Part of our coursework for the study abroad program is to learn the history of South Africa. Sometimes Americans can feel slightly removed from the political unrest and the fight for the freedom of all people when much of the action happened 5 decades ago. It is very different in South Africa because the political unrest happened just a few years ago.
Nelson Mandela’s story is a powerful one. He brought a racially charged country back together in times of great hardships and became the first black president of South Africa. He was imprisoned for 27 years for his part in the civil rights movement here and he spent most of his time on Robben Island. I got a chance to tour the political prison with some extremely amazing people. We went with Ed Larson (a Pulizter Prize winning historian), the granddaughter of Albert Luthuli (1st black African Nobel Peace Prize winner and former president of the African National Congress) and Ahmed Kathrada (Mandela’s former cellmate and activist). It was a very powerful experience hearing from someone who spent a large portion of his life in prison simply because he wanted the same rights and freedoms alloted to the white population. My time on Robben Island made me really reflect on what was important in my life. What I would be willing to lay my life down for? What cause do I care about enough to spend 3 decades in prison for?
After the tour of the island I went to the District Six and Slave Lodge Museums. The District Six Museum honors the forcible removal of thousands of black residents of a vibrant Cape Town neighborhood. The non-whites were kicked out of the region and all of the buildings were demolished. The Slave Lodge Museum (aka South African Cultural History Museum) was built to house slaves by the Dutch East India Company in 1679. 9,000 slaves, convicts and mentally ill persons were housed here for over a century and the building now serves as a museum to tell their stories.