I spent a day learning some powerful truths about South African history on Robben Island, a place that jailed many of the black political prisoners during apartheid- including Nelson Mandela. We began by embarking on a ferry across the bay, and upon arriving to the island, we immediately boarded buses to begin the historic tour.
The tour guide filled our bus ride with a host of historic stories with an intermittent joke which kept the experience lively. We saw leprosy grave yards where the unmarked tombs were the tombs of the blacks while the marked tombs were the whites. Our bus tour guide then explained that once the government declared that you were black, that that was your given identity and you were required to wear a Dom Pass (or an ID document that directly translates to meaning “stupid pass”). Largely the tour was highlighting the severity of colorism and segregation that was happening due to systemic societal injustices that ultimately led to apartheid within the country.
In the midst of these learnings, we stopped by the water side and saw African penguins and the beautiful view of Table Mountain from the island. There was such a juxtaposition of emotions and sites on the island. From the beauty of the scenery and wild life to the painful memories of the jails and segregated churches—I kept fluctuating from enjoying my time in the most beautiful place on earth to reflecting back to a place of internal introspection as I digested all of the crimes against humanity that happened on this same ground.
And then we arrived at the Maximum security prison where Nelson Mandela was jailed for 17 years. Our bus tour guide dropped us off at the gate and a new tour guide led us the rest of the way—and he was unique because he was a former political prisoner who was also jailed in the Maximum Security prison.
We wondered why he would ever come back to this place after the harsh injustices and severe mistreatment that he endured on Robben Island during the apartheid, and in his words he said “I also did let go”.
These were powerful words spoken moments before we had the opportunity to see Nelson Mandela’s jail cell. It was one of those moments that I reflected and thought about what the walls would say if they could talk.
Despite such a painful past involving so many severe social injustices, there is a strong and beautiful spirit of hope that is felt throughout the island. I smile because I too embody this hopeful spirit and work every day towards the creation of a more equitable and just future for mankind because the world is one.