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Opinion An Idea Unto Itself - Nelson Mandela


CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Robben Island rises just out of the ocean in the distance. From the shore, it looks like a thin, lifeless wedge, a gray spot on the horizon. The rabbits have taken it over.

But tourists dutifully pile into boats, and they make the pilgrimage along with the whales across the water.

During the World Cup, the boats have been sold out, piled high with Algerians and Englishmen, Italians and Portuguese. Robben Island, this terrible place once reserved for lepers, lunatics and prisoners, has become a must-see. Its most famous former resident, Nelson Mandela, spent 18 of his 27 years in prison there; his life since has transformed his cell into a kind of shrine, an impossibly cold place turned impossibly warm.

Apartheid tourism seems like a strange thing. The boats feel too buoyant somehow. There are children running around and groups of fans singing soccer songs. People are eating candy bars and chips and holding on to their hats in the breeze. From the docks in Cape Town -- surrounded by high-end stores and buzzed by helicopters filled with sightseers -- they bounce over the waves by the hundreds and thousands, as though they're going to an amusement park.

Instead, they're going to see a place that first housed inmates around 1525. They're going to see a place to which sick or imprisoned men have been condemned for nearly 500 years, first by the Portuguese, then the British, the Dutch East India Company, the British again and finally during apartheid in South Africa. The men who came here on boats before us were saying goodbye to the rest of their lives.

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Now the tourists roll off the boats and take pictures of the seal sleeping in a space under the dock. They board great buses with smiling guides, and they rumble around the island, a scrubby, featureless place. The guides say things like, "This is a serious place, this is a sad place, but is it OK if we tell some jokes?" And everybody nods, because they're on vacation and they want to have fun.

As the buses stop in front of leper graveyards, the tourists have a laugh, and it all seems so surreal.

But then the buses stop by the limestone quarry where the prisoners went to work. The sun glares off the rock, and it's the first place where the buses go quiet. It's the first place we might catch sight of Mandela's imprint -- through the small pile of stones in the middle of the carved-out patch of earth.

The guides tell the tourists that after his release, Mandela returned with hundreds of other political prisoners kept here by the apartheid regime for a reunion. It was part of the process of reconciliation. They returned to the place where they once labored, and Mandela picked up a stone to show how he worked, then dropped it on the ground. The other men did the same, picking up stones and putting them in the pile. There it has sat since, a silent testament to the will of wronged men.

The buses continue, through the small village that still exists on the island, home to about 200 isolated souls, caretakers and their families. There are more jokes told by the guides, about the tiny school -- home to 16 students at the moment -- and the 25,000 rabbits that overrun the place. The guides tell their own tales of woe, lamenting how hard it is for them to meet a woman on Robben Island.

The buses stop at a snack bar, so the tourists can buy more chocolate bars and chips, and finally head to the prison, to the low-rise buildings surrounded by razor wire with concrete floors and barred windows.

The tourists are put into groups, and they duck into the place behind different guides, former political prisoners. The guides walk freely through the place they were once kept. They tell stories about their time inside, about how far they would go to earn an extra blanket in the winter, about the psychological lengths they went to keep from being broken and about how painful it was to receive one letter every six months, then to have that letter filled with holes after the guards had used knives to cut out entire paragraphs, leaving gaps where the inmates and their outside lives once were.

Listening to the stories, to this first-hand history, some of the tourists grow restless; some of them sit on benches and drift off to sleep.

They have come to Robben Island, but they have really come for Mandela.

So the former prisoners walk past their own cells without comment and, at last, they stop in front of Mandela's. Camera flashes bounce off the walls.

It's a tiny stone square. There is a red bucket in one corner -- what passed for a toilet. There is a tiny green table with a steel bowl on top. And there is a pile of gray wool blankets, folded neatly, on top of a thin sleeping mat.

There it is, this place where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his life, locked away before he was able to become what he is now. His spirit, his ghost with whom tourists from around the world feel the need to commune. They pause in front of his cell and cross it off their lists. Another landmark seen, another monument visited.

But maybe it's not so cynical an exercise as that.

Maybe there's a black teenager from Boston on the boat, a college kid who begged his way into the sold-out tour, telling the ticket takers that he had to go to Robben Island, had to see with his own eyes that terrible place. Maybe he didn't eat a candy bar or chips and maybe he didn't take any pictures. Maybe on the boat ride back to Cape Town, he sat below decks by himself in the corner, and he made some silent resolution about his own life.

Maybe a few of the Algerians and Englishmen, the Italians and Portuguese, maybe a few of them took some small lesson back to shore with them, too. Maybe they saw something in that pile of stones or folded blankets that will stay with them long after the World Cup is over, long after they have watched their last games here and returned home.

And maybe I stood on the boat and looked at the lights of Cape Town, remembering that in my first days here, I had written a story about Nelson Mandela mourning the death of his great-granddaughter, had written that he said something to us about darkness and light "through his tears." But maybe the guides on the bus, between their jokes, told us that Mandela's eyes were damaged by his years spent in that limestone quarry, by the sun glaring off the rock. Maybe the guides told us that Mandela's tear ducts were essentially seared shut, that Mandela is now physically unable to cry, that even in his moments of deepest grief, he can't push tears out of his eyes and that it would be a mistake to have written that he would say anything to us through them.

Now I know that. Because I went to Robben Island.

2010 World Cup: The world has changed Robben Island - ESPN Soccernet


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Mai Harinder Kaur

I was active in the anti-apartheid movement from the first time I heard of apartheid in the 1960s. Apartheid completely offended my developing sense of rightness and justice.

In my life, the unexpectedly peaceful fall of apartheid was/is a major victory. I know that South Africa is a mess these days, but "a difficult freedom is better than an easy slavery."

I remember our first glimpse of Nelson Mandela after so many years. He was older, of course, but he had retained his look of dignity and power. I was amazed. I stayed up all night, too excited to sleep, to watch him released from Pollsmoor Prison. I remember seeing him walking amid the crowd, looking vital and strong, as if he had been on a picnicking holiday instead of spending all those years a prisoner. I watched him elected President in South Africa's first democratic election. Sadly, I watched the dissolution of his marriage to Winnie Mandela.

He is one of my very few heroes on this earth during my lifetime. Nelson Mandela is far from perfect, but he has not let us down. I have often thought what a magnificent Khalsa he would have made. (Perhaps next time!)

Nelson Mandela would be a giant in any age. He ought to be called Mahatma, instead of that grimy, little, perverted, lying creep whose name is usually associated with that title.