Monday, October 15, 2012
October 15 - Robben Island and District Six
From 1964 through 1989, Ahmed Kathrada was a political prisoner in apartheid South Africa. He had been tried along with Nelson Mandela and six others at the Rivonia Trials, accused of sabotage and working to overthrow the government. They were sentenced to life in prison. For the first twenty years, Kathrada, Mandela and the others were incarcerated on Robben Island, a beautiful small island a few miles off the coast of Cape Town. Prior to being a prison, the island had housed a leper colony. During the years of apartheid, it housed both political prisoners and common law prisoners, but in different buildings which had no opportunity for communication among the prisoners. The final years of their imprisonment were spent in facilities on the mainland, but for the majority of their time, they were in small, single cells on Robben Island. The entire group of political prisoners was released in 1989. Five years later, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the first free and democratic elections in the country. Kathrada served in parliament and became one of Mandela's closest advisors. He was also instrumental in turning Robben Island into a heritage site and museum, where people can learn about the anti-apartheid struggle and the hope for a free and equal future. Kathrada has returned to the island many times since his release - 23 years ago today - and on the anniversary of that release, we had the honor of accompanying him to the island where he spent almost 20 years in a cell across from the most famous South African of the last century - Nelson Mandela. Today, it was Mr. Kathrada who held a key to the cells in the political prisoners unit. He led us on a private tour of the areas where he worked, ate, spent time in recreation, and helped keep the spirit of freedom alive. He used the jailer's key to first open Mandela's cell, and we all had the opportunity to step inside the small, 6ft x 8ft room, where the electric light stayed on 24 hours a day and there was no running water. I touched the thick bars over the window that overlooked a courtyard. I ran my hands along the walls that surrounded Mr. Mandela for all those years. Then we went to the other side of the hall, and Mr. Kathrada used the key that had kept him locked up for so many years to open his own cell so that we could go inside. He told us how food in the prison was regulated based on color - Mr. Kathrada would receive bread each day because he was Indian, but Mr. Mandela and the other black Africans received no bread. He told us how systems of communication were developed among the prisoners - which he should know since he was in change of communications for the political prisoners. He told us from first-hand experience how Mr. Mandela evolved as a leader through the years, never setting himself above the people but right along side them. To see the past and the present connected through one man who lived through it all was humbling and profound. There are many blessings on this trip, but this may be the highlight. Regular visitors to Robben Island can see Mr. Mandela's cell from the outside; they can't go in - but we did. Other visitors to Robben Island get an overview of the history of the place, but we heard the stories from a man who was there, who lived side by side with Mr. Mandela and the other political prisoners, who knew first hand the harsh reality of apartheid even in prison, and who has helped to shape the South Africa of today. We were blessed indeed. This afternoon, a small group of us visited the District Six Museum in Cape Town. District Six had been a predominantly black neighborhood until it was declared a whites-only area in the 1950s. The residents were forcibly removed and sent to new areas farther away from the city where it was more difficult to get to the places they worked and they had to start life over - often with no electricity and no running water in buildings that were more like shacks. They had no choice in the matter. Then the entire district was torn to the ground. In subsequent years, there was great unrest over the forced removals, and very little of the land of District Six was developed. Now, former residents of the district are able to reclaim land that had once been theirs. Though pictures, testimonials, and reconstructed rooms, the museum chronicles the story of District Six. Many of us reflected that the life in the district looked no different than the any city in the US in the 1950s - the clothes, the families, the buildings, the forms of entertainment - the stories were all familiar. Even the racial segregation was the same. Both countries struggled with race relations during these years, with different experiences and different results. But there were many similarities. This evening, we prayed together as a group and spent some time reflecting on our experiences. After dinner in small groups along the waterfront, our remarkable day in Cape Town is coming to an end. More experieneces await us tomorrow.