The world is celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95 in South Africa, and I am remembering a wonderful week I had in Cape Town in 2009. It was June – autumn in that part of the globe – and the choppy water in Table Bay caused cancellation again and again of the scheduled boat to Robben Island. It took four tries, but on the last day before my departure, I was able to get there and stand in the same prison cell where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years’ incarceration.
This was my second trip to Africa with my cousin, Dorothy Woodson, who is curator of the African Collection at Yale University Library. In 1994, she had been a Fulbright Fellow in Cape Town, charged with sorting through and archiving voluminous boxes of written materials of Mandela and other political prisoners from Robben Island. She described the experience this week in the Yale News as follows:
“What a heady task this was. Reading messages written on little pieces of toilet paper that the members of the African National Congress ‘High Command’ wrote to each other, revealed rich insights into the daily lives of this most unusual gathering of men…(Mandela’s) leadership, even under prison conditions and restrictions, was clearly evident as he encouraged his colleagues to pursue further education in the form of correspondence courses and guided their political education by the reading of scholarly works. ‘Robben Island University’, as it was called, created a new cadre of intellectuals subscribing to Mandela’s goal of creating a non-racial South Africa.”
In the course of her project, Dorothy had spent great deal of time on the island or traveling back and forth between the island and the mainland. It was understandable that she had no interest this time in accompanying me on my one and only visit there. Besides, she was in Cape Town to attend a book fair. I tagged along with her to several sessions there and elsewhere, including several social occasions where her large circle of friends and associates were anxious to see and entertain her.
Everywhere I went I marveled at the diverse mixture of people and thought how well Mandela’s hopes were being realized. It is a work in progress of course, and I was not brave enough to face a visit to any of the all black townships where people still live in poverty. I glimpsed a vast expanse of slums with their shacks and shanties from the roadway, and while a tour such as the guidebook suggested would bring needed funds to the area, I could not do it. I did, however, buy intricate beadwork done by women in the townships and sold for them by a non-profit organization. One piece, of which I bought several, was a magnetized portrait of Barack Obama. Afterward, I entered a nearby shop where the shopkeeper announced almost immediately, “I LOVE your President!” “Yes,” I said, “so do a great many of us. Also his wife, Michelle.” “Oh, I don’t care about her,” she said. “But him I love.” I laughed and showed her my bead portraits, one of which remains on our refrigerator door.
Both the President and Mrs. Obama will be in South Africa for Mandela’s funeral services. I hope that shopkeeper gets a glimpse of them, if only on TV.
[Photos: top – plus.google.com; bottom – Mr. Apartheid Puppet created by a German anti-apartheid organization, on display at Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island]