Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2014 (March 18, 2014 at 6:00 am)

Visiting Robben Island

March 14, 2014 at 2:19 pm

By Tom Warren

Tom Warren
Professor Emeritus Tom Warren, left, and anti-apartheid activist
Ahmed Kathrada met on the way to Robben Island. Photo courtesy
of Tom Warren.

Feb. 11, 1990: I’ll always remember what I saw on television this day: Nelson Mandela walking out of prison after 27 years. Four years later, he was the first democratically elected president of South Africa. A year later, with the support of Beloit College, I made my first trip to South Africa to learn more about the new era and pave the way for our students to practice-teach in underprivileged schools.

They would be placed near Cape Town, a dynamic international port, and like all major South African cities, surrounded by sprawling, impoverished shanty townships. Prosperous whites lived in the city. Impoverished black, Indian, and mixed-raced Africans were limited to squalid “informal” settlements.

Cape Town had another attraction: the notorious 1,200 acre Robben Island, a few miles out to sea. Starting at the end of the 17th century it served as a leper colony, animal quarantine station, and prison. Since 1961, it held apartheid South Africa’s most feared political adversaries. People like Nelson Mandela.

Mandela spent 20 of his 27 years behind bars there. He and other anti-apartheid activists worked all day in the glaring light of limestone quarries that damaged their eyes.

In addition to Mandela, prisoners included Ahmed “Kathy” Kathrada, the leading Indian anti-apartheid activist.

During a 1998 trip to South Africa, my Beloit traveling companion, J. B. Elzy of the School District of Beloit, and I coincidentally crossed paths with Mr. Kathrada. We were fellow passengers on a small boat heading for Robben Island. He was voluntarily going back to where he was forced to serve 20 years of a life sentence.

We felt we “had to” make the boat trip to the island, which by then had been turned into a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What a surprise and delight to find out that Kathrada—that Kathrada—was with us ... returning to a place where Mandela and other creators of a new South Africa suffered relentless pain and indignity. 

Why would he want to return? We were to learn that many prisoners did just that, some to work as guides. Following his release from prison, Kathrada became a member of parliament and an important advisor to Mandela.

December 2013: These days, during the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s life, Kathrada’s voice has been prominent around the world, telling tales of his friend and their years on Robben Island. The other day I heard him say, “We saw the bars and looked through them to the stars. We paid more attention to the stars.”

Tom Warren taught in Beloit’s department of education from 1970 to 2001.

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