It was a visit that evoked emotions of many kinds. It was also a visit to one of the most popular prison facilities in the world – Robben Island Prison.
And one of the inmates who made the prison to attract global attention was prisoner 466/64, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela, referred to as Madiba or Tata (Father of the nation), who was later to become President of South Africa, spent 18 of his 27- year jail term in Robben Island prison. He never gave up. The bold inscription on the walls of the docking area, THE HUMAN SPIRIT CANNOT BE MENACLED, or another, THE TRIUMPH OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT, are testaments to the struggle and the never-say-die mentality of Mandela and his other freedom fighters during the anti-apartheid struggle. Even the very voluble and rambunctious President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, as well as the immediate past president of the same country, Thabo Mbeki’s father, served various jail terms on the island.
For an island that was purely a colony for lepers, the conversion of the island into a prison facility came in 1961. It was a maximum security prison for political prisoners until 1991. The medium security prison for criminal prisoners was closed in 1996
A prison tour guide, Kolekile Mahlahla, who himself spent eight years as an inmate there, knows his trade very well. He knows the history of the prison from inception, though he was hauled in there sometime in the late 1970s. His own story was one of betrayal – a supposed friend he had met on one of his sorties in and out of South Africa for insurgency training, sold him out during interrogation. Narrating the story of what the inmates of the facility experienced, a story of immeasurable punishment both physically and mentally, Mahlahla was very graphic in explaining the suffering of the inmates.
A few of the tourists, made up largely of journalists from different parts of Africa, could not but try to cover their water-laden eyes, a display of emotive response to the tales of woe as retold by Mahlahla.
Before the ferry ride from Table Bay, Cape Town, to the island, we had been warned to wear winter jackets because of the type of weather we would experience. Indeed, a few of the journalists clothing appeared inappropriate because of exposure to wind. So, when Mahlahla told his audience that the inmates slept on bare floor before beds were introduced, many curled in horror at the experience. Yet, being determined inmates, there were moments of triumphs.
Take, for instance, the agitation of the political prisoners that the needed to be allowed to watch television and that criminal inmates should prepare and serve them food. Both causes were worth fighting for. The reason the political prisoners wanted to serve as cooks was simply because it was only the cooks who had access to every part of the prison including, of course, Mandela’s cell, located in the ‘B’ Block, which was out of bounds to everybody except a special class of warders.
The only way the political prisoners could have any form of communication with Mandela was if one of them served as cook. It was Mahlahla who schemed his way into the kitchen, disguised himself as a common criminal prisoner (it was easy for him because all the criminal inmates were also scattered about the prison but did shifts and, therefore, did not know one another) got the apron and a food table and proceeded straight to Mandela’s prison block where he had a chat with Madiba.
It was a proud Mahlahla who, afterwards, went back to his prison cell to meet other political prisoners whose daily lamentation was their inability to commune with Madiba.
As his fellow inmates were talking about their feelings and how they hoped one day they would speak with Mandela, proudly, Mahlahla told them, “I have just spoken with him; I was with him some moments ago and Madiba is doing fine”. That was how, he said, “we were able to communicate with Madiba while taking turns to disguise as cooks”.
The second agitation was perfected when they discovered that some officials of the United Nations, the Red Cross and Red Crescent had scheduled a visit.
Deliberately, Mahlahla continued, “we staged a hunger strike just days before the visit and we knew that such an action would further embarrass the apartheid regime. Sensing what the backlash would be, the prison authorities quickly acceded to our demands which included being allowed to watch a feature film once a week and also to ease the punishment of our brothers from the South West Africa Peoples Organisation, SWAPO, who were kept separately in D Block and were put through pain”.
For Mahlahla, Robben Island cannot be described as his home but the Island was home to him for eight years. Because of his political background, even his modus operandi of guiding tourists round the prison benefitted from knowledge gained during training in those heady days of Umkhonto we Siswe, the militant resistance wing of the African National Congress, ANC. He told his own group of tourists that once any of us sighted another group exiting through the gangway of the ‘B’ Block, we should all head in.
He said because of the importance tourists attached to viewing the inside of Mandela’s cell, tour guides and tourists almost always clashed, sometimes leading to unwholesome developments. To avoid this, he admonished that once any of us sighted another group filing out, we should head in. His strategy worked. It was during the struggle to take photographs of the cell of Prisoner 466/64 that it dawned on most of us why tourists and tour guides clashed.
Only President Barrak Obama of the United States has ever been allowed to step into that cell as a tourist and take photographs from inside. This happened during his visit to South Africa last year. Immediately after his tour, the door was locked again and the key returned for safe keeping – only God knows where.
In all, it was an experience that was at once educative and emotive.
Symbolically, after the prison tour, journalists took part in a Media Forum on the future of Africa. Tagged AFRICA’S AGENDA 2063, it was a session organized by CNN and MultiChoice with a view to brainstorming on the future of Africa 50 years from now. The keynote speaker, Dr. Pallo Jordan Sweledinga, a one-time minister in post-apartheid South Africa, painted a very wonderful future of Africa 50 years from today. But he kicked off his speech with an explanation hinged on hope. His name, Sweledinga, which means hopefulness, he said, should not be misrepresented with the corrupted version she-wel-le-din-ga (permit the spelling), which means a hopeless future.
Between hopefulness and a hopeless future, Dr. Pallo Jordan said all the indices of greatness reside on the continent, especially if a culture of focused leadership is enthroned – though his picture of Africa in fifty years was near utopian. Therefore, when the panelists – Norgaard, Adesina, Angela Quintal (Editor, Mail and Guardian, South Africa), Faridah Karoney (Group Editorial Director, Royal Media Services, Kenya) and anchor Sakina Kamwendo of METRO FM, South Africa – interrogated the expected contributions of journalists as a vehicle for the achievement of AGENDA 2063, there was a near-commonality of positions.
Whereas Adesina insisted that journalists should continue to probe deeper to keep leaders in check even if it means exposing more dirt about Africa, a position shared by Norgaard, Karoney’s position was hinged on developmental or sunshine journalism, a term employed to capture the need to focus more on the nuggets on the continent rather than the rot. Quintal’s view was more on the side of responsible journalism, a view shared by both Adesina and Norgaard, with the former insisting that journalism that seeks to celebrate tokenism would not lead Africa to that hopeful terrain.
The symbolism of the media forum held on Robben Island, which is both a South African National Heritage Site as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the fitting tribute to the will of the man who made the prison facility known across the world and the strong will required to move the continent in the direction of prosperity and growth, just so, the spirit and the letters of Sweledinga will triumph.