Dispatch 9:
Robben Island

Taking the ferry from Cape Town to Robben Island and touring the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of the 27 years of his imprisonment was perhaps the most powerful of many high-impact experiences on my trip to South Africa.

The tour leads you through the actual environment where Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners were sentenced to hard labor, but what really takes the experience over the top is the fact that your guide is a former inmate.

The guide for the group I joined was Eugene Mokgoasi, who was a prisoner from 1983 to 1990. Mokgoasi spoke with incendiary eloquence about the prison, its history and his nightmare experiences there. Seventeen years after his release, his bitterness is palpable.

Mokgoasi had been involved in the struggle against apartheid. He was on the side of most of the world at the time, but unlike most of the world, he paid an unthinkable price for his participation.

“Because of the terrorism act, I was given detention without trial and tortured,” he said. “You don't know when it is going to end, so you sign a confession. You realize that your life is in the hands of your torturers, so you will tell them whatever they want to hear. So I said I was a terrorist.”

He was fortunate in relation to Mandela, he said, because, “I had a release date.” He was sentenced to 15 years. Mandela, and some of the other leaders of the resistance movement had no hope of release.

For what was considered a political crime the authorities would never reduce your sentence, said Mokgoasi, as they might with a “well-behaved rapist or murderer.”

Mandela was condemned to working in a limestone quarry breaking rocks into gravel, “labor with no value,” Mokgoasi said.

He showed us Mandela’s tiny cell, Number Five, which is now furnished as it was when it was his home for nearly two decades. He slept on a mat on the floor, locked in for 18 hours a day with a bucket for a toilet. The last meal of the day was at 3 p.m. He was let out only to break rocks.

Priests would come to the prison and explain to the prisoners how apartheid was part of God’s grand plan, Mokgoasi said.

I asked him if he had hope, when he was there, if he ever imagined he would be in the situation he is now, guiding people through the prison, a free man. He said he had at least the hope of having a release date, which Mandela of course did not have. But no, he said, he never even remotely imagined what eventually came to pass.

“I never believed apartheid would end,” he said. “Not in my lifetime.” Though clearly hardened and embittered, Mokgoasi showed a glimmer of almost childlike wonder when he spoke of the overthrow of apartheid, which he called “a miracle.”

“Fortunately things have changed for the better,” he said. “The one thing we held onto was our dignity as human beings. We refused to let it go. And there is something new about this country. We are slowly regaining our dignity, both black and white.”

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