“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it…The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela
A FLOCK of seagulls soars overhead Robben Island and if I unleash my imagination, so too, do the free spirits of former political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela. It’s my last day in South Africa and I’ve caught the ferry from Cape Town across to this tiny sliver of land to pay homage to the former South African president who served 18 years of his 27 year prison sentence here. It’s a rocky old ride out on the ferry across Table Bay, a day for staring out to the horizon with steely focus, but nothing compared to the journey Mandela made from prisoner to president.
Just like the gulls, swarms of tourists flock here in a bid to understand what Mandela and many like him experienced during South Africa’s apartheid years. On the dock, where the smell of boat diesel mixes with the pungent scent of fish, a sign declares “Freedom Cannot Be Manacled”. But most tourists are too busy rushing past to the waiting buses to notice. They’re intent on getting to the jail and meeting Mandela’s ghost.
Today’s guide Jama is a former political prisoner who entered the prison in 1977, when group cells housed 30 people who slept on mats. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Red Cross supplied prisoners with crude bunk beds, their personal belongings bundled into timber boxes nearby. Those who were considered leaders, such as Mandela, were given single cells, and the scrum of tourists lines up to peek into this tiny space which once housed the great man. I’m waiting for some sort of epiphany, as if Mandela’s spirit will magically part the crowds with words of wisdom. But I feel nothing but annoyed. There’s too many tourists and it seems to make a mockery of history.
Originally an island for lepers, Jama tells us there was no hot water in the prison until 1973, and back in the 1960s, the prison would mix both political and criminal inmates. The type, and portions of food you ate depended on the colour of your skin. I don’t have to imagine living in world in which apartheid existed, as it existed right up until 1994. I was 24 when it officially ended, but its legacy lives on. Speak to any South African cab driver and you’ll hear tales of how “coloured” people still live in the in-between world. And how corruption is rife under current President Jacob Zuma.
This corruption has a trickle-down effect, and it’s one I experience on my drive from Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve back into Johannesburg when I am stopped by a police officer who claims I haven’t obeyed a non-existent stop sign. At first, the officer says he is going to fine me $75, but then relents, saying the fine is “too much”. In the next breath he asks me how much it will take for me to “show my appreciation” for his leniency. Unfortunately, for this corrupt cop, I’ve never been in this situation before, so I do nothing. I just sit there, contemplating both my next move and his in this crazy chess game. Eventually he tires of the charade and sends me on my way. South Africans say you haven’t experienced Africa until you’ve been asked to bribe a cop, so I guess I’ve now seen Africa.
Back on Robben Island, the last group of political prisoners walked out of the gate in 1991, and in 1996 it was closed as a jail completely. We take a bus tour of the island where prisoners such as Mandela were forced to work on the lime quarry. Many ended up working there for 13.5 years and left with illnesses associated with the lime dust. In 1995 former prisoners including Mandela returned to the island and placed a pile of stones to commemorate the back-breaking work they endured. Mandela picked up shovel and demonstrated to the media how they made the lime.
“The man rose from the dust of the quarry. He rose from the cell of Robben Island,” our tour guide says.
“Where they started to dig the lime stone represents the triumph of the human spirit.”
I’m still contemplating both the strength and weakness of the human spirit when we make our last stop for the day, at a vantage point looking back across the ocean towards Cape Town. Our bus driver tells us we have only five minutes and advises us to return to our original seats to “avoid fights”. When I board the bus, there’s a woman sitting in my seat and I politely ask her to move, repeating the bus driver’s earlier words. But as she stands to leave, her hands full of backpack and camera gear, I notice she has left her hat on the seat. So I simply place it on her head, saying “you’ve forgotten your hat”. What happens next is incomprehensible. Out of the blue her husband comes flying down the aisle in a rage: “What a bitch you are, you put her hat on her head,” he spits at me. His actions are so at odds with the spirit of this day, and my intent, that I am stunned and I don’t reply. For the second time on my South African trip I simply don’t know what to do, and he turns on his heel, but I suspect we’re not done yet.
Back on the road our tour guide speaks again and talks about humanity before depositing us at the boat. I am waiting back on the dock for a friend just as the angry man walks past me again. “There’s that bitch,” he hisses at me. I try to explain my actions but they are lost in his storm of anger, his fury spiralling out towards the ocean like a giant storm cloud. I think about his words all the way back to Cape Town. And about man’s inhumanity to man. The kind that imprisons one man for 27 years because of his belief that all people should be treated equally. Of corrupt cops and angry men. It was Mandela who once said: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” And this thought becomes my travelling companion all the way back to Australia.
The Global Goddess stayed in Cape Town with the assistance of 318 Africa at the elegant More Quarters. http://www.318africa.com.au; http://www.morequarters.co.za