It isn’t often that I get as deeply moved as I was during my visit to Robben Island, the notorious prison where Nelson Mandela spent most of his 27 years of incarceration.
I had often seen pictures and videos of the infamous courtyard and Mandela’s cell. I had a basic sense of what it would be like and yet, nothing came even close to the powerful – and actually very transformative – experience that Robben Island would turn out to be.
I had just started a month long farm sit in the wine region around Cape Town, a little town called Wellington, in close proximity to Paarl, the place best known for Mandela’s “Walk to Freedom”.
While Cape Town has many beautiful things to offer, visiting Robben Island and paying my respects to the great “Madiba” had been on my bucket list for many years.
The day started with a boat ride on a stunningly beautiful day, seals riding along with us – “Robbe” is the Dutch (and German) word for seal – and even an occasional whale making an appearance.
I love the ocean and the stunning beauty was in stark contrast to what we were about to see. A sad irony of how such horror could be committed amidst such magnificent beauty.
Upon arrival we were greeted by a former political prisoner at Robben Island who was to be our tour guide. A beautiful choice I thought, adding authenticity to an already very intimate experience.
We were first led to “B Section” where Mandela had been kept and visited the courtyard and Mandela’s cell.
While I had heard a lot about the harsh treatment and brutality, the actual story was a lot worse.
B Section was the worst in the entire prison, reserved for the leaders of the rebellion to break them – mentally, physically and emotionally.
Prisoners were no longer addressed by name, but simply by a number. The lights were on 24/7 and prisoners were not allowed to talk to each other.
In the first decades, there were no showers, drinking water was brackish and limited to 2 liters per day, even while working all day in the scorching heat.
Nelson Madella’s CellInstead of a toilet, there was a bucket in each cell – 24/7. No beds, only minimal sheets, no sugar, no shoes and short pants as a further form of humiliation (short pants were reserved for boys, not men, in those days).
Beatings and torture were a regular occurence and letters from loved ones arrived with big holes in them, cutting out most of the text, something the prisoners considered the worst and cruelest form of punishment.
In general, medical care was mostly non-existent. Prisoners frequently died from incorrect drug application, and TB and other severe diseases were rampant.
Mandela and his fellow prisoners were forced to work in a limestone quarry for many hours every day – again without shoes, protective goggles or gloves. The sun reflecting blinding light from the lime stone, hurting their eyes, and the dust permanently harming Mandela’s eyes and clogging up his tear channel.
All of this should have normally made for a haunting, difficult day – and it was on some level – but most of all it left me deeply moved and transformed by the beautiful example Mandela gave us – despite all that horror.
He endured all this for almost 30 years, the best years of his life – unthinkable really – and came out loving and forgiving.
Mandealla quarryWhile there is a lot of disagreement and animosity in this highly unusual country, the one thing everyone agrees on is the greatness of Mandela and the love everyone feels for him.
What I walked away with were 7 powerful, and very transformative insights – “gifts” – as I would call them from a great soul, a beautiful man, one that changed the course of history through kindness and forgiveness.
1 – The Power of Perspective
Seeing and hearing about the cruelty Mandela and his fellow prisoners endured, the complete de-humanization and hopelessness for almost 30 years and actually being in the place where it all happened, put my own life very much into perspective.
I don’t have much to complain about at the moment, but there certainly were other, more difficult times as we all experience in life, and yet, they were small in comparison.
It is really a matter of perspective. I realized that even with little things that may be annoying or frustrating at times, it isn’t really worth the effort of wasting precious time and energy.
Problems are a part of life. They are the spice of life to some degree. keeping things interesting and helping us grow. In the larger scheme of things they don’t usually matter that much and most problems will quickly be forgotten.
These men had problems – real problems – and yet, they found a way to survive and come out stronger!
I try to apply this in my daily life now. When there is a problem or frustration I think of what Mandela went through for 27 years and most of the time that is enough to put things into perspective and focus instead on being grateful for the life I have.
The power of perspective!
2 – The Power of Learning
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
– Nelson Mandela
Verbal communication between Mandela and his fellow prisoners was prohibited at Robben Island, which in itself is a form of torture.
To feed their starving minds, the prisoners would each post information on the wall of a small cave in the limestone quarry where they were forced to work 7 days a week in the glaring sun.
They called it “The University of Life” and everyone wrote a sentence of whatever knowledge each had on the wall for the others to read and educate themselves. Anything, to keep their dying spirits engaged and active.
Eventually, through the intervention of the international red cross prisoners were allowed to participate in distant learning programs and even obtained university degrees, but during those first dark decades, it was a little cave in a limestone quarry, that kept their spirits alive, and gave them a sense of purpose and hope.
“An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop” is an old saying. Yet, these men did anything they could to keep their minds active and alert.
For me, it was a strong reminder of the power of learning and education, and how important it is to properly guide that mind and keep it active.
Whatever we feed it (or not) will influence the course of our lives and how we handle challenges when they come.
A mind well-trained to keep a positive focus, to be active rather than getting lost in endless circles of negative thoughts and angry repetitions, will be much better able to withstand the throngs of despair and sadness when life deals us a serious blow as happens to everyone at some point or other.
Keeping their minds active and that eagerness to learn apparently helped Mandela and his fellow prisoners to not give up and maybe even see a larger purpose in their situation.
It distracted them – even if briefly – from utter despair, pain and hopelessness and helped to get through yet another day until they could find the next lesson on the wall and could share their knowledge again.
The university of Life – what a beautiful name, and what a beautiful example of the power of the human spirit.
3 – The Power of Vision
‘The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days’.
– Nelson Mandela
Having a vision, a purpose – the strong sense of a mission – is probably the most powerful agent of change.
Yes, it took almost 30 years for Mandela. Years spent in hopelessness and despair.
And yet, it seems he was driven by a greater purpose. By a knowledge deep within that in the end, freedom would prevail and it would all be worth it.
During my visit to Robben Island I often wondered how anyone could survive such horror and for so many years. It seemed super human, but I realized that these men – those that did not die or loose their minds – had a purpose and they clung to it with all their life, with every fiber of their being.
It had to be something much larger than just their own miserable existence and I realized it was that sense of purpose.
That mission in life, and the understanding that in order for the vision to become a reality they had to stick around, no matter how painful it was. To be beacons of light and courage in a world of utter darkness.
They gave hope to their fellow countrymen simply by staying alive. The brutal tactics of the Apartheid regime did not break their spirits as was the intention. It made them stronger and even greater symbols of hope and freedom than they would have ever been outside a prison.
4 – The Power of the Human Spirit
“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet
moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”
– Nelson Mandela
If Robben Island stands for anything, it is the power of the human spirit. The power to survive, to stand up for what you believe in and pay the ultimate price.
It seems some people cannot be broken, no matter what happens to them. And clearly, Mandela had cultivated a mindset that kept him focused “toward the sun”, moving forward one step at a time and not allowing himself to give up, no matter what.
He was somehow able to arouse an inner strength and focus that kept him going throughout all these years.
Not too many people would have had that kind of strength, many of us would probably have given up – and it would have been understandable.
But Mandela kept going, kept a positive focus and an iron determination to not ever give up – under any circumstances.
The Power of the Human Spirit.
5 – The Transformative Power of Suffering
There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered. – Nelson Mandela
Robben Island made me aware of the transformative power of suffering. In Mandela’s case taking on extreme measures. I don’t know what kind of man he was before he was imprisoned, but it is clear that after his release he was an examples of kindless, generosity, deep wisdom and love.
It seems there are three ways to respond to extreme suffering:
1) clinging to hatred and the hope for revenge one day
2) giving up: loosing one’s mind or physically die
3) shedding all resentment and hatred, thereby crystallizing to the utmost core of one’s being, because the weight of anger and hatred becomes just too unbearable.
It is the rarest of human beings who will achieve the latter state and then become carriers of light and hope all around the world.
It seems that suffering reduced Mandela to the absolute core of his being and when nothing else was left, his pure essence shone through like a beautiful crystal, a beacon of light, inspiring millions to this day.
In no way do I mean to imply that such extreme suffering – or any suffering – should ever be necessary, deserved or “good” – far from it!
But it seems to have been part of Mandela’s destiny, transforming him from a great and courageous leader of rebellion into one of the greatest, most influential agents of change in human history.
6 – The Power of Forgiveness
One of the most beautiful results of this transformation was Mandela’s power to forgive.
He famously said:
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
Not only is this one of the most beautiful sentences ever said, but it also points to a deep understanding of what freedom truly is:
“Forgiveness liberates the soul; it removes fear. That’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.”
– Nelson Mandela
Forgiveness is actually a synonym for freedom, because while we might be free on the outside, unless we let go of all resentment, hatred or bitterness, we will never truly be free.
“Holding on to resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”
This quote often attributed to the Buddha, is even more succinct.
The power to forgive is the ultimate freedom, and Mandela understood that. Probably learned the hard way after 27 years of unjust inprisonment.
There will never be freedom without forgiveness. It is the final step – and the most beautiful one.
I never understood that as clearly as when I visited Robben Island and was once again reminded of his beautiful quote.
I consider it the most beautiful gift he gave me – and to all of us: Forgive and be free – once and for all!
The Power of Forgiveness.
7 – The Power of Love
It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self- respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home.
I” am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free.” – Nelson Mandela
Once again I am reminded of how universally beloved Mandela is. All over the world, but also in South Africa and by people of all races.
During my 2 months of living and travelling in this amazing country I frequently asked people of various backgrounds how they felt about Mandela and the current state of things.
While I will not cover the latter part in this article, the one unanimous thing was the love and admiration – and deep gratitude – everyone felt for Mandela.
He gave love, forgiveness and hope – and changed the fate of a nation that was about to fall into the throngs of a civil war.
He had given so much love to his people, had sacrificed so much for them, that they were willing to follow him, even when many wanted revenge and blood shed.
Such is the power of love and sacrifice to transform the fury and anger of millions into hope and optimism for a better future.
Like Gandhi who convinced his countrymen to do the unthinkable, it was the great Mandela, leading by example – the example of love – that brought about a transformation and change that few had considered possible only a few years before.
Sacrifice is another synonym for love. The ultimate sacrifice Mandela made – and was happy to make because he loved his people so much – transformed everyone around him as only love can.
The Power of Love!