Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cape Town - The Lure of Mandela

Nelson Mandela is unquestionably South Africa's most beloved leader, and the country's most internationally recognised person. He is a hero to all those who believe in human rights and racial equality, and he is an inspiration to people who still live under oppressive governments. In the city of Cape Town Nelson Mandela is also a major tourist attraction.
Notorious Prison
Of course, people do not come to Cape Town to actually see the great man himself. Mandela is in his nineties, and lives in quiet retirement. But they do go there to take the ferry boat out to Robben Island, site of the notorious prison that was Mandela's home for 18 years. For many visitors, this trip is more like a pilgrimage. Robben Island is a bleak, windswept outcrop of sand and limestone, covering just twelve square kilometers. It was here that Mandela, having been sentenced to life imprisonment on a conviction of treason because of his opposition to apartheid, laboured in the limestone quarries with criminals and other political prisoners. Of the tiny cell in which he was kept, Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, "I could walk the length of my cell in three paces... When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet, and my head grazed the concrete at the other side." Even in prison the rules of apartheid applied. Black prisoners were allowed less meat in their rations than Asian prisoners. Not one to let stone walls and iron bars imprison his spirit, Mandela, who was a lawyer, educated other inmates, and even some guards. He and his fellow prisoners often looked across the water at Table Mountain towering above Cape Town for inspiration.
A Shrine
To many of the visitors who come over from Cape Town, Mandela's old cell is like a shrine. It has been left just as it was when he was finally taken out of it to be transferred to another prison. The door is kept locked, so visitors can only look in, but other cell doors are open for anyone who wants to step inside and get the experience of being in a claustrophobic cage. As you wander around the island and feel the cold wind that continually blows up from the Antarctic, you keep in mind that the prisoners were never allowed to wear anything but light clothing.
Marketing Mandela
Cape Town, and South Africa in general, have been actively marketing Mandela; not all of which activity meets with his personal approval. Gift shops in Cape Town sell a Presidential Collection of shirts; that is, shirts designed like the ones he wore during his presidency. A hot item for tourists returning to Cape Town from Robben Island are tee shirts emblazoned with "466/64", Mandela's prison number. In Nobel Square at the V&A Waterfront Complex, visitors can see a statue of Mandela, along with South Africa's other Nobel Prize winners; Desmond Tutu, F.W. de Klerk, and Albert Luthuli.
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