Mandela's cell becomes a moving history on the move

Cape Town - Standing outside a replica of the tiny cell which was the home of then political prisoner Nelson Mandela for 18 years, has brought back powerful memories for anti-apartheid stalwart Ahmed Kathrada.

On Monday, Uncle Kathy, as he is affectionately known, stared through the window of the tiny room, remembering life on Robben Island.

He himself spent 18 years behind similar bars after being convicted in the 1964 Rivonia treason trial of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the then government.

"Our history is important," he said, following the official opening of the mobile replica cell at Spine Road High School in Mitchells Plain.

"This cell was part of the struggle. While being held here, what we looked forward to in the end was victory. We can’t forget the past. It can never be forgotten. But we must know the future, what we went through to achieve the future. That is more important."

The replica forms part of a Heritage Month campaign, led by the Department of Home Affairs, themed "Madiba, the Good Citizen". It aims to encourage pupils to value the rights and responsibilities of citizenship.

Fellow trialist Andrew Mlangeni set down his cane and laid down on the mat in the corner of the cell, similar to the one in which he had been imprisoned.

"This is how we slept," he explained, struggling back onto his feet.

"[Young people] don’t know where we come from. But hopefully a replica such as this one will show our youth that we weren’t given the freedom on a silver platter. We fought for it, and people sacrificed their lives for us to be where we are today."

Eddie Daniels and Ahmed Kathrada look into the cell. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

'We are here because of them'

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba explained that the replica of the iconic cell would be travelling to schools across the country.

Accompanying it would be a mobile home affairs office, which would allow pupils to apply for their smart ID card.

"We are teaching them about the country’s history and heritage to help them to envision a better future than the one we are coming from," he said.

"It’s of no use to us to only teach our youth about where we come from. That is not where they themselves are going; they are going toward the future. We need to help them envision a future and to capture that in their imagination."

For Strandfontein High School pupil Osas Asemita, seeing the stalwarts and the tiny cell that held the "most famous South African in history" was a defining moment.

"We are here because of them," he said. 

"If you don’t know who they are and what they did, you are not a true South African. What they did for us as a country is amazing. We are here because of them. I am so proud to be here and to acknowledge their role in our history."

Fellow Rivonia trialist and Robben Island inmate Andrew Mlangeni in the cell. (Tammy Petersen, News24)

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