On July 6th we set off by ferry to visit Robben Island, a prison where political prisoners (most noteably Nelson Mandela) and people with leprosy were sent. 769 political prisoners were held on Robben Island during apartheid. Political prisoners, often considered more dangerous than criminals, were brutally tortured by their guards on Robben Island. Even while prisoners were sent to Robben for the same reasons (causing political unrest), everyone were still treated differently based on race (i.e. colored prisoners were given better food than black prisoners). The matter of the fact was that even on Robben Island where people were convicted of the same “crimes” and, away from mainland and the heart of apartheid, individuals not thought of as equals.
[meal chart for Robben Island prisoners]
[our Robben Island tour guide that was also imprisoned during apartheid]
After the end of apartheid, the healing process began through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC offered these guards that had so brutally abused prisoners amnesty, while freed prisoners were left with the reminder, pain, and marks of imprisonment on their bodies. The truth of the TRC was that it was a system-like many other governmental imposed systems- that benefited the wealthy or those that had the money to be represented well in court. However, what people didn’t expect was that in fact the TRC gave those without monetary support the ability to utilize the power of their voice. While there were 769 prisoners, everyone was a Mandela. Each individual that served their time on Robben island exemplified what it really means to fight for what you know is right.
[entrance mural at Robben Island]
On July 18, Mandela’s birthday, everyone comes together and performs 67 minutes of service to commemorate the 67 years of service Mandela gave to South Africa. At Yabonga, spirits were high and excitement filled the air as everyone part of the Yabonga community was preparing to contribute to the 67 minutes of service. Yabonga teamed up with REDISA (recycling and economic development in South Africa) to plant little tire gardens (vegetables planted in old tires) and put turf mats in the back area. As everyone was smiling and playing around with the paint, I was reminded of the reason we all came together: to honor all 769 Mandelas that fought for the democratic freedom of South Africa. While July 18 celebrates the life of an incredible man that is Nelson Mandela, we remember that the journey towards the new South Africa could not have been made without the support of all fighting for the freedom of South Africa.
To end our journey on such a special day truly left an inspiring mark on my time in South Africa. I feel so blessed to have learned about the community I live in and about myself as a human, student, and learner of this world. I can only appreciate the moments I have been afforded whether they be good or bad because at least I have learned from them and have hopefully made a difference in, if not someone’s life, then in my own life. Cheers to the day we reunite again, South Africa, and thank you for being a part of the most amazing time of my life!
Arlene Bigirimana '16