Today we made a pilgrimage to Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, where hundreds of resisters were incarcerated during the years of apartheid. Of course, the prisoner who is perhaps most well-known in the international community is Nelson Mandela, although here in South Africa there are many many many names which are also known and revered as heroes of that era.
I say “pilgrimage” because it was an experience unlike a typical tour in which a group is led by a guide who shares the facts of the place. We were hosted by Richard’s church, St. George’s Cathedral, and by Deon Snyman, the director of The Restitution Foundation. St. George’s has developed a liturgy of sorts for visiting groups to use as they walk around the island; it combines biblical readings from the Gospels, as well as prayers and meditative reflections.
As we walked the island, we stopped to read and reflect at points of significance—the rocky shore, near the docks, which looks back at the mainland; the leper graveyard, where many are buried from the era when Robben Island was a place to which people with leprosy, mental illness and other stigmatized infirmities were exiled; the main door of the prison building where hundreds of resisters to apartheid were incarcerated until apartheid’s end in the early 90s. We ended at the Church of the Good Shepherd, an Anglican
chapel on the island. There we reflected upon what we had seen, heard, felt, and thought, and we shared in Communion.
As I walked the paths between buildings and sites which are now deserted and empty, I thought again and again, “I am walking where Nelson Mandela walked.” It struck me that Robben Island is a type of holy land, like Palestine is for so many pilgrims who visit there each year to walk where it is said that Jesus walked, and where the ancients of the Abrahamic family lived and struggled and hoped.
And here is Robben Island today. A sacred place in its own right, where the stories of hope and perseverance live on, and where the soil bears the imprint of saints who have gone before those of us who walk there today.
I think that Jesus would probably visit Robben Island if he were here today. And that Christ certainly does all the time….
Because we were a private tour group, we were privileged to wander a bit at each place we stopped. In the cell block, we walked the hallway silently, reading the signs posted in various cells with memories from the people who had been imprisoned there. On a whim, I entered one of the 4×5 foot cells—I wanted to see what it looked like on the inside, from a prisoner’s perspective. I turned and closed the door, and stood against the back wall, looking out through the bars into the hallway. It was then that I noticed that there was a photograph of the last prisoner to occupy that cell—Antonio du Preez. I got chills when I noticed that he and I were born the same year, and I thought about was doing with my life in the 80s and 90s, over in the United States, while he was here doing resistance work. During his years on Robben Island, 1986-1991, I graduated from college, worked at first teaching job, then volunteered as a youth minister in the U.S. and West Africa, then moved to Minnesota, where I’ve lived for over 20 years now. All of that—while Antonio du Preez was looking across the water toward home, walking in the prison yard, working in the blinding lime pits, living within a community of resistance, and standing against evil in a 4×5 foot cell.
Both lives significant, both working for good in the world. For me, those years were the beginning of the journey through and beyond boundaries of limited possibility, egocentric worldview, and untested theology, toward a more expansive perspective made possible by experience, relationships, and time. A journey that led me finally to seminary, at just the right time in my life, and that now has led me here. Standing in Antonio du Preez’s cell today felt like a kairos moment: a “thin place,” to borrow from Celtic theology, where the veil between the Divine and us becomes thin, and one experiences something holy. I felt the accompanying presence of this person whose individual sacrifice so many years ago was part of a movement of persons toward a hope that they could not see, but could only imagine. And so, living in that imagination, they believed it into being.
On the wall of his cell, there was a bit of text in which Antonio recalled of his first experiences when he landed on Robben Island. I want to share it with you so that you too can “meet” Antonio as I did:
I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that I was going to spend fifteen and a half years on Robben Island. That was the one thing that was driving me a bit nuts.
A week after our arrival there, this old man came past and shook everybody’s hand on the bench. We were about six people sitting on the bench, and he introduced himself to everybody with a smile on his face. I was right on the end, and he said to me, “How are you, comrade?”
“I am very well.”
He said, “You don’t look so well. Don’t be so angry, man, relax. How long are you going to be with us?”
“Fifteen and a half years.”
He said, “Oh, that’s enough time for me to get to know you, so we will talk later.”
And with a big smile, off he went to the garden to potter with some plants and stuff.
The guys said, “Hey, do you know who’s that?”
I said, “No, who’s that?”
“That’s one of the treason trialists, Elias Motsoaledi.”
That was a turning point for me. I was born in ’64 and that old man had been in prison during my whole lifetime. I had no reason to be angry. If an old man could do it with such positive spirits, I was being unreasonable. My whole attitude changed towards my sentence and my stay there actually changed. I had not done anything wrong. I was proud of what I’d done.
Thanks to all who are following the blog, sending emails and msgs from home, and joining us on this amazing experience! Karen has been sharing your posts from the blog, and they bring many smiles to us as we reflect on our days here and our loved ones at home.
We leave Capetown this morning for the township of Guguletu and will likely be out of contact for the three days while we’re there staying with host families. We have had a blessed week of introduction and orientation to beautiful South Africa and to the incredible issues facing the people of this country, particularly with regard to the AIDS epidemic and issues still resulting from Apartheid laws. The laws have gone away, but the racial and economic disparities are so tremendous, even 20 years later that there are many townships in which people are in such a state of poverty that water and electricity are not even an option. We will be going to visit, worship with, and learn from those in a community where there are positive steps being taken to in order to create hope and continue forward. The people of Guguletu were forced out of their homes and off of their land decades ago, because of the color of their skin. Whites wanted “white only” neighborhoods and cities and under Apartheid laws, it became legal to simply kick others out…check out the blog on Wednesday for more info, updates, and photos!
We would love to post more photos, but this has been difficult due to our internet connection (or lack thereof).
Much love to all of you–we love to read and share your comments and are looking forward to many more!
Peace and blessings be with you,
Karen (and the entire South Africa global justice trip group)
Karen has more details to share about our first few days. Lucky you to get THREE posts from us in a row! Sorry I missed seeing Karen’s email with her write up. — Terri
Many of our group members arrived early this past Sunday morning, bleary eyed but excited to land in Capetown, South Africa! We were greeted by our professor and group leader, Dr. Christine Smith (United Theological Seminary) who had arrived with Dr. Kimberlee Vrudney (University of St. Thomas) two days earlier. We learned that Kim had been asked to give the homily at St. George’s Cathedral—what a surprise!! Within a few minutes, we dropped off our bags and headed directly to worship at the Anglican church and listen to Kim preach during the service led by our third leader, Anglican priest Richard Cogill! We joined Cathy, a group member who had arrived the night before, and shared lots of hugs with her and then with Father Michael Lapsley, who we had met when he visited Minnesota back in October. We’ll have an opportunity to meet with Father Lapsley and visit the Institute for the Healing of Memories later on our trip.
Monday was a fairly relaxed day, with a morning orientation to South Africa session and then an afternoon drive to Boulders Beach at Table Mountain National Park where we visited the park, saw the penguins, met a lady who runs a “fair trade” shop in Simonstown (who was playing my favorite John Denver album when we walked in—very strange and unexpected in South Africa!), and had seafood for dinner at a local restaurant there.
Simonstown is where our co-leader, Rev. Richard Cogill, was born and grew up until he and his family were forced to move to a township when the white South Africans claimed Simonstown as their own under Apartheid. Simonstown has a very British feel to it and had been transformed into a British naval base when the black families were removed.
On Tuesday, we heard from a Dutch Reformed church minister named Laurie, whose father was a prominent minister in the Dutch Reformed church and in the white Afrikaaner community for many years. Laurie, once he realized at quite a young age that there were definite differences in the ways blacks and whites were treated, began to devote his life and work to working in solidarity with persons who were oppressed under the Apartheid system and to work with others to make changes within the Church, “speaking truth to power, and speaking truth to people.”
We also were visited by Edwin, who works with an organization called “THE5E NU38ER5 H4VE FACE5” (These Numbers Have Faces). This group works to sponsor young people living in townships like Guguletu (which we will visit) and help them to get an education. The expectation of these young people (20 this year) is to give back to their communities with at least 100 hours of community service work, to attend TNHF meetings regularly, to maintain contact with and help to support their families, and to be a part of a religious (Christian or other) program. Edwin was joined by Wilmot, a teacher and musician who received the very first South African award for Gospel music to be given to a black man, and by Byron (Wilmot’s son), Rodney, and Xolani, who is one of the young persons sponsored by the program.
Wilmot and Byron played and sang original music for us, and tears were streaming down my face as Byron (age 18) told of why he is moved to play and write music. “It gives me hope…it is plaster on my wounds,” he said. He reminded me of my own two sons (19 and 16) and daughter (14) who write and play and express themselves through their music. I hope that they all have an opportunity to be heard and to see change and justice in the world as they grow.
We are getting to know our surroundings in and around Kolbe House where we are staying for much of our time here, and in Rondebosch, the area we are in. We’re slowly but surely shedding the layers of jet lag that seem to have hung on for some of our group, and we are finding ourselves deep in conversation with each other, with God, with new friends in South Africa, and within our own hearts and minds as we consider what we are hearing and experiencing.
As our lovely South African group leader Richard has already said to us, “South Africans are an eternally hopeful people,” I am also hopeful. I am hopeful that I may learn and grow, that I may be changed by what I experience and come to understand, and I am hopeful that I may be part of change in my own community, church, and in the world.
I am hopeful about today…and about tomorrow.
We are behind in posts, so you are getting two from us today! Accessing the internet from our lodging has been challenging, but we hope to have something in place soon. In the meantime, here are some messages I want to share on behalf of our group.
Most importantly, we’re all here! We had different arrival schedules, but now all 12 members of our group, plus our beloved leaders Chris, Kim and Richard, are together. We know our family and friends have probably been wondering about us. Please rest assured that we are safe and getting settled in. We send you all our love and appreciate your prayers and well wishes.
We are staying at the Kolbe House, which is a Catholic residency on the University of Cape Town campus. As a little aside, Deb was surprised to see Orion overhead. The area we’re in is called Rondebosch. There are lots of little restaurants, shops, grocery stores and other practical places just a few blocks away. So far Cocoa Wah Wah has been the big hit—great coffee (important!!), food and wifi (sometimes).
Yesterday we explored the penguin colony at Boulder’s. Home to about 2,200 African Penguins, it is one of the few sites where this endangered bird can be observed at close range. I won’t make this entry a tedious travelogue of our day, but I can’t not mention penguins!
Today we were blessed to have several remarkable visitors come for classroom sessions at Kolbe House. In the morning, we met with Laurie Gaum of the Center for Christian Spirituality. Laurie is an Afrikaner, and he shared his perspective of being, what he calls, a “2nd-generation perpetuator” of apartheid. While political apartheid ended in 1994, economic apartheid still exists. Laurie calls for a renewed prophetic voice in the church to address current challenges.
In the afternoon, we met with Edwin Louw of These Numbers Have Faces whose ministry is helping provide higher education to young adults. Edwin calls the lack of education the new apartheid in South Africa, and he pointedly asks about “the fair distribution of God’s grace.” Joining Edwin were three young men from the program and one of the men’s father. We were treated to their inspiring and hope-filled messages and music.
Tomorrow we will be heading to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid political activists were imprisoned. This is sure to be an emotional and monumental experience.
We’d love to see your questions and thoughts in the comment section below. Also, please spread the word about this blog to others. South Africa’s story is the world’s story. Let us share in and reflect on this experience together.
Today I walked down the street with Deb and Debbie to do a number of errands during our lunch break. One of them was finding a post office to buy postcard stamps to send postcards to our loved ones. It was not until we were half-way through our line that I realized I was, in a sense, following my mother’s footsteps from 40 years ago.
In the early 1970s, she came to visit a nursing friend of hers in Johannesburg. This friend and her husband were black. The husband took my mom and her brother to the post office. My mom’s friend’s husband was in Johannesburg as an ambassador from another African nation.
Under the pass laws, he had diplomatic immunity and therefore the same pass privileges as whites. When he went through the white line with my mother and her brother, the woman at the desk started to scream at him for being in the wrong line. She did this until he showed his pass. At that very moment she became a completely different person—polite, charming and went out of her way to serve him and my mom and uncle.
This was the first story I heard about Apartheid, and it has shaped me. It drove me to be here today and to learn more about South Africa during my undergraduate years.
Today as I stood in line at the post office, I was part of one line, all of whom were whites. The woman who served me was black. To me, this is the new, remaining picture of how far the people of South Africa have come. Yet it is also a reminder of how far we still have to go. I celebrate that there is only one line, and that there is no need for pass books. Yet I wonder as the affects of an economic apartheid are still present with us today.