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Robben Island - do we simply shrug our shoulders?

03 January 2014, 10:33

And say: I’m ok so everything must be cool hey?

We simply have to learn from the mistakes of the past, including those of the period 1994-2013. Many of us have been reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela and of course history of South Africa. As former President Thabo Mbeki said so aptly ‘We thank Nelson Mandela and his generation for the sacrifices they made, and were prepared to make’ and ‘Nelson Mandela was an outstanding representative of an outstanding cause’

I had the opportunity to visit Robben Island in 2004. Although I understood the significance of the place I did not make the most of the experience. Nevertheless, I was shocked to see the size of the cells where they were kept for so long. Toilet facility was a small bucket with a lid?  How could they remain sane in that type of environment for so long? And don’t tell me that is how it goes in prisons – remember why they were there in the first place!

So I wanted to go right back to the 60s, 70s and 80s. There are enough photos of Madiba, Govan Mbeki, Sisulu and others to get a reasonable picture of circumstances on Robben Island back then. Saw a photo of Madiba working in the garden, holding a spade with the subtitle: ‘a prisoner working in the garden.’ I watched hours’ video clips on Youtube.  Robben Island is referred to as a ‘place of triumph of the human spirit’ but for a big chunk of their lives victory must have looked completely impossible.

At this point I would like to say that I strongly dislike speaking in colour or racial terms. As far as I am concerned it is not a man’s ‘outer shell’ that defines him, but his inner man. However, the difficulty with a subject of this nature is that the message is lost without spelling out what you mean. So bear with me.

Ahmed Kathrada (or Kathy as he is affectionately known) was the first tour guide. He told of the humiliation that Madiba, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki and other Black prisoners had to endure upon arrival. Not that it should have surprised him as it was a mere continuation of policies on the main land. Their approximate ages were as follows upon arrival on Robben Island: Govan Mbeki: 54; Walter Sisulu: 52; Nelson Mandela: 46 and Ahmed Kathrada: 35. Kathrada relates how when they received their prison clothes that him being Indian was given long trousers but Blacks received shorts and sandals and no underwear! The prison authorities used this to bring division between the different races even in jail: if you want to break up a good friendship you simply reward the one and punish the other and they themselves will do the rest.

When asked how he would describe the island in one word, Kathy said ‘cold’ – cold food, cold winds from the sea, cold warders, cold floors, cold beds –Cape winter are cold and wet at the same time. Other petty things: Indian and Coloureds would get more sugar or they will get jam or syrup, whereas Africans would not get at all! And of course white political prisoners were not sent to Robben Island but were kept at Pretoria Central.

They had absolute (political and economic) power on Robben Island and on the main land. They may inform a prisoner that he will be receiving a visit on such and such a date, get his hopes up and then: no visit or they will find a reason why a prisoner is not allowed to see the visitor. A myriad of tactics aimed at bringing about despondency. And as you will appreciate I’m only scratching the surface here.

Many people think of Apartheid as a racist system. And it was, but its true power was what it did for a small section of the population economically. It benefited the few at the expense of the many. The cherry on the cake was of course the false religious beliefs that were used to justify the evil. In 1994 for instance 87% of the land was in white hands. Shocking isn’t it? I said, it’s shocking isn’t it? The Sunday Times recently published what they referred to as the ‘The rich list’ of South Africa. Under the big earners they listed 128 names: there were less than 10 Black (African, Coloured & Indian) South Africans among them.

Census 2011 revealed that 80% of South Africans are African or Black. Whites make up 8.7% of the national population. Thus 8.7% of the population were among more than 90% of the top earners. And it seems that there are simply no mechanisms in place to improve this situation. Or are the mechanisms there but not the will? How accurate is this list? Well, the current president’s name was not on it so it’s definitely not 100%, but I think there is enough for us to make meaningful conclusions. However the complete picture may even be worse.

For far too many people ‘national reconciliation’ means ‘we get to keep all our privileges.’ And this is the dilemma that South Africa faces right now, besides the challenge of poor (political) leadership: the gap between rich and poor seems to be widening, so we are losing ground almost with every passing day.

We will have to find a more capable political leadership going forward as a start. But the private sector in my view must do more. It seems that the South African economy is being reduced to a ‘Billionaire’s Club’ and the rest of us are spectators as we watch who gets to R5 billion, R 10 billion first, and so on. By now you’re probably saying: But Elijah, all over the world there are rich people and poor people. I know. What I am saying is that we will all be better off if more of the country’s wealth is distributed to more South Africans. It is good that we can all vote, but better if increasingly more people have the means to pay for their children’s education for instance. The cumulative effect of more people getting a decent education will transform the country a lot faster.

At this time our country is in need of 21st century Mandelas, Mbekis, Kathradas and Sisulus. And by the way, they need not be Black. Colour or race has never been a prerequisite to act with integrity: we can all do it! We all have to work to set the captive free.

But we will wait in vain if we fail to take the lessons from the past it into the future. 

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