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June - July 2009
The Triumph of the Human Spirit
For nearly four hundred years colonial and apartheid rulers in South Africa banished those they regarded as political trouble makers or social outcasts of society to Robben Island, a 518 hectare rocky outcrop in Table Bay near Cape Town. From 17th to 20th Centuries, Robben Island served as a place of imprisonment, isolation and banishment. Today, from a maximum security prison, it is a world heritage site, a poignant reminder of the price paid for freedom by the present democratic South Africa.
On a recent visit by the author to Cape Town for attending the 11th Annual Family Law Conference, the visit to Robben Island was strongly recommended. The experience was humbling, striking and captivating. It was a reminder of a grim reality practiced and perpetuated as a crime against humanity. At various times, the island’s unwilling inhabitants included slaves, political and religious leaders who opposed Dutch colonialism in East Asia, indigenous leaders who resisted British expansion in South Africa, leprosy sufferers, mentally ill patients, prisoners of war and most recently, political opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia.
A visit to the cell in which Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and South Africa’s first democratic President was imprisoned for 28 years at Robben Island prison was a lifetime experience. To visualise that despite being chained, tormented, humiliated and subjected to inhuman conditions, he sustained his spirit of tolerance and humanity, is a feat no normal human can endure. His words reverberate in my ears when he says “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mr. Mandela in his poignant words is a man to emulate. Even if we can follow a minuscule part of it, we would be inching to being human. But, we seem to be miles away in ethics, morals, life and politics.
Bringing an end to apartheid was dependant on many things. Internal popular uprising, diplomatic international isolation of apartheid South Africa, underground organisation, armed resistance and the people’s spirit all contributed to it. It is admirable to see that some of these freedom fighters and ex-political prisoners who spent 15 to 25 years in prison are now guides who accompany you on tours to Robben Island Prison. Their first hand encounters narrated to groups of tourists in guided tours sitting in their prisons cells, on their mattresses or bunker beds are touching and tearful. The prisoners crushed limestone, rocks and sea shells with bare hands in scorching sun with no protection. Forced to live in inhuman conditions, they endured and endeared with fellow prisoners bound as one. Unbelievable but these accounts are true.
Despite the brutality and harsh conditions, those imprisoned on the island succeeded in turning the prison into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation. Its most famous inmate Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 to lead South Africa to democracy with a message of reconciliation, tolerance, love and hope that moved the entire universe. There were no massacres, reprisals, retaliations or mass migrations. Today on Mandela’s words, all people in South Africa co-habit in peace and unison. On 1 December 1999, In recognition of Robben Island’s historic role in overcoming injustice and the universal importance of its heritage, Robben Island was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Therefore, a visit to Robben Island is now a pilgrimage to humanity which evokes the triumph of the human spirit.
What is the message: that this temple of human race and civilization leaves with you. What is it that touches your heart, body and soul. Why is it so grim and painful.
The answers are difficult to find. But it undoubtedly permeates into you how mankind inflicts injuries upon itself. It also teaches you that love, patience and time heals these wounds. However, the most laudable feature is the forgiveness of the sufferers.
*The author specialises in the study of Private International Law and recently returned from Cape Town.