South Africa: Prisons

I have more to say than I can fit here right now. Today I visited the township of Langa with a tour guide from the township. Afterwards, I took the tour of Robbens Island where Mandela was held. And I finished the day walking about the waterfront area which is one of the most secure and wealthiest areas of Cape Town.

I want to start with Robben’s Island. One of the great gifts of South Africa and of Nelson Mandella is the power of forgiveness. Part of the tour of the island was spent in the prison listening to a former political prisoner. Towards the end, a woman asked about his ability to forgive, and he talked about the process, how angry he was, and how he came to the place where he is now. How Nelson Mandela managed to endure eighteen years in a prison/labor camp that was designed with the intention to break their spirits, how he managed to emerge on the other side of that as a leader who led the way for Reconcilliation…it is a spectacular testament to the human spirit.

Mandella is a living example of what I’ve always thought to be true: Freedom is a power of our minds and our wills that must transcend our circumstances. That Mandella was physically imprisoned, there is no doubt. But that he lost his freedom…his indomitable spirit that would not be broken draws that into question.

Going back in the day, I had a great tour guide of the Langa township. I saw incredible poverty. Imagine a shipping container, no heat or air conditioning. Now divide it into two. Put a bed and a few cabinets into each half. That half of the shipping container will hold a family of 6 or so. Some may see the poverty and squalor. I certainly saw that, and was moved by that. But I was more impressed by the will of these people to persevere, to struggle, and to overcome their adversity.

My guide had lived in all levels of the township, educated himself, and now owns and lives in a house in the “Beverly Hills” area of the township. Towards the end of our time together, he asked for advice on how to talk to an international audience. He had an interview with an international press outlet the next day. I wasn’t sure how to answer, but pulled from what he said throughout the day. “There is a poverty of the mind,” he said, an inability to comprehend a life beyond that which has been known for generations. They need help to break those walls down, to break out of the prison of the known and the expected, to help envision a different kind of life. I told him that was the invitation to the international community. And once you get enough business people, enough successes and houses in their “Beverly Hills,” those people will want a nice restaurant that they don’t have to drive into the city for. They will want a place to shop for groceries and clothes. And that will start to provide more jobs for people within the township.

Mandella entitled his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” I am inspired by the people of South Africa, and the walk they continue to struggle with. And I am called to question my own prisons, the mental walls I have cast upon myself. We may be living in the free world, but that doesn’t mean we are free. All to often we are bound to the past, bound to the known, and unable to envision a future unencumbered by our history. Freedom is ours for the taking, but it’s a long walk for us all.


  1. I had a similar experience in E. Europe in early 90’s. We were led by a priest who spent 16yrs fir his faith into the exact prison where he did his time. His heart was amazing! Several times I caught him prsying under his breath; “Thanks that I can visit You today Lord!” No fear, just love for men doing time.


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