So yesterday we visited Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town. It is famous for being the prison for many political leaders, such as Nelson Mandela. It is very similar to Alcatraz, in the sense that it is a prision-island, off the coast of a city on a peninsula, with beautiful view of the city itself. It is now a national museum and no longer a prison, but our tour guide through the prison part of the tour was actually an inmate himself from 1984 to 1989. The inmates were forced to do hard, manual labor 8 hours a day, 7 days a week in the quarries, (which due to extreme sunlight reflecting off of the limestone rock caused many eye problems for the prisoners) on only a liter of coffee for breakfast each day. They were supposed to do this for six months, but it lasted for 13 and a half years. Nelson Mandela himself had his eyes operated on after he became free and no longer produces tears from the tear ducts in his eyes.
The thing that struck me the most was that these prisoners were not rapists or murderers, but political leaders, who opposed the government. Great lengths were taken to isolate these leaders and their followers so that they could not organize from within the prison. Many of the inmates were iliterate upon arrival, but through the idea of “each one teach one” they secretly educated almost all of the inmates. This was done scribbling in sand in caves of the quarry that were supposed to be used for bathrooms, but that prisoners agreed to only use for these quick lessons during the day, which means they didn’t go to the bathroom all day long, but the guards thought they did. They also would secretly exchange messages buy burying them in certain places, or even hiding messages in tennis balls, which they were allowed to use to exercise sometimes. This way, they could exchange ideas between the 8 different cell blocks of separated prisoners.
One of the saddest stories was of a man, Robert Sobukwe, who was deemed such a leader that they actually built him a single room house on the island and forbade him to interact with anyone, including guards. He died something like 13 years later, still in this type of solitary confinement. Can you imagine?
While Cape Town is beautiful, and we have been enjoying many of its wonders, one only has to drive a few minutes outside of the town to see all of the Townships, where many of the blacks live. The townships are literally made of corrugated tin houses, and at dusk the dividers between the four to five lane major highways are filled with everyone who has come out to play soccer. I mean hundreds of people, from kids to adults, just playing between the freeways. It is a totally different way of life.
It really makes me grateful for the freedoms that we definitely take for granted in our country, and it also leaves me with a sense of confusion about our world. How can this really be an acceptable way of life? How do we change and help these people overcome the circumstances that society has left them with? I don’t really know that there are any clear-cut answers, but it sure does remind me that we all need to think about these things, because they exist. Not just in the past, but in the present and in our future.