The trip to Robben Island was breathtaking—high winds made high waves and a rough boat ride. The small island is surrounded by violent waters. Barely above sea level, much of it is rocky and relatively barren. It is dominated by the former Maximum Security Prison, now a World Heritage Site and Museum.
When I was growing up, apartheid was the reality in South Africa. As a young adult, I heard of Nelson Mandela, but only in a negative way. Living in the American south at this time, I was used to separation of the races. I never thought it seemed right, but I didn’t have well-formed opinions about it.
I remember rejoicing when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela was freed and then elected President of a new South Africa. I had friends, both black and white, from South Africa, and they seemed to be handling the changes well.
But it was the visit to Robben Island about six years ago that opened my eyes to a fuller reality.
We took the tour of the concrete prison. Our day was pleasant, but the wind brought a chill. The small cells were exposed to intense heat in the summer and extreme cold in the winter. The prisoners worked daily—picking up rocks and cutting up concrete, moving them elsewhere, then doing the same again and again.
Nelson Mandela’s cell—his “home” for 27 years—was a place to destroy body, soul and spirit. All that could grow there would be hate and bitterness. How could hope live in such a place? How could a man’s spirit survive?
Yet that is what happened in Mandela’s cell. Bitterness was buried. His hope lived. His spirit thrived.
He determined not to be defeated. He read what he could find to read. He learned at the “University of Robben Island”—prisoners lectured to each other on topics of interest, including Christianity, Islam, Communism. He wrote letters to his family. He learned Afrikaans so he could communicate with the guards–and when he was freed. He planted a garden—cultivating life.
His faith was an important part of his efforts to choose life, not death; hope, not bitterness; change in himself so he could bring change to others.
The more I have learned about him, the more I have respected him. What he has accomplished in bringing hope and peace to his nation is remarkable, serving as a beacon to the rest of the world. And to each of us.
“There is no passion to be found playing small—in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”–Nelson Mandela