The boat ride to Robben Island took 40 minutes. We saw a couple of whale fins and lots of birds. The view of Table Mountain on the boat over was obscured by dense fog. Seabirds dipped and frolicked on the waves. Kids chatted excitedly with their parents and siblings along the way.
We had talked about what we would see, read about the apartheid era, and learned about the prison itself in preparation for our trip. But nothing prepares you for your arrival on the island, walking through the front gates, and being led through the story of political imprisonment by a former prisoner of Robben Island. Our guide was named Sparks. But during his seven years of confinement, he was only called by his prisoner number, 5683.
Nelson Mandela was prisoner 46664. He was the 466th prisoner to be imprisoned in 1964. For 27 years his name was not spoken by the prison authorities. His cell was 2x3 meters. He had no socks, shoes, or coat. He had a T-shirt and shorts. Summer, winter, rain, wind - did not matter - black prisoners were given nothing more.
I sat under the grape arbor where Mandela wrote and hid his manuscript for The Long Walk to Freedom. It was such a surreal moment. I am still processing it.
We went through the prison and heard the stories of apartheid era political prisoners from an insider’s perspective. Beatings, solitary confinement, and 30-day porridge rations were the punishments of choice. Hearing Sparks tell this story was even more than I can describe.
Walking by and photographing Nelson Mandela’s cell was one of the most profoundly moving experiences of my life. I cannot imagine surviving 27 years in that place, with those restrictions, and with that kind of resiliency.
We stopped at the limestone quarry where Mandela and others worked. We saw the stack of stones placed in remembrance of the 38 men who lost their lives in that quarry and saw the cave where he wrote and talked about his manuscript during his lunch breaks.
Coming home was one of the roughest boat rides I have ever been on. The boat tossed and turned, crested and dipped. But being on the rough water was still a sign that I was able to leave the island when I chose. I have never lived in the kind of fear, terror, isolation, and oppression that Mandela and many others lived with in South Africa and that many continue to live with today in the US and elsewhere. This is due to my privilege. as a well educated, white, American woman. Today was a stark reminder of that privilege and the work we still have to do.
It is indeed a Long Walk to Freedom.