Lessons from Robben Island

Nelson Mandela repairing prison clothes on Robben Island in 1966 (via ezakwantu.com)

I visited Robben Island, South Africa’s prison colony off the Western Cape, more than a decade ago when I was in South Africa with the woman who would become my wife. Then as today it is a national heritage site and it is a physical part of the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at age 95.

Nothing is inevitable about the political development in complex societies, and fortunately the commentary about Mandela’s crucial contributions to South Africa’s transition to democratic rule have emphasized his unique abilities as conciliator and canny politician.

I remember the day he became president realizing, in 1994, that he had been in prison longer than I had been alive. I thought, How does anyone do anything under those circumstances? In 1963 he barely escaped a death sentence with his friends only to be condemned to a life term. He said he was willing to die, but how could he give his life when he was condemned to prison exile? It is important to remember he was just one man: thousands of unnamed and unsung prisoners joined him in punishment for protesting apartheid. How did they endure the uncertainty of their actions?

The tour of Robben Island is guided in part by former inmates. I was immediately struck by one of them who thanked those who visited for the international boycott that punished his country and, as some have argued, hurt black South Africans most of all during the divestment years. It was important to hear, and I learned a few things, then and now, about supporting the long walk to freedom — in South Africa and elsewhere.

Sanctions work. Economic boycotts, divestment campaigns, industrial action, coordinated sanctions — these bring real pain to regimes and nations we want to bring to heel. We’ve seen this in South Africa, Burma, now (hopefully) Iran.  Interestingly, fellow Nobel laureate Lech Walesa — who visited Washington this week on the occasion of his 70th birthday — argued that it was the deliberate economic impact of the Solidarity protests as much as the political effects that forced the communist authorities to negotiate their way out of power in 1989. Constant strike actions and work stoppages at the Gdansk shipyards, ironworks, and factories, meant that what little industrial output Poland could boast in the Comintern was at the mercy of the workers. This was an economic disaster in a country that couldn’t produce enough to eat, never mind politically untenable in the workers’ paradise. It’s a shame, of course, that somebody as forceful and articulate on the dehumanizing nature of communism as Ronald Reagan couldn’t bring the same moral clarity to the brutalizing inhumanity of apartheid.

Gestures are important. Mandela talked about the importance of the salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics (it is interesting to note that fellow medalist, the Australian Peter Norman, also joined in the protest by wearing a badge to show solidarity with Smith and Carlos and also to protest official Australian policy). While it is easy to dismiss the empty, effect-less, “political gesture” — the op-ed, the speech, the demonstration, the outburst — they are incredibly important to maintain morale for those who are engaged in political struggle against authority or enormous odds, and acutely so if they are in prison. Official gestures are even more important. When the United States takes sides, or defends individual dissidents, the effect is tremendous. They are always worth the political risk. Speeches by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall, when they leaked to the other side, told those living under communism that we understood their reality.  But if the United States is tepid, or “balanced,” fighters for freedom can smell equivocation. Their reaction breeds resentment, suspicion and cynicism.

Information is ammunition. One amusing but poignant story told during our Robben Island visit involved the insatiable need for information among the political prisoners. They were at the head of the revolution in South Africa, but the authorities cut them off from all news and virtually all communication from the outside world. They were not just news junkies: to be effective and relevant, they had to know what was going on. And information was vital to their morale. Any sign from the outside that they were recognized, that the struggle was continuing, made their experience worth enduring.

The story was this. A priest came to lead a prayer session with a group of inmates. He arrived with an attache case, which he left casually open on a chair next to him at the front of the room. The priest invited an inmate to lead them in prayer, which he promptly did by going to the front of the room on the other side of the chair. He peeked inside the attache case and saw a newspaper. He immediately asked everyone to close their eyes and bow their heads in prayer. As soon as he was convinced everyone had closed their eyes, he pinched the newspaper and led the prayer.

President Barack Obama, in his remarks on the death of Nelson Mandela, said he spent his life studying the great man and would continue to do so. In Mandela there is the ennobling experience of an entire nation. Indeed, as we found on Robben Island, there is much more to be learned not just from him, but from the whole country.

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About James Thomas Snyder

U.S. Foreign Service Officer, writer, translator and former NATO and U.S. Congressional staffer. All opinions expressed here are my own. My work has appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Military Review, Joint Force Quarterly, Internationale Politik, Dissent, The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, among other publications. In 2013, Palgrave-MacMillan published my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy. In 2004, TAMU press published my translation of Pierre Hazan's Justice in a Time of War, a history of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in 2004. I earned a joint JD-MA from American University in 2001 and a BA from UCLA in 1995. I also studied European and international law at the University of Paris X-Nanterre and international security at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan.
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