Picture 1: Beautiful view at V&A Waterfront
Picture 2: Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island for 18 years
Picture 3: Group photo with ex-political prisoner of Robben Island, Lionel Davis
I will quickly begin by noting that the V&A Waterfront is very beautiful and quite the mixture of African and European cultures. It was a nice break from the constant intake of information before and after Robben Island.
That being said, I want to really dedicate this post to my experience touring Robben Island and our dinner/ discussion with Lionel Davis. I believe what struck me the most about my tour on Robben Island, being led by an ex-political prisoner of the 80’s, and listening to Lionel Davis, an ex-political prisoner of the 60’s-early 70’s, is the humanness of their experiences and motivations. Often, especially in reference to Nelson Mandela, we tend to uphold these freedom fighters as some supernatural resisting force rather than the average South African citizen that loved their country, culture, people, and selves. When our tour guide was asked by Professor Ferguson what kept him going through time in the isolation cells and general conditions of imprisonment, he replied by saying, “I would tell myself that I am a Freedom Fighter and what I’m doing is right. That’s it.” To the same question, Lionel explained that it was the support from his diverse prison community, other South Africans continuing to resist, and solidarity internationally. Our morals and our support systems are what motivate everyday life, but I learned today that they can also sustain a revolution. Our tour guide and Lionel also explained that Robben Island was a place of comradery and learning. The prisoners would practice ballroom dancing, participate in stand up comedies, and earn their educations in the confines of their single or community cells. Their efforts to exercise their minds, embolden their passion in the movement, or simply their need to laugh was not stiffled by their predicaments, but rather reinvigorated by them. I shook the hands of two political prisoners today and I was filled with their humanity. I walked into today thinking it was going to be another rough one to handle, and it was difficult to listen to the torture and inhumane conditions of the prisons, but I mostly heard the stories of survivors and their decades of continuous hope.
I would also like to comment on Robben Island as a place of memorial. Rather I would argue that the ex-political prisoners as our tour guides are the memorial, simply discussing a specific place. If our tour had been given by any other person, our afternoon would’ve simply been a tour of a prison. I would not have had the sense of healing and hope that Robben Island possesses. In comparing it to the Old Fort prison in Johannesburg, where I had a constant sob in my throat from the isolation cells and the pictured cruelty, Robben Island had those same visuals, but it also had our guide, standing as a free man telling of his triumph and the triumph of his nation. They are the same type of place with similiar conditions, but in remembering that the goals of these places, as laid out by the new democratic government, was reconciliation and the goal of healing a nation through memorialization, the prevailing example points to the tour guides as the realization of that aim.
However, there is one exception, also on Robben Island, which is the rock pile Nelson Mandela started in the lime quarry when he returned to the island as President. By simply stacking those rocks, the rocks he and his fellow comrades laborred over for years in horrid conditions, on his own volition and then the other ex-prisoners following suit, is, to me, the purest example of a memorial I’ve seen thus far. That action symbolizes the new governments promise to act on behalf of their struggle and triumph to rebuild a nation. That is hope. That is healing. That is moving forward through recognizing the past. It’s literally a pile of rocks, but the simplicity of that as a memorial accomplishes or at least emphasizes South Africa’s (idealized) projection as a nation recovering from the apartheid era.