I don’t know about you but there have been a few times in my life when I have been so angry with someone I have said those immortal words: “I’ll never forgive them.” At that moment in time you are so hurt and blinded by what has happened that’s it’s impossible to see beyond it, to look to the future and believe that one day you will be able to forgive that person.
One of the things which our trip to South Africa really brought home to me was how recently the fight against apartheid had taken place. Although it was something we had learnt about at school and I understood it in quite an abstract way, it was a completely different feeling to visit the country and realise how new the Rainbow Nation actually is. To put it into context, the country’s first fully democratic election wasn’t held until 1994. Many people in South Africa still vividly remember the years of apartheid. They lived through it, some lost their homes and livelihoods because of it and many, many, were deeply hurt, both physically and mentally, as a result of it. And the reminders are all around you when you visit the country. In the township of Soweto in Johannesburg we heard stories about the student uprising there and the changes it finally brought about. We also visited Nelson Mandela’s house and learnt about the difference his leadership made to people in the area when he came to power. History has become a part of the way forward for South Africa. What has happened will never, and must never, be forgotten but people have been able to begin the process of forgiveness.
Much of that is thanks to the work of one man and what really put the battle against apartheid most into context for me was our trip to Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned. As we arrived on the bleak, windswept island on a boat from lively Cape Town its total isolation from the rest of the world could be keenly felt.
It’s impossible to sum up the bravery and strength of human spirit which prevailed amongst the anti-apartheid prisoners who were held on the island, often for years on end. Those who weren’t locked in solitary confinement, like Mandela, were crammed into rooms with up to 20 beds. Prisoners received food rations on the basis of their colour, with blacks being given the least. They were spied on by the guards who used speakers in their rooms to listen in to their conversations. But the inmates’ belief in their fight for equality could not be broken and they merely wrapped blankets around the speakers so that they continue discussing their plans and ideas. In the quarry where they worked, many of the doctors, teachers and professors doing manual labour for the first time in their lives, they developed the catch-phrase: “Each one, teach one.” Against a backdrop of dirt and difficult physical conditions they created an outdoor classroom which was so successful that many of the prisoners left more qualified than they had arrived.
If you’re wondering how I know all of this, it’s because we were told the stories first-hand by a man named Sparks who had been imprisoned on the island for seven years. You would think that returning to work at a place where you had spent years of your life behind bars would be the last thing that anyone would want to do. But that is the truly incredible thing about Mandela and his fellow inmates that since gaining their freedom they have promoted forgiveness and understanding, rather than revenge and hate.
After being elected as president in those 1994 elections, what Mandela taught the people of South Africa, both black and white, is that if he was able to forgive what had happened to him then they must forgive and move on too and slowly but surely the first steps were taken. Now I know that South Africa isn’t perfect by any means and change doesn’t happen overnight. But you only have to look at the reactions of people to Mandela’s current illness to see how much he means to them. What Mandela did was set the country on the road to recovery and the strength, determination and kindness that visitors see in the people of South Africa on a daily basis is part of the lasting legacy he will leave behind.