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Robben Island

Dec 11, 2010 — Categories:

Three hundred people boarded the ferry in Cape Town for the half-hour ride to Robben Island on Saturday afternoon. The sun was bright and flashing on the waves. The breeze was cool and refreshing. A lovely day. Serene and peaceful. We arrived at the island, now a national heritage site, and boarded a bus for a tour.

Three hundred people boarded the ferry in Cape Town for the half-hour ride to Robben Island on Saturday afternoon. The sun was bright and flashing on the waves. The breeze was cool and refreshing. A lovely day. Serene and peaceful.

Robben IslandWe arrived at the island, now a national heritage site, and boarded a bus for a tour. Our guides described the early history of white presence there. Since the 19th century, the island was a place for terminally ill or mentally ill people and then became a leper colony. By the 1950s, it was a prison.

Robben Island CellIn 1964, Nelson Mandela was sent to this prison because he was an anti-apartheid leader. He and other anti-apartheid leaders of color were each imprisoned in a separate 4’ x 8’ cell. Our guide was a former prisoner himself. He took us to Mandela’s cell. There was a bucket, a cup, a small table, a mat and blanket. For twenty-seven years, he was kept here. He and the others were released in 1990.

Our guide explained how angry they were about apartheid, their imprisonment, and their treatment by the guards. Even their food was divided by color: the colored prisoners received twice as many calories as the black prisoners. Apartheid was carefully orchestrated to divide and conquer all people of color. So the guide said that it would have been easy to seek revenge upon their release. But Mandela forbade it. He knew that they would need all South Africans to rebuild their country.

At the end of the tour, three hundred of us returned to the dock to board the ferry. I was amazed that this group of pilgrims was one of the most diverse groups of people I have ever been a part of. Everyone from the Muslim mother in full burka to the American college sorority students in shorts and t-shirts. Men and women of all ages and colors, all wanting to hear the story and see the place where they kept these brave men.

As we made our way back across the water to the glitter of Cape Town, I could not help but contemplate the banality of evil. The prison buildings were very simple and ordinary, clean and sparse. How could these men have lived there together? The white men guarding the men of color. Limiting their activities, their communications with each other and the outside world. Forcing them to dig limestone in the quarry, which resulted in damage to their eyes and lungs. All of these men forever changed by their experience of living together for so many years. The banality of evil.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will experience the oppression of one by another.” —Nelson Mandela

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org

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