“University” of Robben Island by Haley Cooper

Today we visited Robben Island, which was a prison that held over 1,500 political prisoners between 1962 and 1991, with the most famous of its prisoners being Nelson Mandela.  We had the great honor and privilege of being given a tour by Lionel Davis, a political prisoner who spent a total of seven years (1964 – 1971) in prison on the island.  Conditions were extremely tough, but being classified as “coloured,” Lionel received more privileges, such as more food and clothing, than those like Mandela, who were classified as “black“.

But no matter the classification, the experience was appalling.  Prisoners were given a single mat to sleep upon on the floor with no sleeping clothes or sheets for warmth.  They were herded like cattle to and from work sites, such as the limestone quarry, where prisoners performed completely useless, but very exhaustive, painful labor beneath the hot African sun.  They were dehumanized by acts of punishment such as being denied food or put in “the hole.”  Some were even buried from the neck down and then urinated upon by guards who passed by throughout the day. After being labeled a “troublemaker” for speaking out against these conditions, Lionel was placed in solitary confinement, where alongside Nelson Mandela, was cut off from communicating with others. 

But surprisingly, Lionel spoke of his experience on Robben Island as a privilege where he and others had the opportunity for personal transformation.  He referred to the prison as a university where the prisoners would all help to teach one another, even despite the fact that they would be punished if caught studying or with pen and paper.  Whether someone had an elementary education or advanced college degrees, the political prisoners pushed on to learn more which would help keep them focused on moving forward in their fight against apartheid.

Lionel reflected that the experience at Robben Island was about gain, not about pain.  He said it was in the prison where he learned to really listen to other people, whether he agreed with them or not.  As I have heard my mother say before, you have to learn to agree to disagree on some things.  He also stated that if Mandela had not experienced imprisonment on Robben Island, he would not be the person that he is today.  Lionel felt that like himself and many other political prisoners, Mandela’s experience there brought out his humanity and taught him about true reconciliation.   He stated that it was he and others that experienced imprisonment there first hand who were armed with the power of knowledge to be able to lead and educate others towards a brighter future in South Africa.   

I was amazed at Lionel’s ability to be completely candid with the group about his first- hand experiences.  The fact that he spoke of his appalling experiences with such strength and composure while standing within the very walls in which they occurred shook me to the bone.  I wondered how he was able to speak of such atrocities and walk through the space that they occurred without breaking down, because I don’t think I would have been able to hold in my emotion.  I was moved by the experience, and I feel sure that the rest of the group felt the same.  For those to not lose hope in the fight against apartheid while being held within these walls was awe-inspiring.  It would be so incredibly hard for me to keep my spirits up while being treated as if I were not even a human being as these political prisoners were.  And then to be willing to forgive those who committed the atrocities against is almost unbelievable.  How do you think you would handle life as a political prisoner on Robben Island?  Would you focus on the pain or be able to embrace the greater gain of the experience?

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