Over a year ago while I was back home in Providence, RI I attended service at Cathedral of Life Christian Assembly (COLCA), head pastor Rev. Dr. Jeffery A. Williams. While attending service there Pastor Jeff did a series of sermons on “Forgiveness”. When I first heard those sermons I internalized the word and applied it to my life at the time and some family issues that had been going on. On Sunday October 4, 2009 once again I could clearly hear Pastor Jeff’s message in my head playing over and over as if it were a recording. The gist of the message was; if we choose not to forgive someone that has done us wrong we are tied to them forever and in essence unable to let go of the guilt, hurt, or whatever other negative feelings there may be. Forgiveness not only sets free the person that trespassed against you but it will set you free as well. I never thought I would see forgiveness play itself out in a real life example over a year later and half a world away.
On Sunday, October 4, 2009 my second day in South Africa I set out to participate on one of the Semester at Sea Field Practicum opportunities (a Field Practicum is typically led by one of the faculty and can be directly linked to a class that a particular faculty is teaching aboard the ship while we are at sea), this one would have us visit Robben Island (former prison and leper colony), for an “in-depth exploration of the island guided by South African peace activist (and former SAS professor) Terry Crawford-Browne”. The group of 30 took the 7:30 am staff ferry to Robben Island, as we were boarding Terry informed us that this ferry that is now used to transport the workers of the island and the children that attend school on the island was one of the transport vessels used to shuttle the prisoners to Robben Island. As we boarded the “staff ferry”, Terry informed us that when the prisoners were loaded on board they would be shackled to each other and put below, the 45 minute ferry ride was uneventful other then the day was overcast with a wind blowing, which made the seas choppy.
We arrived to Robben Island and as we were getting off the ferry it occurred to me that one of the people on this ferry was going to be our tour guide through the prison, a former prisoner, here they were on a ferry that may have once brought them to this island to detain them and now they come willingly as a means to earn an income and to tell their story and in part the history of their country along with some of the atrocities that occurred on its way to freedom from Apartheid. As we were about to get off the ferry Terry pointed out that the ferry docked at the pier was the very one that brought Nelson Mandela over to Robben Island. Nelson Mandela is Robben Island’s most famous prisoner though the island itself has a long history; “amongst its first permanent inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia, later The Moturu Kramat, a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage on Robben Island, was built in 1969 to commemorate Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, the Prince of Madura. Moturu, one of Cape Town's first 'imams', was exiled to the island in the mid 1740s and died there in 1754. Muslim political prisoners would pay homage at the shrine before leaving the island” (Wikipedia 2009).
We were first taken to the beach front home of the penguin colony on Robben Island, though currently the penguins are struggling to thrive in part due to the over 30,000 rabbits that are inhabitants of the same small island competing for habitat. You might think well Penguins and rabbits can coexist they don’t eat the same thing, well they may not eat the same things but they look to nest in the same privacy and so far the rabbits are winning.
After seeing both penguin and Rabbit in feet’s distance from each other we went on to the visitors center where we informed that visitors were often turned away or not allowed to see their loved ones even though they may have traveled thousands of miles for days on end, or when they were allowed to visit with their loved one, at times were they themselves detained from leaving the island for hours on end; since they were not allowed to write things down, this method was used to deter the visitor to transport direct news or information to people on the outside.
We continued on our walk past the Moturu Kramat mosque on the island and then walked over to the Leper cemetery, our walk continued on to the Robert Sobukwe House, where Robert Sobukwe was held in solitary confinement for his crimes, uprising and getting others to do the same against the apartheid regime. Sobukwe was not allowed to speak to anyone, the guards that were responsible for guarding him were not allowed to speak to him, it is said that this affected his mental stability later in life. It was a simple looking concrete holding with windows, were it not for the fence and large lights in the immediate area surrounding it, one would think it was a very humble residence.
Our walk then took us to the limestone quarry where the prisoners of Robben Island worked, nicknamed the University due to the fact that many prisoners received instruction from fellow prisoners that were more educated than they. We stood next to a pile of rocks about 3 feet high while Terry told us of how Nelson Mandela himself was one of the workers at the quarry, then Terry turned to the pile of rocks and said “upon a return, a prisoner’s reunion, Mandela placed a rock here and his action was followed by each of the prisoners that were here”. The pile of rocks was their way of commemorating their return to a place that once was their prison.
From their Terry took us to the place where we would eat our lunch and hear him tell us of what it is that he does as a peace activist, The Church of The Good Sheppard. Terry refurbished the church and is its current pastor. He has great plans for this simple yet beautiful building as a means to serve the community on Robben Island and to continue to tell the story of all of its past inhabitants. We then continued on by bus for a tour of the residential area of the island; about 100 people currently live on this island. There is an elementary school which caters to about 40 students with 2 teachers for instructing. We rode past a Taiwanese shipping boat wrecked on the coast line, when the wreckage originally occurred the prison warden thought it was an attempt to free Nelson Mandela and detained the ship’s crew until matters were cleared up. The wreckage sits in its original location though it is not the only ship that wrecked on Robben Island, due to its location in the bay many ships and smaller boats have wrecked on the island. From there our tour continued on to the prison, when we arrived we got off the bus and were met at the prison doors by a former prisoner who took us down the halls and into the courtyards of the place which once held him here. He showed us Nelson Mandela’s cell and took us the the courtyard where many important messages and even a manuscript and its copy were kept in hiding in Mandela’s garden.
One of our students asked him what he had been arrested for, and he listed an unending list of charges from terrorism, to possession of bomb making materials. All I could think about while he was talking was “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.
I did not go into specific detail about the prison or even Mandela’s cell because it seems so irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It was a cell, he was denied his freedom as were all of the prisoners, they were made to sleep on little more than a 6X2’ carpet and prisoners of Mandela’s status were denied interaction with most other prisoners. Some were beaten and mistreated, while others were denied access to be educated. All in the name of Apartheid, a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government in South Africa between 1948 and early 1994. To think its only been 15 years that South Africa has been an independent country able to elect Nelson Mandela and other former prisoners president of their new independent country. As our tour ended we walked past a sign of prisoners on a ferry boat with a placard in front of them which read “Freedom” and then we walked past the tall fence outside of the prison area.
Nelson Mandela served 18 years of a 64 year prison sentence, for speaking and acting out against Apartheid, while many others like Steven Biko gave their lives for the same cause. And it happened in my lifetime, I remember when the song "I dont want to play Sun City" came out and hearing of Nelson Mandela being wrongfully imprisoned and then when he was freed, I was in college, and when he was elected president too. It seemed so long ago, yet not long enough.
As the day came to a close I felt emotionally drained and kept thinking back to Pastor Jeff’s words about forgiveness, and understood how the former prisoners of Robben Island now come every day to this place, that once imprisoned them, to work and tell their story, and how they have come to forgive those that imprisoned them, and yes by our guide's own admission he has forgiven those that imprisoned him. They are living in a freedom we can only hope to live.