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Mandela Legend Grew At Robben Island

  • Mariama Diallo

President Barack Obama is expected to visit Robben Island during his stop in South Africa. The island has a long history as a place to put political prisoners. But for most people these days, it's best known as the place that held one of the most famous prisoners of the 20th century - South African activist, and later president, Nelson Mandela.

Robben Island is located in the southwestern part of South Africa, a 17-hour drive from Johannesburg and just a few kilometers offshore from Cape Town. It's a tourist attraction now - but its history as a place of oppression goes back centuries. Professor Sulayman Nyang is with the African studies department at Howard University.

“I think it’s a very important way of keeping the memory alive," said Nyang. "Museums play a big role in doing that.... Robben Island experience is one of hundreds if not thousands around the world where human beings are trying to preserve the memories, the images, the objects that underscore the human experience."

Robben Island was used to hold political prisoners as far back as the 1600's. But its modern reputation dates primarily to South Africa's apartheid era.

Carol Thompson, from Northern Arizona University in the United States, was an anti-apartheid activist during the 1960s.

“Robben Island is a symbol of oppression and just tremendous suffering by everyone who's been incarcerated there," said Thompson.

By everyone, Thompson means a long list of political activists - including Jacob Zuma, the current South African president; Govan Mbeki, father of former president Thabo Mbeki; and Walter Sizulu, a former African National Congress activist.

Christo Brand was posted at Robben Island as a prison warden in 1978. Having come from a rural farming background, he says he didn’t know much about one of the prison’s most famous inmates - Nelson Mandela.

“After a month and a half working in Robben Island, one of my uncles asked: have you seen Mandela? I said yes, he is just a normal prisoner like the others. Somebody special for me was Walter Sizulu," said Brand.

Mandela spent decades in prison cell number 46664. He was jailed in 1964 - tried for treason and sabotage - and sentenced to life in prison.

Yet, as Christo Brand told- it, he rose above his surroundings.

“I asked Mandela one question: don’t you hate the people of South Africa, what they've done to you? He said to me, ‘Mr. Brand, I can never hate white people; I can hate the system which was in place that put oppression and brainwashed the white people of South Africa because most of my friends are all white,'" said Brand.

Hlonipha Mokoena, an anthropology professor at Columbia University in New York, grew up in South Africa during apartheid. She says Mandela was incarcerated for so long, she had no idea what the man looked like.

“As a child you create this image in your mind of a person who was larger than life and who was out there in prison," said Mokoena. "You couldn’t even visualize who he was because the pictures of Nelson Mandela were banned under apartheid."

When Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Alvin Andrews was working as a cameraman for ABC-TV. He says he waited for hours alongside hundreds of other journalists for Mandela to walk out.

“I remember as Mandela got to the gate, I was picked up by somebody, it was my soundman," said Andrews. "He put me on his shoulder and ran forward and all of a sudden I found myself over Madiba [Mandela] himself and Mandela turned and he kind of looked up. I think it made him realize that his life was going to change forever.”

And as Mandela's life changed, South Africa changed with it. A fact brought home, perhaps, by the sight of tourists treading the ground where men once spent their lives behind bars.