There are very few true leaders in the world. A leader in my estimation is a person who inspires and demonstrates a path  by example. There are even fewer people who stand out in a global way and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela has to be counted among them.

My knowledge of the brutal goings on during apartheid was relegated to snippets I heard as a young person. In coming to South Africa in 2012, I have challenged myself to try to understand just how far this country has come. To do this, I had to get a better understanding of where this country has been.

What I have found is a complex situation and one that would take me much longer to explore than my time here will allow. I know that as a Canadian and as a mother of bi-racial children it has been a stretch for me to try to wrap my brain around them being anything other than ‘equal’. This would have been the case under Apartheid. From the way that it has been explained to me, they would have been considered ‘Coloured.”

I thought before coming here that the tensions were primarily Black vs White only to find this other group known as Coloured and that the Whites are in fact English or Afrikaaner and not simply White.  Interestingly though, what I have observed and heard as I have listened to people’s stories is a willingness to acknowledge the past and find a way forward. This is cause for optimism.

That fact was permanently cemented for me on a trip to Robben Island, a half hour ride on a packed ferry off the coast of Capetown. Robben Island has been around since the 1600’s and has been used in numerous ways from leper colony to mental institution to prison facility. Nelson Mandela was held there for 18 of his 27 year political incarceration.

The tour had two parts: the first was a bus ride around the island. Our guide was a young man named Mpkilelewho was 11 when Mandela was elected and spoke with pride about his country and the new face of South Africa:

Mpkilele went through the bus asking passengers for their nationality and thanking their country for having helped South Africa. For instance, he thanked Canada who, along with Norway, had secretly funded the ANC. He thanked the Americans because Andrew Young who was then the mayor of Atlanta, adopted the four children of political prisoner Robert Sobukwe and looked after them in their father’s absence. He thanked Ireland for the missionaries that looked after the lepers. He thanked Holland for sending back oranges that South Africa tried to sell them under a different label while they had sanctions against them.

The second part of the tour was through the prison. Our guide was a man who said we could call him Zozo. He was brought to Robben Island in 1977 as a political prisoner having been tried and convicted as one of the people involved in the Soweto uprisings. He was 22 when he arrived and was not released for 14 years.  His point of view was personal, matter of fact and beyond moving for me.

He was thorough in his description of life in the prison. One of the things that came away with me is the fact that 69% of South Africa’s constitution was created on Robben Island by Mandela and the other prisoners. Some of the most brilliant minds ended up together on Robben Island and found a way to educate and elevate each other. Zozo was on Robben Island while Mandela was still there.

Seeing Mandela’s cell was sobering. The reality of how he had to live there is a testament to the human spirit. The cell can’t be more than about 6feet by 10ft. When he arrived in 1964 it was wintertime and although still temperate by Toronto standards, without warm clothing it would have been cold and damp. The cell contained a mat, a thin blanket and a bucket used as a toilet. The prisoners worked in a lime quarry without shelter and where many ended up with serious eye problems from the dust and unbearable glare. It was beyond difficult.

So many years and by all accounts Mandela made his time in prison count. He wrote his autobiography in secret. He encouraged and counselled and prepared for the day that would finally come in 1990 that signaled his freedom.  In 1994, Mandela was elected as the first president in that country’s first democratic election. As far as I can tell he is revered and respected by all.  I have heard speculation that without his guidance there was fear the country might have imploded. He is credited with helping South Africans move forward peacefully.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Nelson MandelaLong Walk to Freedom

“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 MandelaLong Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela

I don’t understand everything I have seen. I  clearly have lots more to learn. Even with all the questions, I am glad I came.