Robben Island and a perspective shift

“I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.”

Nelson Mandela, 1962

We embarked on our tour to Robben Island from the V & A waterfront in Capetown.

The ferry starts from the Nelson Mandela museum and one gets the opportunity to see a range of photographs about the early settlements and the apartheid era of South Africa before one embarks on the ten odd kilometer boat ride.

Nelson Mandela Gateway museum on the V & A Waterfront, Capetown
Nelson Mandela Gateway museum on the V & A Waterfront, Capetown

For me the trip attraction lay in getting a glimpse of the apartheid days and how Nelson Mandela lived eighteen of his twenty-seven years of imprisonment in that place. Interestingly, something I had not been aware of earlier but came to know during the visit was that apart from Mandela, two other post apartheid South African presidents, including the present one, were imprisoned there.

Robben Island
Robben Island

The island trip consists of a guided bus tour of the infamous lime quarry where Nelson Mandela did hard labour and progressively lost his vision, a leper colony which had existed on the island more than a century back and the military fortifications made during the Second World War. The highlight however was clearly the tour of the maximum security prison for which our guide was Henry, an ex-political prisoner who had spent six years in the island prison during the time Mandela was incarcerated there.

The lime quarry where Mandela did hard labour
The lime quarry where Mandela did hard labour

An interesting insight which Henry offered was about the elaborate cover up the apartheid government resorted to in front of international media and United Nations in those days. To the outside world, the prison administration declared that political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, keeping in mind their educated background, were only assigned ‘skilled’ activities inside the prison complex like construction work etc. While the hard labour of working in the limestone quarry, cutting stones etc. were reserved for prisoners who had been sentenced for criminal charges like murder, robbery etc. While in actual practice it was the other way round! The apartheid thinking was that while there was a chance to teach skills to criminals to enable them get absorbed back into the South African society, there was no such possibility for the political prisoners.

The Prison
The Prison
Maximum security zone of the apartheid era
Maximum security zone of the apartheid era

The cell which was home to Mandela
The cell which was home to Mandela

As the tour ended and as we walked back to the quayside to board our ferry, I overheard a conversation between Henry and a tourist.

‘So Henry, as you look back to your days in this prison, what kind of anger or regret do you feel?’

‘Well, when I was first brought here forty years back, I did feel anger and frustration at the sheer injustice of it all. But interestingly, after a while that went away and I became more calm and accepting. This is something which most political prisoners learnt to do when here. This was important for our own well being.’

‘That’s interesting. And what did you learn to be able to do that?’

‘Well what I learnt was to shift my perspective about the situation. My perspective about what made the Government and the administration do what they were doing.’

‘And what perspective was that?’

‘Well I realised that the reason for my being imprisoned on an island like this was not because I had done anything wrong as the authorities would have me believe. Rather they were afraid and insecure about me and the ideas I stood for. So why I was being tormented physically was because I and what I stood for were tormenting them much more mentally. So it was really a quid pro quo and I had nothing to feel angry or upset about.’

Boarding the ferry I looked around to see Henry walking back slowly towards the prison. I understood how that four decade old perspective has allowed him to make peace with his own self and the world. How it keeps pulling him back to Robben Island, the place of his earlier torment, year after year and speak about it to countless visitors like me.

With the ferry speeding back towards the mainland and the Table Mountain visible on the horizon, a thought kept coming back to me.

What stops Henry’s perspective from being created in so many places in the world where anger, torment and fear continue to create violence and unhappiness?

What could each one of us do to spread that perspective?

In Learning…….. Shakti Ghosal

Author: Shakti Ghosal

* A PCC Credentialed Leadership Coach. * A qualified engineer and a PGDM (Faculty Gold medalist) from IIM Bangalore. * More than three decades of industry experience spanning Engineering, Maintenance, Projects, Consumer durables, Supply Chains, Aviation and Tourism in the Gulf region and India. * Top level management positions to drive business development, strategy, alliances all around the globe. * A visiting faculty at the IIMs. *A passion to envision trends & disseminate Leadership incubation globally. * . +91 - 9051787576

34 thoughts on “Robben Island and a perspective shift”

  1. How interesting to read another visitor’s perspective of Robben Island. I visited the Island some years ago and I, too, was amazed at how our Tour Guide (a former inmate) held no resentment at the oppressor. Forgiveness is such a strong emotion as it frees not only the oppressor, but the oppressed as well.

    1. Hi,

      Great comment there and thank you for taking the time to visit.

      Have you realised that when we forgive someone, that supports us much more in terms of “letting go” than the other person? Seen from this perspective, as we forgive we are actually doing something for our own self. This is the perspective that Henry achieved all those years back in Robben Island….


  2. Shakti …

    Your post and questions are profound. “What stops Henry’s perspective from being created in so many places in the world where anger, torment and fear continue to create violence and unhappiness?”

    I know I have shifted my perspective in some work and social situations. Yes, that change was the result of me being “forced” to examine what I was doing and what I needed to change. But, I can only stand in awe and admiration of those like Nelson Mandela who did the same when they were imprisoned because their political outlook conflicted with those in power.

    To your question: “What could each one of us do to spread that perspective?” I hope to live a life that focuses on the positives and seeks peace. One by one … if each of us take that step, we might achieve what Mahatma Gandhi advocated: “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”


    1. Dear Judy,

      As I sat writing this post and thinking of Henry’s conversation, I found it resonate with the current Geo-political situation in the world. And how that situation is occurring for people and their consequent articulations and actions.

      Thank you for very generous comment and the willingness to explore how the post questions might relate to you. I truly appreciate.


  3. Thank you for the voyeuristic peek into a place and time of such history! Wow! Again, we see how perspective can make one able to withstand deplorable conditions and atrocities of justice!

  4. Wonderfully illuminating and considered post; I appreciate the invitations it offers as well. Henry’s understanding that it was his ideas that threatened his “captors” is so vital and, in a way, encouraging, since imprisoning the thinker does nothing to alter or impede the ideas’ growth once they are freed in the world and, one hopes, caught up and shared by others.

    Thank you for your intelligent and challenging words. Gentle peace to your day.

    1. Dear Kitty,

      Why, thank you for that lovely comment!

      But first let me apologise for the delay in my responding back to you.

      Indeed, Henry’s perspective has such a wealth of learning in it, does it not. In his own way, he in fact articulated what Mahatma Gandhi had taught India at its height of subjugation under the British.

      However,as a spectator, I am left wondering about the rise of divisive forces and the consequences thereof in today’s world. Hence my invitation at the end of the post.

      Thank you once again for taking the time to engage here. I truly appreciate.


  5. Dear Shakti,

    Thank you for this very topical and apposite post. At a time when our nation is confronted with the spectre of rising intolerance, it is useful to remember that what can be achieved through forgiveness and reconciliation surpasses that which is achievable through confrontationist belligerence.

    Madiba was indeed a giant among men — a shining beacon — an example of a man who taught the world how to subsume the petty emotions of revenge and retaliation, and to make peace with his jailers and tormentors to achieve the higher end of healing his wounded nation.

    Though one had read about the horrors of apartheid, it was only when I visited the Apartheid Museum in Jo’burg that I was able to fully what the impact must have been. I was moved to tears by the visuals of man’s inhumanity to man. Later, when I had the occasion to visit Robben Island, and having read Mandela’s “Long Walk To Freedom”, it proved to be an even more profoundly moving experience.

    As our own country battles the demons of divisive politics and the dredging up of ancient grievances to justify present day atrocities, we have much to learn from Madiba’s example.

    Viney Sahgal
    ( Lounge session forum)

    1. Dear Sir ( Mr. Sahgal),

      Thank you for your very perceptive comment.

      Interesting is it not that while most of us understand and, in fact preach, that ‘revenge and retaliation’ are but products of fear and insecurity of the human mind, when the occasion arises for us to choose the high ground, we falter and join the mob. Our thoughts and actions on the ground sadly do not mirror our own understanding; our life’s conditioning overwhelms our knowledge and our reaction turns contrarian.

      With the above perspective, it becomes increasingly clear that Madiba was indeed a ‘giant among men’.The manner in which he went about extinguishing century old hatreds and creating a vision of unity and togetherness, would remain unique in the annals of history.

      Those words of Henry, our guide on Robben Island, did make me wonder as to how each one of us could stand in the Cause of the matter; mere ‘ learning and knowing’ can never be enough.

      Sir, with your permission I would like to shift your comment to my blog-site for the benefit of more eyeballs.

      Kind Regards

      Shakti Ghosal

    1. Dear Amy,

      I hold a different view here.

      People like Mandela come into this world to hold a mirror for us to ‘more clearly see ourselves’ in terms of our thoughts and actions. What they tell us as a teacher are things which we already know but fail to act upon.

      I believe it is within each one of us to “be the change we want to see in the world”.



  6. I guess it was good for Henry to make peace with the injustice he went through. Seems like he has a pure heart and good conscience and has really though about and analyzed his old days innumerable times.

  7. A great post. It was a dark era in the history of South African history. Nelson Mandela marked the world with virtues such as honesty, kindness and principles he fought for. A great man who walked the earth, fighting for freedom.

    1. Hi Vishal,

      Indeed Mandela was a giant who walked amongst men.But do you realise that much of his mindset and value system got created during his long years of captivity? Is it not interesting that Man’s great qualities seem to surface and shine in the face of immense adversity? These then become a Crucible experience, a trial and a test, a point of deep reflection that forces one to question who he is really and really matters for him. It requires one to examine one’s values, question one’s assumption and hone one’s judgement. And invariably a person emerges from the crucible stronger, more sure of himself and his purpose- changed in some fundamental way.

      Thank you for your kind acknowledgement.


      1. Hi Vishal,

        I tend to agree. It is only during trying and challenging times that the world has witnessed the emergence of giants like Mandela and Gandhi.

        Thank you for your visit and comment.


  8. Informative and philosophical all at once Shakti; and one is left in awe at the moral resolve and integrity of but very few beings who have trod this earth so courageously and unfalteringly as Madiba.

    1. Dear Hariod,

      Indeed Madiba was a giant among men.And the events he confronted and shaped were momentous and would be seen by future generations as major inflexion points in the history of Mankind.

      Thank you for your presence and taking time to comment. I appreciate.


  9. Wow, this is powerful. I confess that while I of course did know Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned for all those years, I did not know he was forced to do hard labor while there. An amazing story. The world would surely benefit if Henry’s perspective were more widely adopted, instead of violence and revenge. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Hi Bill,

      Glad you liked the post.

      What each one of us- you, me and others – need to reflect on is how we could play a part in spreading Henry’s perspective. That surely can go a long way in making this planet a better home for generations to come. What say you?

      I appreciate your kind comment.


  10. Hey my friend…Great post, as always! As to your question at the end. Upon thinking about it,
    (your posts always challenge my mind) the first thought that crept in was one word, force. It seems major shifts in consciousness most always come under force, such as awakening under the force of a near death experience. In this case it is force by imprisonment. It seems our greatest challenge going forward is figuring out how to accomplish a shift in perspective freely and naturally without the use of force. Like everything we fear and regard as impossible, it actually in the end is probably very simple, as Creator was all about simplicity! It’s up to us to figure it out :)Thanks for the challenge Shakti…btw, I found it interesting the sign at the entrance was misspelled. Seems they got more than spelling wrong. Blessings to you…VK

    1. Hi VK,

      Loved your comment…. for you are spot on! Indeed, major shifts in our consciousness have been found to occur under extremely adverse situations. I call this a ‘Crucible experience’ and I have elaborated on this in my response to Vishal above.

      Researchers have found that there are a few essential skills that allow an individual to find meaning from a debilitating “Crucible experience”. These are given below:

      1.Ability to engage others in a shared meaning. In other words, the vision of a created future which addresses the concerns of all those who are involved and into which future everyone comes to live into by taking appropriate actions in the present.

      2.A distinctive and compelling voice. In other words using the power of language.

      3.Adaptive capacity- the ability to transcend adversity with all its attendant stresses and emerge stronger from that experience. This is comprised of two primary qualities. Viz.
      (a) Ability to grasp context which requires to weigh in different factors, how different constituents might perceive the situation to putting in the situation in a perspective and
      (b) Hardiness which is the perseverance and toughness that enables a person to emerge from a devastating circumstance without losing hope.

      When you now revisit the life of Mandela, Gandhi and similiar leaders of humanity with the above perspective and explore their actions and values, you would see for yourself the veracity of the above.

      And VK, in response to your last comment, there is no mis-spelling! What is written is in Afrikaans, the official language of the Apartheid regime which is a mixture of Dutch, English, German etc.

      As always, thank you for bringing this great conversation here.


  11. Liked your feature on Robben Island. Eighteen years in a solitary cell and undergoing inhumanly harsh days of labour at the quarry are enough to ruin even the toughest mortal. That Madiba (as Nelson Mandela is fondly addressed and remembered by his legions of admirers) put up with it speaks volumes for his endurance and indomitable spirit. Henry’s observation here is indeed interesting and worth emulating. When one is strongly wedded to a cause, the energy that powers the effort is tremendous; it obliterates everything from the field of vision leaving hardly any room for rancour or bitterness against the oppressor; there are, in a subliminal state of mind, no entities or concerns, no torture or privations, only the goal that beckons. Once the task is accomplished, these exemplary beings go on to become models for humanity. Upon liberating his people and acquiring power, Madiba did not drive out the white population from the country. He accommodated them and allowed them to be and participate in nation building, as a consequence of which the whites are still very much there in South Africa, constituting about 15% of the total of around 54 million people.

    1. Hi Rajagopal,

      Loved your comment, particularly this thought of yours, “…When one is strongly wedded to a cause, the energy that powers the effort is tremendous; it obliterates everything from the field of vision leaving hardly any room for rancour or bitterness against the oppressor; there are, in a subliminal state of mind, no entities or concerns, no torture or privations, only the goal that beckons…”

      In my reply to Visionkeeper above, I have in fact elaborated on some of the intrinsic values and skills individuals like Mandela bring to bear in their leadership role of humanity.Upon liberation, Mandela did not drive out the white population but chose to integrate them into the South African society because he possessed clarity about ‘the vision of a created future which addresses the concerns of all those who are involved and into which future everyone comes to live into by taking appropriate actions in the present’.

      I truly appreciate your comment and presence here Raj.



  12. I am a believer in Nelson Mandela and hope he did not totally feel forgotten in prison. I cannot understand fear of differences in people snd could never feel censorship is right. Imprisoning someone or persecuting someone is wrong. Hopefully, God/Allah/ higher being will see and judge while we have no right (unless theft, killing or pain upon others, found guilty in a court of law) upon others. Blessings to you, Shakti.

    1. Hi,

      Great thoughts here. I would venture to say that it thus becomes important for each one of us to gain an understanding of what causes ‘fear of differences’, to use your words. It is only from such understanding can we gain clarity about the role each one of us could possibly play to make the world a better place for all of humanity.

      Some years back, I had in fact dwelled on the above ‘fears’ in a post and I provide the link here, should you find that of interest.

      Thank you for your visit.


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