ROBBEN ISLAND: Mandela’s erstwhile prison becomes shrine to martyrs
Apartheid museum evokes vision of Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem: ‘Lest we forget’
Today, South Africa celebrates a special anniversary: It’s exactly 22 years since Nelson Mandela was released by the Apartheid government after 27 years in prison.
“People danced in the streets across the country and thousands clamored to see him at a rally in Cape Town,” the BBC reported, while a global audience watched the historic occasion on live TV.
Feb. 11, 2022 is an appropriate moment to reflect on the historical significance of those events, and there is no better place to do it than Robben Island Museum – a shrine to the 40-year “long walk to freedom” of Mandela and his many compatriots imprisoned for so many years on the fortress island just seven miles off the coast from Cape Town.
Without it being articulated, the 25-year-old museum evokes the vision of the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem in a quiet neighborhood of Jerusalem.
It has a similar ethereal quality, as if the ghosts of its many anti-Apartheid crusaders are still “inhabiting” their cells, to keep alive the crimes against humanity committed before the current generation of young South Africans was even born.
“Lest we forget!”
The expert guide for my visit Feb. 7 was Thabo Mxotwa, 44, a remarkable individual whose life story parallels the historical arc from the days of violent protests into which he was born, through liberation in the 1990s, the advent of democracy and the evolution of the “Rainbow Nation” in the last two decades.
Mxotwa arrived at his present position via a most extraordinary route.
Born in Langa in 1978 into the aftermath of the 1976 violent uprising, Mxotwa became politically aware at a tender age when his mother participated in anti-government protests at Langa High School, where she was a student. “That sparked an interest in me to understand the history of South Africa,” he says.
He majored in history at Trafalgar High School but his application to the University of Cape Town was rejected “due to lack of funding,” he says, wryly.
So he enrolled as a drama student in the Community Arts Project (CAP) which was “founded as a response to the 1976 youth uprising to address the need for accommodation and facilities to be used by all artists, many of whom lived in marginalized communities or in areas where facilities were minimal, if any.”
South African History Online says: “(CAP) played an important role in the development of Cape Town’s cultural life during apartheid. Like other community art centers, CAP was open to the public and provided artists with access to training and resources as well as helping to create a non-racial network of communication and exchange between artists during Apartheid.”
As part of Mxotwa’s script-writing module, in 2000 he was assigned for a semester as an intern at Robben Island Museum to devise a 45-minute play about the island’s history.
“In 2000 and 2001, we took [the play] to schools all over the country,” Mxotwa says, “even as far as the border with Namibia.”
Completing his theater arts studies in 2002, he was recruited by the museum the following year and the rest – so to speak – is history!
His theatrical training is one reason Mxotwa’s presentation on the tour is so compelling, but the other is that he seamlessly weaves his own life story into the history of the prison island, lending it a remarkable authenticity.
“Well, I am part of the story, you betcha!” he explains. “I appreciate the sacrifices that were made by so many.”
Mxotwa still commutes daily by ferry from his home in Langa – a relic from the Apartheid era when blacks were confined to “townships” in less desirable locales far away from almost anything. Ironically, we were almost neighbors; I grew up in Pinelands, a whites-only suburb adjacent to and abutting Langa.
There can be no more credible source of historical narrative than someone who has actually “lived” history, so it was no surprise that the testimony of Joseph ‘Dede’ Ntsoelengoe was so compelling.
A Tour Guiding Officer at the museum since July, 2003, Dede’s Linked-In biography explains:
“I was imprisoned on the Island as a political prisoner during the fight against apartheid and I was asked to come back to the Island and help with hosting tourists on prison tours. I also do educational outreach programs visiting Universities, Colleges and Schools in and outside of South Africa. I get invited to be a guest speaker, also do motivational speeches and public speaking by various people and institutions.”
Among his honors, in September 2009 Dede was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by the Consulate General of the US in Cape Town.
“For your selfless service, efforts and talents dedicated to achieving the goal of South Africa's non-racial democracy,” reads the citation, presented in Cape Town in observance of Heritage Day.
Dede’s animated explanation of Robben Island’s early history begins during colonial times: “During the British colonial era in the early 1840s, if you were diagnosed with leprosy on the mainland, they made sure that you were separated here to avoid the spread [of the disease],” he says.
Dede’s imprisonment, release and – eventually – his return to the island is detailed in this Dec. 5 2019, segment by local television station News 24 in Back for the first time: An emotional day on Robben Island with a former political prisoner
“Former political prisoner, Joseph ‘Dede’ Ntsoelengoe was imprisoned on Robben Island for seven years from 1984 to 1991.
“They told me 30 minutes before leaving, that I was being released,” Dede says in the interview.
“The first thing we wanted to do when we got to land was to walk up Table Mountain.”
The date of the interview was significant: “It marks six years since the passing of uTata Nelson Mandela and what would have been Robert Sobukwe’s 95th birthday,” the blurb accompanying the report says. “In celebration of this day, we went to Robben Island by helicopter. For Dede, this was his very-first time back at the visitor center since his release.”
The reporter got it exactly correct when explaining:
“Talking to [Dede], and listening to him explain the anguish of living in isolation is gut-wrenching. You’ll never see Table Mountain the same after seeing it through the eyes of a Robben Island prisoner. From the island, the mountain is almost like a beacon of hope. A dream that might one day be realized. Like their freedom.”
“We were dehumanized,” Dede says.
Watch the video at the link above; keep the Kleenex handy.
The seven-mile trip from Cape Town Harbor to Robben Island aboard the ferry Krotoa skippered by Master of Port Operations Riedewaan Paulse, image above, took about 30 minutes.
It was a calm day, with a gentle breeze from the southeast, but one could easily be fooled from the bridge, which I was fortunate enough to visit during the crossing.
I stepped out onto the lookout’s ‘balcony’ to snap some pictures of the approach to the island and was hit in the face by a howling gale – 30 knots of wind, I estimated. I grabbed onto my cap … barely getting it off my head in time!
“There’s a 30-knot wind out there,” I exclaimed to the skipper upon my return inside.
He laughed, and pointed to his instrument panel. “We’re doing over 20 knots,” he explained, bemused. Immediately I recognized how silly I must have sounded!
The “wind” was actually created by our forward motion; the breeze is added to that … so my initial guess of 30 knots was not so wildly inaccurate after all.
The other bridge officers, Second Engineer Abraham Johnson and Chief Engineer André Sass enjoyed a well-deserved laugh at my naiveté.
Once ashore, our group walked toward a waiting tour bus. Just as I was about to step aboard, the string on my KN95 mask snapped!
Red-faced, I asked the closest official for help – no one would be allowed aboard the bus without a mask. She ran back to the medical station and returned with a black surgical mask that I used for the remainder of the day.
Settling into my front-row seat on the bus, in the few minutes before departure, I met my seatmates: Reuben Reddy (orange shirt in the image above) and his grandson, Kaedyn Mansami, both visiting Cape Town from their home in Chatsworth, near Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province, about 800 miles northeast.
Today was Kaedyn’s fourteenth birthday. “As a treat, I brought him over to Robben Island. It's his first visit,” Reddy explained.
“One of the things I want him to know is the history of our country and about the struggle [against Apartheid].”
Reddy, 58, lived through the most turbulent times in South African history. “I come from the apartheid era,” he says. “I was subjected to the same kind of treatment [as all blacks were]. Therefore, I want my grandson to understand that we are now in a democratic South Africa.
“We need to constantly remind ourselves of how we had to survive during the Apartheid time.”
Long walk to freedom
And so, on this 22nd anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela from 27 years imprisonment, we celebrate his freedom and ours, but must not forget the “Long walk to freedom” – the title of Mandela’s 1995 autobiography, and the story of the decades long struggle to throw off the yoke of Apartheid.
A trip to the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison and museum brings this history to life, and will remain a living monument to the men (and women) who fought so valiantly at such a high cost in life and liberty for so many years.
LEST WE FORGET!
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