Sunday, March 29, 2015

"No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones."

I have never been to hell, but I have been to a few places that I consider the manifestation of hell on earth. Not because it was ungodly hot or because I encountered devil worshippers or signs of such.  In these places I could feel the evil. One such place was Dachau, the former Nazi concentration camp. The other I visited very recently, Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. 

Robben is the Dutch word for seal, and when they shared the island with penguins, sea birds and some tortoises, things were not so bad. Once man inhabited the island, it became a place that brought out the cruelest aspect of human behavior. From the late 17th century until it became a World Heritage Site less than 20 years ago, this island was used to incarcerate free thinking men and women. For over 300 years it was a place that robbed men of their basic human dignity, a place dedicated to breaking man’s spirit and his will to live free. 

The island itself is a windswept coral outcropping covered with thick brush and rocks. Everything is coated with limestone dust from the quarry that once served as a place prisoners were pushed to the breaking point.  The island’s shoreline and shallow waters are littered with broken ships that stand as a reminder to the many broken spirts that still haunt the island. One of the earliest activists to be imprisoned on Robben Island was Robert Sobukwe. A college professor at the University of the Witwatersrand and a newspaper editor, Sobukwe achieved notoriety promoting African majority rule. He formed the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), and was elected its first President in 1959. He spoke of the need for black South Africans to "liberate themselves".

Sobukwe was kept in this house adjacent to the
guard dog kennels.
On 21 March 1960, Sobukwe led a march to the local police station in Soweto, in open defiance of the Apartheid laws. Sobukwe was arrested, charged and convicted of incitement, and sentenced to three years on Robben Island. Shortly before he was to be released, a new law was passed allowing imprisonments to be renewed annually at the discretion of the Minister of Justice. This new law became known as the "Sobukwe Clause" as he was the only person ever to have his sentence extended under this law. Sobukwe was kept in solitary confinement in a separate area of the Island. After nine years he was sent to a region of the country where it was deemed unlikely he could have any political influence. There 
he was kept under house arrest until his death in 1978.

Nelson Mandela, window 4th
from the left
As oppression by the government of South Africa grew more intolerable, more and more of the opposition leadership were imprisoned on Robben Island. Members of the political and military wings of the African National Congress, political activists such as the author of South Africa’s constitution, Walter Sisulu, the father of former President Thabo Mbeki, and current President Jacob Zuma were all imprisoned on the island. One of the workers at the plant I worked in South Africa, Solly Rikosa, was also a prisoner there.

This was all that was allowed in
Mandela's cell, his table, pot and blanket
There was one prisoner whose spirit not only could not be broken, it soared higher during his incarceration- 18 out of a total 27 years spent on Robben Island mining lime stone with his hands. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela suffered the 100-plus degree heat and the cold damp chill of winter for the crime of standing up for the basic human rights of his people. 

 I walked the island. I stood and starred into the limestone pit. Tears formed in my eyes when I looked into the closet that was his cell. Only hunger strikes led by him and the sickness that ensued resulted in the prisoners being able to move from sleeping on the floor to sleeping on cots.  He had every right to be angry at his captors. He had even more reasons to be bitter over how he had been treated. Instead he led a nation back from the brink of total isolation and reunited black and white to forge a new government, a new land, a new freedom and a new peace.

From an evil place there rose a great spirit and a giant of a man, the likes of which may not again be seen in my lifetime. For those who say there is no justice in the world, I point to Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and the spirits of those who inspired him. Good does rise up, even from the darkest of places.   

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