By J. Mac Holladay, founder and CEO.
I remember it like it was yesterday when we took the ferry to Robben Island. In 2008, we went to Africa for the first time. In Capetown, I knew that we wanted to see the prison where Mandela and so many others were held for so long. Mandela’s clan name was Madiva, but he was known by the name his first teacher gave him. She called him Nelson. Then, we knew only a small amount about the history of the nation. We knew nothing about Robben Island.
Now we do. It had been a leper colony before it was a prison. The island is a bleak place with a white limestone mine in the middle. All the prisoners were required to work there. Their eyes were not protected as sunglasses were not allowed and many went nearly blind. It was back breaking, monotonous work.
The prison itself was a stark and cold place. All the cells were 8 feet by 7 feet. A mat on the floor served as the bed. There was a small window with bars for the only light. All of the guides on Robben Island are former prisoners, ours was named Kgosto. As with most, he was convicted of treason.
In all of my wildest dreams, I can not imagine being caged there in one place for over 20 years. Mandela read, he studied, he thought, and he prepared all those years for what was to come. A chance to move his country, and this world, forward in a way no one imagined.
As Bishop Tutu made clear in his great book No Future without Forgiveness, South Africa faced enormous challenges. The way forward was by no means assured. So Mandela walks out after 27 years of confinement and says – “We are all South Africans” and then he proved it every day as the country’s first elected President. In his inaugural address in May 9, 1994 he said “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
One of our rich experiences in Capetown was to eat dinner at a home, now a small restaurant in Langa Township, which was not too long ago a ghetto where no whites could go. The owner’s name is Shelia who raised her family there and, since there are no mortgages in South Africa, had built her home one room at a time. This is economic development at the core.
Yes, there is yet much to do in South Africa, but it has come so far that none of us in America can even understand where it was and what Mandela meant to everyone there.
I have been fortunate to travel the world, no place has ever affected me like South Africa. Mandela is the reason. He was a man really beyond description, a giant of a man, and one that all of us in this work have been blessed by his leadership and his love of country and its people – all of them. What a lesson to learn. Thank you, Madiva.