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Mandela Mourners Seek Closure at Robben Island

  • Henry Ridgwell

After 10 days of official mourning, Nelson Mandela’s body has been laid to rest. On Robben Island off Cape Town, where Mandela was imprisoned, visitors are coming together seeking some kind of closure after an emotional week for South Africa.

Crossing the rolling swells of Table Bay, the old boats that once carried prisoners to Robben Island are now packed with well-wishers coming to pay their respects at the site of Nelson Mandela’s incarceration.

He spent 18 of his 27 years in jail on this island, alongside dozens of other political prisoners.

Among them was Vusumzi Mcongo, who was jailed here for 12 years. He now works as a tour guide.

“People come to mourn every day in different ways. To give him their last respects. And we have to respect that; the people actually say they have lost a father,” he said.

Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island, South Africa, Dec. 14, 2013. Henry Ridgwell for VOA.

Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island, South Africa, Dec. 14, 2013. Henry Ridgwell for VOA.

Prisoners were forced to toil day after day in the island’s lime quarry, where the harsh light permanently damaged Mandela’s eyesight. The tiny damp cell, now a simple shrine to his memory, also contributed to his ill health in later years.
But former prisoners here say they did not want Robben Island to become a monument to suffering and hardship, but rather to the triumph of the human spirit over the forces of evil.

And that triumph, says Mcongo, was personified in Nelson Mandela.

“He was an inspiration to us. As some of the other prisoners that were here, he led us. He gave us that leadership and education. The country and the world at large have lost a hero of a different epoch,” he said.

Many visitors hope a visit here offers a chance to come to terms with Mandela’s death.

“It is kind of like seeking for closure. It is a tragedy. I do not know how to explain it. It has been hard. And it is going to take a while,” said Amanda Tshabalala who is from Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island, South Africa, Dec. 14, 2013. Henry Ridgwell for VOA.

Nelson Mandela's former prison cell on Robben Island, South Africa, Dec. 14, 2013. Henry Ridgwell for VOA.

William Dikotsi from Johannesburg says the visit brings home the enormity of Nelson Mandela’s achievements.

“Today we realized that what Mandela did was best for this country. Because he avoided the bloodshed. He avoided what is happening in other African countries. And we never [not only] lost a leader, we lost a father,” he said.

Behind the prison walls, forced to endure degrading treatment at the hands of the white prison guards, Nelson Mandela forged the political courage that would offer his country a future beyond apartheid.

And it is to this remote island where thousands of people come to salute that courage; and to say simply, "Thank you, Madiba."
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