On 11 February 1990 I was on-call as a young GP, snatching a breather between morning and afternoon surgeries, when I was drawn to the television screen in the surgery waiting room. I watched, mesmerised, as Nelson Mandela emerged from Victor Verster prison after twenty-seven year’s incarceration. His long walk to freedom had become a reality.
It was a signal of hope, marking the beginning of the dissolution of apartheid. When Mandela became South Africa’s first black President in 1994 it was a sign of better things to come.
Eighteen of his twenty seven years in jail were spent on Robben Island. Thirty years on from his release I was both fortunate to be able to travel there, and keen to visit out of respect for this remarkable man.
Formerly a leper colony, today Robben Island is a tourist destination, approximately seven kilometres from Cape Town. Its name comes from the Afrikaan’s word for seals, which used to populate the island in large colonies. Today visitors are more likely to catch sight of Cape penguins, or the occasional springbok.
Our guide for the morning was Jacob*, a former prisoner. He escorted us round the prison blocks, showed us where Mandela was imprisoned in a seven foot square cell, and described the daily toil in the nearby limestone quarry. I was curious to know what had compelled Jacob to return as a guide, after a twelve year jail sentence for ‘being a member of an illegal organisation.’ His answer was simple. ‘It is important for me to tell my story myself and not allow the truth to be distorted by a third party.’ For that reason it would be wrong for me to reproduce it here. It is Jacob’s story, not mine, but it was both moving and inspirational to hear him talk with soft humility. In a quiet moment away from the group he reassured me that he was also writing his story down as a lasting memoir for his family.
Jacob’s account prompted me to re-read Mandela’s autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom. It certainly had more resonance for me now as a visitor to South Africa. However I felt confused and conflicted in my understanding of the cultures, the economy and the future of this vast and complex country. Mandela, or Madiba, the clan name by which he was affectionately known, served one term as President of South Africa. Who can forget his appearance at the rugby World Cup in 1995, when he united a rainbow nation by wearing a Springbok rugby shirt, in a symbol of reconciliation? Since those heady days, however, competing narratives have been well documented in the press, and a sense of disenchantment seems to prevail. This appeared to be reinforced by the State of the Nation address by current President Cyril Ramaphosa during the week of my visit. It led me to cast my reading net even further. I can recommend both Beyond the Miracle- Inside the New South Africa by Allister Sparks, and Understanding South Africa by Carien du Plessis and Martin Plaut, to appreciate both South Africa’s history, and its future. Du Plessis and Plaut concur that South Africa is ‘ an extraordinary land with many peoples. It is a Janus-faced nation: diverse and divided; harmonious and confrontational, that defies simple explanations.’ I feel very lucky that I had the opportunity to experience it and I’m grateful to Jacob for sharing his story.
*not his real name