President Obama Sunday lingered in the tiny desolate Robben Island cell that was once upon a time occupied by the former South African President Nelson Mandela for 18 years of his 27 year imprisonment. Reports say Mr. Obama lingered in the cell alone and in silence. He stared out of the window to the courtyard below.
He showed the prison cell to his wife and to his daughters, who accompanied him. They packed inside the chamber housing a toilet, a thin mattress and a brown blanket. They also looked out of the single window with thick bars overlooking the courtyard.
Guided by Ahmed Kathrada , a former inmate of the prison, and a close friend to Mandela, the Obamas also visited the lime quarry where Mr. Mandela and other anti-apartheid fighters were forced to chip away at rocks, watched by their tormentors from a concrete watchtower.
Mr. Obama’s visit to Robben Island was part of his three-nation tour of Africa.
After this visit, Mr. Obama said he was “deeply humbled.” In a visitor’s book in a prison courtyard, he wrote, “On behalf of our family we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”
He later said Mr. Mandela was the ultimate testament to the process of peaceful change. Referring to his daughters, he said they better understood the Nobel Laureates’ legacy after visiting the Robben island prison. “Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget,” he said. He added they better understood the sacrifices that Mandela made for freedom.
The former South African President has been plagued with lung problems for most of his life. Reports say his lung problems can be traced to the dampness of his prison cell.
After visiting Mr. Mandela’s Robben Island cell, the president, in the footsteps of the slain U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, traveled to Pretoria to deliver a speech to the African people from the University of Cape Town.
Mr. Obama reminded people that the University of Cape Town venue was the same one from where the Mr. Kennedy spoke in June 1966. In this “ripple of hope” speech, Mr. Kennedy shunned South Africa’s white rule of racial inequality of apartheid and supported the push for civil rights around the world.
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance,” Mr. Kennedy said in 1966.
In his speech Mr. Obama called Mandela by his clan name and said, “we must admit, our minds and our hearts are not fully here because a piece of us, a piece of our heart is with a man and a family who is not far away from here. Much has been said about Madiba today. More will be said in the years to come.
And so I propose a toast: To a man who has always been a master of his fate who taught us that we could be the master of ours….”
From South Africa, Mr. Obama will travel to Tanzania.
By Perviz Walji