Before the sun cut through the morning’s winter chill, we were fed and on a bus set off for the Cape Town harbor; from the harbor, we took a boat to Robben Island. Robben Island is the place where Nelson Mandela as well as other political prisoners were held for defying apartheid. One such political prisoner was our tour guide, a man named Thulani Mabaso. At the young age of 15, he was captured and brutally tortured for fighting against apartheid. Learning this was one of many humbling moments of the day.
During our interview with Thulani, I was shocked to hear the stories about his horrific incarceration and I was humbled by his vulnerability and openness in sharing his experiences with complete strangers. I was left in awe by his conviction and strength of will. He told us about participating in hunger strikes so long that he was forced to eat in a hospital. Lastly, I was put into a pure state of wonder and I was left humbled by his ability to forgive and move on. This was a man who was tortured for months without trial and constantly degraded and abused by authority figures. A man whose world was unjust. Yet, despite these extreme injustices this was also a man who, once released, treated one of his guards to dinner. His ability to believe in the good in the world, forgive, let go and move on, and the way he turned anger into focus and drive, left me and my classmates in awe.
From the canyons of emotions that we traversed with Thulani, we traveled into the heights of Table Mountain. The views from what I would call the peak of the mountain, if it were not flat as a table, left me in almost as much awe as Thulani had. At the top of Table Mountain was the first time it truly struck me that I was in South Africa. As I stood at the top, I turned to my left to see the southern tip of Africa whose curvature I knew from maps, and to my right stretched the expanse of South Africa’s coast off into the mist. It was then, with the expanse of the continent before me, that I could reflect on the legacy that we stood upon. Just as I stood upon Table Mountain, I stood on the shoulders of all those classes that came before me. Each interview feels like an extension of the last trip, as we get to continue our journey deeper towards the heart of South Africa.
Today we traveled to Robben Island, the prison where Nelson Mandela and many others were imprisoned for years. We got the incredible opportunity to interview Thulani Mabaso, a former political prisoner there. The interview was powerful, horrifying, and deeply saddening, yet somehow at the same time it empowered me. Although I haven’t done many interviews, I can almost guarantee that this interview will have been one of the most moving interviews of my entire life. I will never forget our time spent with Thulani.
The boat ride from the mainland to the island took about 20 minutes; I’m not a person who gets that affected by motion sickness, but I’m not going to lie, the trip over for me was quite sickening. The boat was rocky and the rolling swells brought me and others some unsettled nerves.
When we got off the boat, we were greeted by Thulani, and immediately his kind demeanor made me at ease. I remember whispering to Ksenia, while walking towards the prison, “Wow, I really like this guy,” even though he had barely said any words to us yet. He was calm and reserved, and the energy that he carried with him was very soothing.
First, Thulani gave us a brief but thorough tour of the prison. As soon as we got through the doors of the prison, my other classmates and I felt very uneasy. He showed us the place where straightaway prisoners were taken to get their prison numbers, as well as being stripped naked, inspected, and searched all over their bodies. The guards’ treatment towards them was inhumane.
Thulani brought us to the courtyard, which was basically a concrete box, where prisoners were given the chance to exercise and play games such as soccer, tennis, and volleyball. He told us was that one of the ways that prisoners communicated with other prisoners who were in other cell blocks was by cutting open tennis balls, putting secret messages into them, and hitting them over the concrete walls.
Thulani showed us the cells that the prisoners were locked in. The cells were 2×2 meters and contained a thin sleeping mat, a small stool, and a bucket; you can guess what it was used for. We could walk into Mandela’s cell, though there really wasn’t much space to walk in. Thulani said that Mandela couldn’t sleep with his legs fully stretched out. This gave us perspective on how little the guards cared about the inmates.
The last part of our tour was our formal interview with Thulani where he shared with our group some of the most disturbing stories that I have ever heard. From a very young age, Thulani fought against apartheid. He was arrested, tortured, and beaten, and was ready to die. The fact that Thulani could be so vulnerable with a group of teenagers, that he had just met, brought many of us to tears.
I was most moved by the fact that even though Thulani experienced so much pain and suffering, he could find hope and forgiveness through it all. The way that he could forgive the people who treated him so horribly was inspiring to me. This is a lesson that I want to carry back with me and implement into my life. I want to learn how to let go of grudges and resentment, and be a more forgiving person overall. Thulani has inspired me to become a better person.
“Injustices should not be promoted; we must promote justice in the world.” This is one of the many quotes that I was struck by during our interview today with Thulani Mabaso, a former political prisoner from Robben Island. I think I can speak for the whole class when I say that despite the inhumane suffering that he endured, Thulani was an incredibly compassionate man and used his experiences to fuel his lifelong journey to find truth and pursue justice.
It was a cold, still morning. I, along with many of my classmates, stood anxiously on the docks as we waited to depart. Today being our first interview, I didn’t know what to expect, and the cloud of unknowing seemed to loom over me and mock the clouds in the sky. I was already quite distressed due to my luggage not arriving in Cape Town the previous day, but I tried to not let that interfere. Despite all the fear and unfamiliar territory, I had faith that it would be an impactful and perspective-altering interview. I clung on to that thought and it put me at ease as we made our rather sea-sickening trip over to the island.
My heart jumped into my stomach as Thulani slammed the first of many metal doors, signaling the beginning of our tour. He explained that this was how the prison guards closed each door in the prison, giving insight into how the prisoners were constantly intimidated. The prison was cold, concrete, and echoed with the buzzing of the overhead lights. We were taken into several rooms, including Nelson Mandela’s cell and the courtyard where Mandela hid his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” Finally, we circled in a cafeteria and began our interview.
Thulani shared his story with us. I was speechless. It was almost unbearable to listen to, and a wave of shock and awe overcame our group. Many people began to cry, as did Thulani himself. The atmosphere in the room shifted as he spoke, and vulnerability seemed to seep out of his words. He was so young when his fight began, and he endured so much loss and hardship, yet he still managed to find forgiveness in himself. This inspired and empowered me. Honestly, his words and values are something that I will carry on with me for the rest of my life. I’ve always heard stories of resilient people who fought through their hardships using hope, but meeting Thulani and having a first-hand account of someone with this immense emotional strength was truly moving and made me feel more connected with the world. “Stay educated and make noise,” he said in regard to advice for our generation. After today, I know I will.
Mount Madonna students with Thulani Mabaso