You may remember that I was very lucky recently and won a trip to South Africa. Long before I received the itinerary I wanted to visit the prison that housed Nelson Mandela for so many years – Robben Island.
Robben Island is located just off the coast of Cape Town, approximately 5.5 miles, and is accessed by boat from the V & A Waterfront. Tours are at 9 am, 11 am and 1 pm every day although if the sea is too rough it can be cancelled. The tour lasts approximately 3.5 hour including the ferry ride and costs around 360 ZAR which is around £21 per person.
We were very lucky as our small group had a private tour of the Island. We were met by a small, softly spoken man called Vusumzi Mcongo. Vusumzi was arrested in 1976 for being a member of the South African Student Movement and was imprisoned for 12 years on the Island. As he spoke he clasped his hands in front of him and quietly told us that he had been arrested for incitement, sabotage and terrorist activities. He then went on to explain that some of the charges were for things such as not carrying identification papers or being late when there was a curfew or for just being seen with certain people.
As we walked round the prison we were told of the cruelty and deprivation that prisoners had to endure. How in the winter the water in the showers was turned cold and, in the summer, it was turned hot? How the guards tried to incite riots by treating prisoners differently with privileges for some and not for others. Hard labour was a daily occurrence and the prisoners spent long days in the quarry breaking up stones.
Vusumzi showed us Nelson Mandela’s cell which was only just big enough for a mattress and a bucket and explained how Mandela had told fellow prisoners to befriend the guards and treat them as equals. He then showed us the punishment cells which were tiny and filled with damp and I asked him for what reason someone would be made to stay there and when he told me he had been imprisoned in them for several months due to not standing quick enough when a guard asked him to I struggled to hold my composure. How can man be so cruel to one another?
I later asked Vusumzi why he had come back to a place that held so many bad memories and he said it was all about forgiveness.
He was interviewed a few years ago for The Forgiveness Project (www.theforgivenessproject.com) and this is what he said: “ Our relationship with the warders at Robben Island was often a stumbling block. We had to convince them we weren’t violent men. But I never hated these warders. They were working for a system and the system was brutal. The people I hated were those who had tortured and interrogated me in detention. I used to dream of revenge.
And yet, after I was released, that hatred diminished. All I wanted was to meet these people again to show them that I’d survived. And what’s more, survived with a smile.
By chance, during Steve Biko’s hearing at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), I met some of the security officers involved in his case. I greeted them and reminded them that they’d also interrogated and tortured me. Then I wished them luck in their case. I bore them no ill will. I knew then that the experience of Robben Island had not brutalised me. We had all learned different lessons in different ways.
We cannot live with broken hearts. In time we must accept that these things have happened to us, that those years have been wasted. To stay with the past will only bring you into turmoil.No nation can survive without forgiveness.
Preaching reconciliation has become part of my daily task. For me this is a voluntary change, one that comes from within, even though the government has made me no reparation. But some former political prisoners are still very angry. They are not prepared to forgive. It’s not hatred against the white man they feel, but anger at the government that has done nothing for them.”
I cannot help but admire this small softly spoken man for the things he has endured and overcome and can only hope that one day South Africa truly finds its way as it is a land filled with such beauty and I hope it can find a peaceful future.