guide liked my hat. It was from my Viet Nam trip with the red star of the Viet Cong and was one of my favorite hats. He had given the tour with dignity and humility and spoke without resentment about his time in prison. Hat hair was a small price to pay for the surprised smile on his face when I handed it to him on the way out. I bought another hat there with Mandela’s prison number on it that i wore for the rest of my trip.


After the prison, you take a bus ride around the island. It’s very pretty with great views. We saw some whales. We passed the limestone quarry where prisoners, including Nelson Mandela himself, were forced to break up the stone and work with it all day long. A lot of the work they were doing most of the time was pointless, they were instructed to carry the limestone from one end of the quarry to the other just to keep them busy and keep them working. The prisoners had no tools or protective gear when working with the rock, resulting in major vision problems for many of the prisoners due to the sun reflecting off of the lightly-colored limestone. This is why photographers were never allowed to use flash when photographing Nelson Mandela in his later years.

In the centre of the quarry is a small cairn – this was started when Mandela. On his first visit back to the island in 1995,he  placed a single rock in the centre in memory of all the prisoners and said he’d return each year to add one more stone until all the ex-prisoners had died. Others who were with him then added to the pile and it will continue until all have passed on.


On the ferry back, i thought about the Robben Island Bible.  I had seen it in an exhibiton in London. The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978.  The prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book in their cell. He asked his wife to send him a book of Shakespeare’s complete works, Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners,  Each of them marked their favorite passage in the book and signed it with the date. There are thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.

The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit.

Mandela chose a passage from Julius Caesar — just before the Roman statesman leaves for the senate on the Ides of march: “Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once.”

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I was glad I had gone to the place where Mandela and others epitomize the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Did they ever think that one day it would look like this?


Fly safe,


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