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Sixteen years have passed since Mandela was released

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Story and photos by Jack Souther

I must have read these words a dozen times before I came to Africa. They are quoted in almost everything written about the struggle against apartheid but now, reading them again in the Nelson Mandela Gateway, surrounded by pictures and memorabilia of that violent era, they have an even more powerful resonance. The Gateway, an unassuming three-storey building on the Victoria and Albert waterfront of Cape Town, is where the Robben Island ferries now dock. It also houses a small museum that documents in stark detail the suffering and indignity endured by black people under apartheid and traces their long struggle against the regime – a brutal one-sided struggle that lead to the arrest and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and thousands of other political dissidents.

Sixteen years have past since Mandela was released from prison and the racist laws of apartheid were officially repealed. Before that every South African citizen was classified at birth as either white, coloured, or black. Those lucky enough to be born white were granted almost unlimited power and privilege, the coloureds (mixed race, and Asians) enjoyed grudging acceptance, but the black majority had virtually no rights at all. Pass laws required every black person over 16 to carry a document that prescribed where its holder was allowed to go. Getting caught in the wrong place or without your pass was punishable by imprisonment, and beatings suffered by those arrested were all too often fatal. White neighbourhoods, public parks, restaurants, washrooms, buses – the list of places where blacks were totally excluded goes on and on. Black housing consisted of shacks, their medical facilities were sub-standard, and segregated schools provided black students with just enough education to become useful servants and labourers.

Not surprisingly the oppression erupted into violent protest.

Our perusal of the Gateway museum was interrupted by a loudspeaker announcing the next departure for Robben Island and we boarded the sleek, high-speed catamaran which takes only a few minutes to make the 11-kilometre crossing. Robben Island, a barren, windswept place off the coast of Cape Town has been a dumping ground for the unwanted and dispossessed for at least 400 years. The Dutch used it to get rid of Malaysian prisoners as early as 1600. In the 1800s troublesome African chiefs were banished to the island by the British, and from 1844 until 1931 it served as a leper colony. The final chapter in this litany of human misery came during South Africa's apartheid era when more than 3,000 political prisoners were held there from 1962 until the regime was overthrown in 1991.

The official tours, which follow a tightly prescribed three-hour schedule, are the only way visitors are permitted to visit Robben Island. We are met on the dock by Yungama, who accompanies us by bus to the gate of the old maximum security prison. There we are turned over to Thulani Mabaso, a large soft-spoken black man who seems more like a schoolteacher than a terrorist. Thulani was a prisoner here for eight years. As a member of the African National Congress (ANC) resistance he was convicted of taking part in the bombing of a police station and, at age 22, sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

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