The lasting memory is of the smallness and grayness of things. Capetown is such a beautiful place, mountains here, the water there, the bluest skies, splashes of color and life in every direction. The ferry ride to Robben Island was choppy, a bit unsteady, but beautiful still. The edges of Robben Island were lush and green. Through the dusty windows of the bus that took us to the prison, the island could have been a park as much as anything else.
And then, the prison where political prisoners were held and tortured and worked during Apartheid, and everything was so small, so gray, so bleak. Suffocating. It only took a minute, two minutes, five minutes, for the air of the prison and the yard where prisoners had walked and the rock quarry where they hammered at stones to invade your insides and steal anything resembling happiness or hope from you. Our guide, like all the guides at Robben Island, was a prisoner himself. He spoke in this matter of fact tone that was, in its own way, more haunting than if he had spoken through tears. He did not talk about his own experience except when asked. And then he spoke of the prisoner as if it had been someone else.
“Why do you stay?” we asked.
“To tell people what happened,” he said. “Someone must.”
Of course, we had come to see Robben Island because of Mandela. This was during the 2010 World Cup, a tournament buzzing with vuvuzelas and drumbeats and friendliness — it was mostly an ecstatic celebration of the moment and of a new South Africa, inspired by Nelson Mandela himself. Mandela was sick, everyone said — how sick, nobody was certain — but he was still present, sometimes in body (he showed up to wave to the crowd during the World Cup final) and always in spirit.
There was something else in South Africa, something harder to explain, an edge, a hint of danger, barbed wire in Johannesburg, people walking in tattered clothes along the road to Rustenberg, a constant warning from locals to be sure to stay on this side of the mountain in Capetown. This was the nation Mandela had somehow brought together, and sometimes the strain of that togetherness seemed close to bursting. But it held. Spirit held it together. His spirit, mostly.
Mandela believed in the power of sports to make people see each other in a new way. He boxed as a young man, and famously after he was elected president he embraced the South African rugby team, the Springboks — a symbol to many of Apartheid itself— when they played at the World Cup. “Sports can change the world,” he would say.
But the sports story that stuck in my mind as we walked around the prison was of the soccer matches that would be played on Robben Island. Our guard told us that he had played in many of these games. When we asked what that was like, we expected him to talk about how those games made him feel. Instead, he said something unexpected. “I was fast,” he said. “And I could score goals.”
Mandela never played in these games — as a political prisoner, he was not allowed to play — but he would watch them through the bars of his window until they built a wall blocking his view. And then, he said, he would try to listen for the sounds and imagine he heard them. He was in the prison for almost 19 years, and he would say that it was seemingly little things like listening for the sounds of soccer or the power of the poem “Invictus” that pulled him through and left him intact.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
I remember only a few blurry details of the prison. I remember the dirt field where soccer was played and the bushes where, the guard told us, Mandela would hide pages he had written of his experience. I remember the quarry where Mandela and the other prisoners would hammer at stone, turning it to gravel, the most numbing and painful of jobs. I remember Mandela’s cell, the hard floor that looked too small for Mandela to lay down in without bending, the small window that was higher on the wall than you expected, the walls with all their small cracks.
But even those things, I barely recall. What I remember most is the smallness and bleakness. Even as a visitor, long after the place had been a prison, you couldn’t breathe. Everything closed in on you. Nineteen years. How? How could the distant sounds of soccer or the words of a poem or the smallest kindnesses of guards or anything else pierce through all this uncompromising hopelessness? Here, Mandela endured daily cruelty, torture, the flying chips of the stones he smashed, the foul stench of food that could never satisfy his hunger, the daily indignity of being treated like something less than human and … how?
Mandela did not only survive his imprisonment here, he soared beyond it, leaving his anger and bitterness behind in an effort to help create a new nation. How? What was it about him — what is it that a human being has inside— that could allow him to emerge on the other side? I apparently had hoped that visiting Robben Island would offer answers. Instead, it only made the questions more difficult.
I went to Robben Island with a friend, and we comforted each other’s sea sickness on the ferry ride over, and we talked on the bus to the prison, and we walked together much of the time, but we never said a word to each other after that. Even after we left, we did not speak on the ferry ride back. Back in Capetown, we did not relive what we had seen. For me, on that ride back, I found the specifics of Robben Island were already leaving me. I looked in my notebook to try and remember, but saw that I had only written down words like “desolate,” and “lonely” and “hopeless.”
I e-mailed my friend when Nelson Mandela died to ask what she remembered about our trip to Robben Island. She wrote back: “I don’t even recall who I even went with to Robben Island, the experience was so solemn and internal. Was it you?”