Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A humble encounter

After driving the short drive back to Cape Town (and getting lost a couple of times along the way) we headed out to the infamous Robben Island – home of the jail where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years of his 27-year sentence.

We arrived on the island where we hopped on a tour bus with one of the most irritating guides ever for a guided tour around the island. Whilst annoying in his delivery, the guide was hugely informative on the struggle against apartheid. I knew apartheid was a recent phenomenon but for this most primitive of mentalities to have been in existence during my lifetime is pretty shocking. What I didn’t realize was the outcry that apartheid sparked across the world after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960. I never realized, for example, that factory workers in Ireland had gone on strike against the import of South African products to their factory, or that Oxford and Cambridge university students not only demonstrated against apartheid but the universities actively supported prisoners on Robben Island by enabling them to read degrees via correspondence courses.

The island tour took us to the limestone quarry where prisoners were made to chip away at toxic limestone in blistering heat. Instead of succumbing to conditions, the prisoners used this time to further their education and even the education of the prison guards who watched over them.

When we arrived at the prison, we left the bus behind and were met by a revolutionary: an ex-inmate of the prison in fact! He gave us a tour of the prison, showing us the very room in which he had been held captive. Even in prison, apartheid had a firm grip on the inmates. Our tour guide showed us meal cards that listed out the daily food allocations for inmates: there was one list for whites and coloureds (who were mixed race or asian) and another, with a lesser amount of food, for blacks. The purpose was to split the inmates on racial grounds; they would eat together but what they ate was defined by the colour of their skin. The guide explained that what actually happened was that the white and coloured inmates would share their food with the blacks as a demonstration of unity against apartheid thus undermining attempts by the prison to create a rift between races.

When our guide spoke to us about the fight against apartheid it was seriously moving. He explained that as a student he and other students had attended the rally at Sharpeville when police opened fire, killing and arresting many of them. Our guide was among those attacked and spoke emotionally of the horrors of rape and beatings that his female comrades endured after their arrests. After the massacre, he left South Africa for Angola where he took up arms. He returned to South Africa ready to fight for freedom on behalf of the militant arm of the ANC. Here he was arrested and charged as a revolutionary fighter before being imprisoned on Robben Island. He spent 17 years in prison, some years served alongside Nelson Mandela.

Today he stands before people of all colours, in the same room in which he spent many of those years talking matter-of-factly, but without hate or bitterness, of his part in the fight. It was truly humbling to be sat in my white skin before a black man who had been utterly oppressed by other whites and yet not to hear words of revenge but words of forgiveness and reconciliation.

To see how far South Africa has come since Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 is impressive. For oppression to have been overturned and to see blacks and whites working and living, for the most part, in harmony is truly amazing. Whilst the country still has a fair way to go before blacks and whites are true equals, (in education, health and economic status for example) there is a real feeling that an awful lot has been achieved in the relatively short time since apartheid came to an end.

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