Whenever you visit Robben Island you cannot help asking yourself the question: “what would it have been like for Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners to have been incarcerated there ?”
The infamous island prison, just a few miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa is, of course, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years imprisoned. Flat and exposed to bitterly cold Antarctic winds or searing heat, this island was always the definition of a harsh and unforgiving environment.
As I walked around the prison - now a national monument and tourist attraction - the high barbed-wired topped walls reflected a piercing light and an almost oppressive heat onto the former concreted exercise yards, once used by prisoners as a small respite from hours of solitary confinement.
“What would it have been like?” I kept asking myself, to have spent the best years of your life here.
Nelson Mandela arrived at the island in the winter of 1964 where, with all other prisoners, he was forced to do hard labour in a quarry. He only received one visitor a year, and then for just 30 minutes. With only a bucket for a toilet, a concrete floor for a bed, mealy for food and confined to a small cell, he adopted a stance of dignified defiance which over the years won-over even the most brutal prison official -some of whom he befriended. Mandela later wrote, “strong convictions are the secret of surviving deprivation; your spirit can be full even when your stomach is empty.”
As I photographed, I thought of the old adage: “if only these walls could speak, what tales they could tell”. There is a brutal simplicity to the prison’s institutional architecture, occasionally broken - as if a symbol of eternal hope - by the occasional colourful plant. I pointed the camera, the photograph would tell its own story, I thought.
There is a real sense of feeling here –a quiet, still, dignified feeling that reflects Mandela himself and others that were incarcerated here with him - that is almost palpable. This place, more than any other I’ve visited is truly representative of the universal struggle against injustice and oppression - and the fight for freedom for all individuals, everywhere.
“But, what would it have been like?” I kept asking myself. Could I have survived this for 18 years and then forgiven my jailers and my oppressors?