The boat to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, is a rough ride over choppy seas even in good weather, the specter of Table Mountain growing distant as Capetown disappears beneath the screaming of birds that surround the island. As I took the boat over, I wondered how many ways Mandela’s heart broke as he watched home fade away on his way to an unforgiving rock of an island to serve 18 of the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid government.
Mandela had much to lose by opposing injustice: from early political organizing to opposing apartheid and later championing the fight against AIDS in Africa, he risked his own conform, status, and freedom to fight oppression. He was born a Xhosa (think Wakanda irl) son of Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a local chief, and counselor to the King of the Themba people.
He could have stayed in his nice life, a member of the royal household, but Mandela fled position and an arranged marriage in the Grand Palace for a life in Johannesburg that soon led him from the mines into politics. During his fight against apartheid, he spent years in prison, losing part of his sight from breaking rocks day after day in the white-hot glow of a limestone quarry on Robben Island, he suffered attacks against himself and his family, and he was criticized by both left–for being too accommodating– and right–not being accommodating at all–while he served as President of the ANC. All this was part of the sacrifice he made to free South Africa.
Back on the island loud clouds of seagulls are deafening, wheeling overhead as we are herded onto buses for the tour. There is a snack shop. Next to it is a giant picture frame where people stop and take pictures. Person after person lines up to frame themselves, smiling: peace from the prison camp! I have found so many of these stops on my black pain tour challenging– how do you remember without becoming lost in the pain of the past? how can you embrace the victory without erasing the cost? I avoid the chatty banter of the large group and look back at the shadow of Capetown out past the screeching gulls.
We ride past a tiny house where Robert Sobukwe, founder of the Pan African Conference was kept alone for years. He was not allowed to speak to anyone for six years, during which time his vocal chords atrophied and he was no longer able to speak thereafter, even upon his release from Robben Island. The tiny ill-fitted house is surrounded by plush dog kennels where the island’s guard dogs were kept. I imagine sitting silently for years amidst a cacophony of dogs and gulls: animals giving voice to all you cannot.
When we arrive at the cell blocks where political prisoners are kept we are met by a former political prisoner who guides us around. He has a limp but otherwise seems too young to have participated in History with a capital H. Except history was not that long ago; I remember watching Mandela released from jail on a color TV, a moment in history teetering between the fall of the Berlin wall and the first Gulf War. South Africa has only been out of apartheid for 27 years. The US has not had civil rights for much longer. Both countries still struggle to actualize the freedom the law was passed to protect. The history is recycled in the present; racism persists.
Our guide persists, too. He walks us through the cell blocks sharing stories as he goes–where they ate, where they slept, where they played soccer. In the cell block where Mandela was housed each cell holds the story of its former occupant: the chess player’s board, books in another, a letter penned in swooping cursive in a third. These cell blocks, prisons though they are, now ring with the humanity of their inhabitants, standing in stark contrast to the dehumanizing machine that is the design of the American prison system. The guide talks about the community of men formed and forged here, and they way they plotted freedom for their country from their cells.
Here is the cell where Mandela was imprisoned. Everyone wants to peer into the place where Mandela sharpened himself to a weapon aimed at toppling apartheid. Everyone wants a picture; one by one each person has their moment to pass by the bars, contemplate the grand arc of history and snap a pic. Morgan brought us here today. He’s from Zimbabwe so this is the first time he’s been here. He asks someone to snap a photo of him in front of this cell swirling with the courage of one of the great heroes of our time. The person taking the picture fumbles with the phone. A woman waiting next in line calls out:
Hurry up or we’re going to put you in there.
A (white) woman waiting impatiently in line calls out (with a South African accent) even though she is next, to the (black adult) man, a stranger, scolding him like a child, threatening him with the power she wields in this world, telling him to move out of the way so she can take a picture of the cell of man removed from society, moved out of the way by the apartheid government so they could take their shot at colonizing their own country. If Morgan does not move so she can take a portrait of her bloated self, stuffed next to Mandela’s cell then she will stuff him in the cell–one African in the cell is as good as another. She is so secure, so deaf to her own role in white supremacy that she calls out with no irony.
Hurry up or we (who is we?) are going to put you in there.
The air crackles immediately with multiple protests. “That’s inappropriate,” Jordyn calls out, her voice commanding, leaving no room for back peddling or push back. A second of silence while we all pose as if for a photograph of future museum goers: “here is an example of racism, sometimes referred to soft racism but still directed at people of African descent, just like segregation, and apartheid, and slavery, and colonialism…”
But the woman does not apologize. She slides in front of the cell and takes her picture. I wonder what she will tag the photo–#peacemandela, #robbenislandicare, #antiracistforlife. I wonder if she will leave Morgan out of her story when she tells it. I wonder if she will even remember what she said. The year is 2018. History is present.
Mandela is adored. Today on his 100th birthday the world celebrates (couldn’t we get a Google doodle?). He gave up a life of tradition to fight for equality. His greatness is legendary, the legend well deserved. In our own lives, such self-sacrifice seems laudable from afar but impractical for day-to-day living.
Remember though, it is not just the big actions, the ones that land you inside the cell, that are the only courageous responses to racism, it is also the small actions like Jordyn’s vigilant policing outside the cell in the present moment calling out racism and telling racists to their face to knock it off that are a part of the overall fight. We live in the time where racism persists, a death of a thousand cuts: be the band-aid; be the person that stops the cut; be the person that puts down the blade. On days when we celebrate one of the great heroes of the diaspora and his big actions, commit to making small actions in your own world every day. Think globally, act locally–like really locally–every day, and as always stay woke.