There is an irony, although it is a sad one, that I should have found myself on Robben Island the day that the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) convened to decide the future of Thabo Mbeki. It was a poignant contrast to visit a place where unity had prevailed through so many hardships and attempts by the government to drive a wedge between them and weaken what they stood for, right down to the food they ate and the clothes that prisoners of different races were given to wear. Despite this, and despite any personal animosity individuals may have borne, they remained undivided in the face of those oppressors.
South Africa is unique in recent history as a nation founded not out of war or the dictate of superior powers, but by the triumph of our higher human qualities, such as fogiveness, equality and the refusal to resort to petty retribution and anger, no matter how deserved. To see Robben Island and to remember a dream so young, so intrinsically right and to see it already lost by the generation that rules us is heartbreaking indeed.
As Nelson Mandela said of Robben Island:
“Today when I look at Robben Island, I see it as a celebration of the struggle and a symbol of the finest qualities of the human spirit, rather than as a monument to the brutal tyranny and oppression of apartheid. It is true that Robben Island was once a place of darkness, but out of that darkness has come a wonderful brightness, a light so powerful that it could not be hidden behind prison walls… ‘
It is a heartbreaking irony that in the space of a generation, the spirit of our leaders has been so broken. Not by deprivation and oppression, but by precisely the opposite – the wealth and power of a grateful nation. We believed in you. Please god don’t fuck this up.