On Robben Island (South Africa Journey, Part 5)

(This is the fifth of six journal entries from my January pilgrimage to South Africa.)

“John Dear standing below the open window of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, on Robben Island, Jan. 2014”

We left Port Elizabeth and drove all day along the magnificent Southern coast of South Africa, along the famous “Garden Route” to Cape Town. It was a glorious ride, through Tsitsikamma, Knysna and George, passed Mossel Bay to Riversdale toward Cape Town. But it was surprising to see no one swimming in the ocean along the beautiful beaches. The waters are infested with sharks. One can only swim in designated places where underwater fences have been installed. Just last month, a surfer was eaten by a Great White Shark.
On the outskirts of Cape Town, we saw the ravages of poverty—tin shacks for miles and miles where a million people scrap to get by. The divide between the very poor and the very rich has grown over the years, and South Africa may now have the greatest economic extreme of any nation.
We made our way north around Cape Town toward our hotel near Milnerton. Once there, we walked down to the white beach. Because of the peninsula shape, we looked out across the ocean directly at the city of Cape Town with the flat top Table Mountain standing majestically behind it. The sun began to set, and we were overwhelmed by the beautiful sight.
It is easy to see why so many people consider Cape Town the most beautiful city on the planet. Located on a small peninsula at the southern tip of Africa, it stands on the Atlantic Ocean, though on the other side of its mountains, one can swim in the Indian Ocean. The city is full of historic buildings, modern shopping malls, a thriving port, and endless beaches, parks and hiking trails, all spread out below Table Mountain and the oceans.
We spent our first day on top of Table Mountain. We took the cable car up, walked the paths and stood speechless looking out at the amazing vistas—one hundred miles in every direction over both oceans and distant mountains, and below us, the city of Cape Town. It was thrilling.
Afterwards, late in the afternoon, my friend Fr. Ray East and I took a taxi to the home of Fr. Michael Lapsley, the famous Anglican priest and ANC leader who had been exiled during the 1980s for his leadership against apartheid. In 1990, three months after Mandela’s release from prison, he received an envelope in the mail from the security forces. When he opened it, a massive bomb exploded. He lost both hands and one eye, and suffered many other major injuries and burns. By some miracle, he survived, and now he lectures around the world on healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. He told us of his work, his travels, the current political crises in South Africa, and his passion to expand the personal healing work of Christ to cities and nations as well, that we could begin to experience what he called “social healing.”
“Michael’s life is part of the tapestry of the many long journeys and struggles of our people,” Nelson Mandela once said. His latest book, “Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer,” is just out.
Michael’s a living saint, and a sign of hope for the world. It was a great blessing to spend time with him in his home.
Then we spent a full day on Robben Island, the notorious prison where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid freedom fighters were imprisoned for decades. First, we drove downtown to the Waterfront shopping center, to the Robben Island Ferry. It was another hot, sunny day, and my friends and I boarded a small boat and headed out into the Atlantic Ocean toward the island, with Cape Town and Table Mountain behind us. Along the way, we saw seals, and possibly one shark.
Once there, we boarded a bus and embarked on a long driving tour around the entire island. Our young guide was a brilliant, eloquent anti-apartheid activist who told us the details of the struggle, the horrors of the prison, and the complete history of the island.
The great irony: it was spectacularly beautiful. We saw the houses where the guards lived, their church, and their bar. We learned about the leper colony in the 1800s, and saw their graves. Whenever we stopped, we watched the penguins standing on the rocky shores. Somewhere in the middle of the island, we were brought to the notorious lime quarry where Mandela and the others were forced to hammer at the rock for over six hours a day. They nearly went blind because of the constant dust and the glare of sunlight on the white lime cliffs. We stood there and said a prayer.
Finally, we came to the prison. We were led through the entire prison by a former prisoner, a man who spent some seven years behind bars for his work against apartheid.
It was hard to take it all in. So much suffering, injustice, grief and loss. And yet, it was so inspiring because this is where Mandela and the others studied and prepared for the liberation to come. I was profoundly moved by the whole experience. It certainly brought back memories of my own time behind bars.
Standing at Mandela’s cell was particularly heart-wrenching and inspiring. To think how he inspired the others, the nation, and the world from this cell, and how he emerged with a new spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation to lead the nation! One could only pray and give thanks and feel renewed to carry on the struggle for justice and peace.
Back at the dock to catch the ferry to Cape Town, I studied the massive murals along the wall. It showed Mandela and others in three stages of their lives and their nation’s recent history. Below their faces were the large words (the size of billboards)—“Repression,” “Release,” and “Resurrection.”
It was the first time I’ve ever seen the word “Resurrection” used to describe a moment in the history of a nation. Despite South Africa’s violence, crime, poverty, and corruption, I could almost taste that spirit of resurrection. With Robben Island and Cape Town, my pilgrimage has come full circle. I could see how the nonviolent struggle for justice leads to new life, new victories, and new openings for peace.
I sat on the top deck of the boat for the ride back, taking in the sunlight, the refreshing wind, and the approaching view of Table Mountain and Cape Town. As we road the ocean waters, I felt energized to carry on the struggle for justice and peace, as Mandela and his comrades did, and determined anew to play my part in working for a new world without war, poverty, racism or violence.
Resurrection indeed! The journey of social healing continues.
(The last installment will feature my day with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Cape Town.)