I got the opportunity to visit Robben Island. This is the location that Nelson Mandela was jailed at for 27 years of his life. It still amazes me the sacrifices given by activists in the name of freedom and equality. I am only 20 years old, meaning he was in jail for a longer amount of time than I have been alive. It is a troubling thought, but also an encouraging one. It is encouraging because finally we find a true story with a happy ending. (well…kind of). Finally we find a moment in history where war did not rule over peace, we find a moment where the oppressors realized they could no longer sustain their oppression. And we find a moment in history when a political prisoner turns into a Nobel prize winning president, a man that left Robben Island willing to forgive the people who initially jailed him. We can find the reality and hardship of the jail inside the world of theater.
In the political play by Athol Fugard called The Island it highlights the experience of men in Robben Island and successfully dramatizes both embodied experience and the their struggle of keep alive the memory of the outside world. In the play built around two characters: John and Winston we find them arguing about the play Greek play, Antigone in their jail cell on the island. Most of the controversary arrives when John discovers that he is being released from jail.
“That is Hodeshe’s talk Winston! That’s what he says all the time. What he wants to say all our lives. Our convictions, our ideals, that’s what he called them, child’s play. Everything we do is child’s play. When we ran that whole day in the sun, when we cry, when we shit…child’s play. I’ve had enough, no one is going to stop me from doing Antigone.” Here we come in at a moment in the play when John and Winston are arguing if they going to perform the play or not. At this moment the author is giving insight into the lives of prisoners on the island. We can find themes of how an individual’s life was degraded and turned into that of a child. We can also see here how difficult it was to have ownership over one’s life. Everything they did was meaningless and they could do very little to display their political will. Even when the guard passes they must post on the wall in humiliation. For this lack of ownership over one’s life we find why it is so important for John to perform the play Antigone. This was a political act inside of a world where the political was not allowed. The play Antigone mirrors the life of the two men and political prisoners in general. In Antigone you find a women who commits an act of civil disobedience. It was illegal for her to bury her brother, but she does not follow the laws of an unjust ruler and willingly breaks them. This is a parallel to South Africa’s Apartheid. John and Winston live inside of an unjust world. And they refused to allow the inequalities and oppression of the rulers to stop them from being political and fighting against systems that are unjust.
We find the struggle within the relationship of these two men to surface when John finds out he will be released. “They’ve changed him, turned him into stone. He loves stone, that’s why they’re nice to him. He’s forgotten himself; he’s forgotten everything…why he is here, where he comes from. That’s happening to me John. I’ve forgotten why I’m here.” Winston has life in prison and in this passion we find his fear. He explain how he is afraid that he will turn into old man Harry, the man who forgot the reason for his political disobedience, the man who has forgotten who he is. This is what Winston fears. He already knows that he is starting to forget why he is at Robben Island.
It is amazing the Mandela never forgot. In him we find how strong the will of a man is. In Mandela we can locate the stubborn activism that yields political action and refuses to submit to unfair systems even in the midst of hopelessness. Due to the type of work Mandela was forced to do in the sun for more than two decades, he has no tear ducts, so he can’t cry. The play makes one want to shed tears for each year these men has to spend breaking rocks in Robben Island. Mandela is 96 now and remains a symbol of hope in this country. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Martin Luther King jr. or other political activists lived longer lives. Ultimately, South Africa and the history here never cease to inspire me. I love this country, my mother is here now, and I hope to return one day.