Goodbye to a man who survived many prisons

By now almost everybody has heard about the passing away of Madiba. The ‘news’ is circulating rapidly and repeatedly on all possible platforms.

I heard about Madiba’s death late last night. A very dear person in my life sent me an sms saying:

“Madiba died tonight”

Undoubtedly, Nelson Mandela was, and will always be, an international icon and an indelible part of South African history.


When I heard about his death, I immediately thought back to the two times that I have visited Robben Island – the (in)famous prison where Mandela and many other activists and ‘problem’ (sic) individuals were sent to.

Robben Island

This is what I want to speak about in this article – how my 2 visits to Robben Island have affected me

Robben Island, according to my knowledge, started out as a leper colony. In other words, sick people were sent there to ensure that they were isolated from the rest of the population. In addition to Robben Island being a place of banishment for those suffering from leprosy, it was also where other ‘undesirables‘ were sent, namely, blind people, very ill people, and those considered mentally insane.

So, long before Madiba and the other political inmates stepped foot onto Robben Island, the island was a societal disposal bin. A place where ‘non-acceptable‘ people were sent. A place to keep these ‘untouchables‘ out of society’s view.

For me, stepping off the luxury catamaran and onto the island, I was immediately hit by the unmistakable air of sadness of the island. Yes, of course it ‘feels’ sad because we all know, to some extent at least, what happened on the island.

But for me, it was sad on a level deeper than that.

I am going to refer to a quote from one of my favourite authors, Albert Camus, to illustrate this point:

“Every stone here sweats with suffering, I know that. I have never looked at them without a feeling of anguish.”

I react quite strongly to the concept of ‘untouchables‘ or of ‘undesirables‘. I don’t care what Maslow has to say in his famous Hierarchy of Needs pyramid; what I do know is that we all need to feel:

  • Worthy of being alive
  • Worthy of being part of a community
  • Accepted by those around us
  • Visible – that we are actually seen, that our presence is noted
  • Worthy of basic respect and dignity.

I can’t think that the prisoners (for they were prisoners) of the Robben Island leper colony had any of the above needs met. It causes me great anguish to know that people were, AND STILL ARE, classified as unacceptable for various reasons. Throughout history, unacceptability (and its accompanying punishments) took many forms:

  • People with physical and mental disabilities;
  • People whose religion differed from those of the leadership of a region;
  • People whose skin colour classified them as ‘other’ or ‘barbaric’ etc;
  • Widows;
  • Foreigners;
  • People with illnesses;
  • People whose mother tongue was not the preferred mother tongue of the leadership;
  • People whose social class or case was not the preferred class of the leadership;
  • People who were born ‘illegitimately’;
  • Poor people;
  • Gay people;
  • Women

The list could go on and on.

The truth is, all of us are, in someway ‘unacceptable’ to somebody else.

If all of us had lived in a previous historical era, chances are high that we would have been banished, or even stoned to death for some aspect of ourselves.

So my point that I am trying to make is, for me,  …. Robben Island is imbued with sadness. And this sadness is so very bittersweet because, ironically enough, Robben Island is so physically beautiful. I’m not talking about the physical structures, I’m talking about the nature and the landscape.

In another universe, Robben Island could have been an exclusive holiday retreat. It offers privacy, spectacular views and incredible fauna and flora.

In another universe ….

And this is what my visits to Robben Island made me realise:

  1. The inter-connectedness of suffering and beauty
  2. The cruelty of being unfairly imprisoned
  3. The indignity of being labelled ‘unacceptable’
  4. The irony of being a prisoner on an island where the mainland (read: freedom) seems just a swim away
  5. That, as humans, we tend to banish ourselves and others too easily
  6. That I need to be more mindful of how I treat those who are different
  7. That we all spend time, at some point in our lives, in some form of emotional prison


8.      (and I know that this sounds silly) That cruelty is truly cruel

9.      That amid, and as a result of, cruelty and suffering, can exist and can come greatness.

For me, Madiba proved that pain can lead to growth. That suffering can lead to increased love. That in spite of inexplicable cruelty that we experience (by the hands of others as well as by our own hands), that survival is sometimes possible. 


I am sorry for the very long article.

Madiba, thank you for the lessons you taught me.