Two days ago, we had the privilege of visiting Robben Island, an island prison off the coast of Cape Town where political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, among many others, were held captive during Apartheid. We toured the island on a bus to learn about the history and then we were guided through the maximum security prison by an ex-political prisoner who was imprisoned there for about seven years in the 1980s. He told us that the Black prisoners were separated from the Coloured (mixed race) prisoners and given very little food, warm clothing, and had no privacy. The windows in the prison had no glass and, in the winter, the political prisoners were exposed to the cold and the rain.
Our tour guide was charged with terrorism when all he was trying to do was be recognized as wholly human by the South African government. After years of torture, he has decided to stay on the island to live and work, reclaiming the place as a symbol for human rights and hope. He is even friends with some of the guards who held him captive.
From an American frame of reference, it is hard to understand how that is possible, but I am continually in awe of South Africa's ability to actually look into their history, tell the truth, and forgive as a means of healing themselves and the country. Ubuntu is a concept that they live by, which means, "I am because we are." When an act of violence was committed directly against one person, the ripple effects touched everyone in the community. Because of this idea, when democracy was finally achieved in 1994, the new constitution declared that everyone, no matter their race, belonged in South Africa, and in order to truly heal, people needed to tell the truth and they would be granted amnesty by the government instead of seeking revenge, which typically happens when you look at history.
Forgiveness is not seen as weakness here, it is seen as a way to set yourself free because as long as you harbor anger, you are still letting the person who hurt you control you. Our tour guide told us that it is not an easy process, and it took him a lot of soul searching, tears, and time, but he could only move forward with his life by forgiving and reclaiming what happened to him. His story is not unique, and people here see more value in listening to individual narratives from victims and perpetrators as a means to heal.
It makes me think about our criminal justice system in the United States and the insane amount of people we have locked up. 1 in 4 African American men in our country are in prison, which is less than are in college. These numbers are insane, and I can only wonder where our country would be if we actually listened to the stories of people who are arrested for drug use or other crimes and worked within communities to heal people instead of throwing them in jail cells where they only become more hardened and angry. We should learn something from what has happened here in South Africa.