For nearly four hundred years colonial and apartheid rulers in South Africa banished those they regarded as political troublemakers or social outcasts to Robben Island, a 518-hectare outcrop in Table Bay near Cape Town. From the 17th to 20th Centuries, Robben Island served as a place of imprisonment, isolation and banishment. Today, from a maximum security prison, it has become a world heritage site, a poignant reminder of the price paid for freedom by the present democratic South Africa.

On a trip by the author to Cape Town for attending the 11th Annual Family Law Conference in 2009, a visit to Robben Island was strongly recommended. The experience was humbling, striking and captivating. It was a reminder of a grim reality practised and perpetuated as a crime against humanity. At various times, the unwilling inhabitants included slaves, political and religious leaders who opposed Dutch colonialism in East Asia, indigenous leaders who resisted British expansion in South Africa, leprosy sufferers, mentally ill patients, prisoners of war and most recently, political opponents of the apartheid regime in South Africa and Namibia.

A visit to the cell in which Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and South Africa’s first democratic President was imprisoned for 28 years was a lifetime experience. To visualise that despite being chained, tormented, humiliated and subjected to inhuman conditions, he sustained his spirit of tolerance and humanity, is a feat no normal human can endure. His words reverberate in my ears: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mr. Mandela in his poignant words is a man to emulate. Even if we follow a minuscule part of his life, we would be inching to being human. But we seem to be miles away in ethics, morals, life and politics.

Bringing an end to apartheid was dependent on many things. Internal popular uprising, diplomatic international isolation of apartheid South Africa, underground organisation, armed resistance and the people’s spirit all contributed to it. It is admirable to see that some of these freedom fighters and ex-political prisoners who spent 15-25 years in prison are now guides who accompany you on tours to the Robben Island Prison. Their firsthand encounters, narrated to tourists in guided tours, sitting in their prisons cells, on their mattresses or bunker beds, are touching and tearful. The prisoners crushed limestone, rocks and sea shells with bare hands in scorching sun with no protection. Forced to live in inhuman conditions, they endured and endeared themselves to fellow prisoners bound as one. Unbelievable, but these accounts are true.

Despite the brutality and harsh conditions, those imprisoned on the island succeeded in turning the prison into a symbol of freedom and personal liberation. Its most famous inmate Nelson Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 to lead South Africa to democracy with a message of reconciliation, tolerance, love and hope that moved the entire universe. There were no massacres, reprisals, retaliations or mass migrations. Today on Mandela’s words, all people in South Africa co-exist in peace and unison. On December 1, 1999, in recognition of Robben Island’s historic role in overcoming injustice and the universal importance of its heritage, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Therefore, a visit to Robben Island is now a pilgrimage to humanity which evokes the triumph of the human spirit.

What is the message that this temple of human race and civilization leaves with you? What is it that touches your heart, body and soul? Why is it so grim and painful? The answers are difficult to find. But it undoubtedly permeates into you how mankind inflicts injuries upon itself. It also teaches you that love, patience and time heal these wounds. However, the most laudable feature is forgiveness of the sufferers.

(The writer specialises in Private International Law. His e-mail:anilmalhotra1960@gmail.com)

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