Robben Island ‘encapsulates the spirit of the historic struggle against apartheid and symbolises the triumph of human spirit over brute force'

In a tribute to those who fought apartheid, President Pratibha Patil on Saturday visited the Robben Island, 11 km off the coast of Cape Town, which has a long history of being used as a place of punishment and where South Africa's first democratically elected President Nelson Mandela and Pan Afric

In the maximum security prison, where political prisoners were kept, Ms. Patil visited Cell No. 5 in Section B that housed the legendary leader for more than 17 years. In all, Mr. Mandela had spent over 25 years in jail.

Ms. Patil also saw the small garden he had nurtured in the jail courtyard.

Writing in the visitors' book, she said: “Robben Island is today a place of pilgrimage for all those who respect the inalienable right of all people to a life of freedom and dignity. This place encapsulates the spirit of South Africa's historic struggle against the abhorrent system of apartheid and symbolises the triumph of human spirit over adversity and brute force. It also reminds [one] of the extreme hardship faced by the heroes of the freedom struggle.

“My visit to the island and the prison cells where Nelson Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters were incarcerated for over 17 years has been a deeply moving experience. Their saga of extraordinary strength, courage and sacrifice shall always inspire the youth of today and future generations for preserving freedom and justice.”

Sparks Mlilwana, a former jail inmate now serving as prison guide, said the jail has 84 cells. He recalled how Mr. Mandela had buried a copy of his autobiography under a grape tree in the garden. But “the jail authorities found [out] the papers…”

However, Mr. Mandela gave another copy to Sathyandranath Ragunanan ‘Mac' Maharaj, an academic and businessman of Indian origin, who was then a Minister for Transport, and he smuggled it out.

Though the authorities punished Mr. Mandela for violation of the code of conduct, ‘Mac' Maharaj got Long Walk to Freedom published, and it went on to become a bestseller.

On becoming President, Mr. Mandela returned the favour, making Maharaj Transport Minister again. “It was the reward for the transportation of information he had done,” quipped Mr. Mlilwana, a former African Nationalist Congress activist who had spent seven years in the prison from 1983 for alleged “terrorist activities.”

‘Mac' Maharaj is now the official spokesperson of President Jacob Zuma.

Mr. Mlilwana also recalled how the prisoners used to be segregated on the basis of their origin, colour and crimes. The toughest life, he said, was reserved for the blacks, who were not even allowed to wear full sleeve shirts or trousers, or socks and shoes, even in cold and harsh winter. “They could wear only half sleeve shirts or shorts.”

Further, in a country where 11 languages are spoken, the inmates were allowed to speak only Afrikaans or English, which could be understood by the jail staff. “A violation was punishable with either beating, kicking or whipping or denial of food for a day or more,” said Mr. Mlilwana.

The President was told about the long history of the Robben Island as a place of punishment for prisoners of all sorts, and of banishment of lepers.

In 1959, the island became a maximum security prison; from 1961 to 1991, more than 3,000 men were incarcerated as political prisoners.