The F-word: Robben Island is not Mount Olympus

2012-10-20 09:27

It is one of the enduring myths of our struggle years . . . this thing about Robben Island being a factory of great leaders.

Myths are not always a bad thing. Sometimes they help us handle difficult truths or help to assuage feelings of grief and despair.

From the days when the island and its captives were a place of mystique, we have allowed ourselves to believe there was “something” that made those incarcerated there unbending in their principles and in their dedication to the people’s cause.

To the brave and morally upright, ending up a prisoner on Robben Island was the ultimate certification of their commitment to the struggle for freedom and dignity.

To the cowards, it was a deterrent second only to death.

And so we crafted, over some 30 years between 1960 and 1990, the myth of this island off the coast of Cape Town.

We drew the link between the class of 1960 and later with the legend of Makana “the left handed”, who was incarcerated on the island for leading some of the early wars against British colonialists.

In song and poetry, the oppressed claimed Robben Island as a monument to their bravery and turned it into an Ivy League for political prisoners.

Like the magical forests in folk tales, its allure is at best exaggerated. Nelson Mandela, Mosiuoa Lekota, Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe, Tokyo Sexwale, Mzi Khumalo and Dikgang Moseneke all had stints on the island.

Yet all are very different men.

The disparate nature of the names on this list alone must dispel the myth that Robben Island made men saintly leaders in some way.

We would be mortified if we heard our children might want to emulate some men from the island.

Robben Island hosted leaders who were great because of their selflessness, commitment to their cause and vision for the future.

They did not become great leaders because of the island. The same applies to leaders in exile.

So instead of placing a disproportionate weight on whether a leader was once exiled or jailed, we would be better served to remember

that leaders are those who, regardless of where they are, meet the challenges of their day, and inspire heroism and a desire to do things differently in those they lead.

Ending up on the island or living in lands far away from loved ones is not enough of a qualification on its own.

It is true that being in prison for a long time affects one’s nature or outlook to some extent, but it doesn’t matter where that prison is.

Spending time, day in and out with particular types of people will eventually have an impact on you, good or bad.

Still, there must be space for personal will and character that prevails long after the sound of the prison gate closing behind you fades.

Those who believe having been on Robben Island or in exile means one is necessarily true to the revolution and its ideals must probably also think that being born in Soweto inevitably gives one more street savvy than someone born in Galeshewe or KwaMashu.

I also had relatives who served time on the island and bore the loneliness of exile, so I am acutely aware of the self-sacrifice of many such men and women. Generations of South Africans will forever be grateful to those who paid the ultimate price so that we might be free.

Indeed, many of those who went to the island and into exile continue to live exemplary lives for the benefit of the society they have always sought to serve, even when it was a dangerous ideal.

Still, it is not enough that leaders in 2012 are still defined by what they did during the war, or where they were jailed, than by what they stand for today and what they can offer in a time of peace.

In thinking of our future society, we might start to craft our ideas of who our leaders are in terms of their vision for the future rather than the glories of their past.

Because we know that sometimes the past can just become a confusing parcel of slogans and myths.

» Follow me on Twitter @fikelelo

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