I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul. "Invictus" is said to have been Nelson Mandela's favorite poem. Penned by Victorian poet William Ernest Henley, the words inspired Mandela during his 27-year imprisonment. "Madiba" was born 100 years ago this month: July 18, 1918.  While the world mourned his passing in 2013, tributes throughout the past week to commemorate Mandela's centenary remind us that his legacy continues to live on... 

A Place I Never Learned About: Touching Down In South Africa

My first trip to Cape Town in 2013 to meet my (now) husband's family. Mandela's funeral took place the same week. I write more about this in Part 2.

It's certainly unexpected, where life takes you. This wasn't what I had in mind. My husband was born and raised in South Africa. Growing up in the US, I have no recollection of ever hearing much about this place at the bottom of the globe, or even registering separate countries in Africa, for that matter. It first came on my radar in college. I was [vaguely] exposed to Apartheid and segregation in South Africa, and I remember being shocked that this existed into the early 1990s. My "adult" understanding was further shaped by Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon's Hollywood depiction: a political prisoner named Nelson Mandela walked free, became the first black president, and united the Rainbow Nation – all colors, all people – through the Rugby World Cup in the mid-'90s. And they all lived happily ever after. 

The same year the movie Invictus was released (2009), when I was 23, I left my small town and embarked on a backpacking adventure overseas. It was meant to be four months; it turned into over seven years living outside the United States. Growth. Gosh, I learned so much about the world beyond my narrative in those years. I've been so awed and humbled, it's somewhat painful to admit (but then, that's the whole purpose of this blog for me). I met my South African (now) husband at our local pub in West Hampstead, London while we were both living in the UK. South Africa now means family, a piece of my heart, a place I call one of my homes – and yet, I acknowledge that I will never fully understand this complicated land. I will always be an outsider here, too.

Newspapers I collected during my first trip to SA...

It was the same week as Mandela's funeral in 2013.

Marking 100 years since Mandela's birth, celebrating International #MandelaDay, and hearing Barack Obama's speech in Johannesburg last week had me reflecting on the most special spot to me in Cape Town: my husband's home, a very specific stretch of beach with a very specific view. It's a view that can only be seen from one other place; one that Nelson Mandela knew all too well: Robben Island.  

"To Steal A View of The Glorious Vista"

Bloubergstrand. Table View. THE postcard view of Table Mountain. This is the beach where Shane grew up in Cape Town. If you dove into the ocean from this spot and swam due west, you’d hit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years as a political prisoner, from 1963-1990. On a clear day, you can see it. It looks close, but it’s five miles/eight kilometers out...so no one is actually making that swim (save, the brave few Freedom Swimmers each April to commemorate SA's first fully-representative democratic election in 1994, when Mandela became president).

We spend a lot of time strolling this stretch of beach when we are in Cape Town. It is peaceful…never very crowded. Sometimes it's like a ghost town, except for the wind surfers. The wind can be intense. The car door nearly blows off when you pull the handle. We know this beach well. We know the rugged rocks where the waves crash in Little Bay, and when to scurry across to Big Bay before high tide consumes the walkway. We know the scattered few restaurants and the best spot for coffee. We know the pull-offs where lone vendors sell wooden spoons carved into giraffes, and elephant figurines, and colorful tapestries. Shane feels at peace here. It’s the first place we come when we touchdown, and the last place we go the morning before we leave (and many times in between). We just sit and stare out at Table Mountain and listen to the waves roll in, foam up, and drag out.

People have asked how I've snapped that “postcard” photo because most travelers tend to stay in the city centre (directly in/around the mountain base). They wouldn’t know to drive up the west coastline, turn around, and look back. But there you have it. That "glorious vista" (in Mandela's own words).

From Robben Island, Mandela's prison of 18 years, the postcard view of Table Mountain is roughly the same as from Blouberg. It’s the only other piece of land where you can stare at the full table laid out flat beyond the ocean. I’ve taken the photo – from both spots. I didn't swim out. They now run daily guided tours of Robben Island with a roundtrip ferry ticket from the V&A Waterfront. The guides are former political prisoners. Many have stories to tell of their time in captivity with Mandela. 

What haunted me most during my visit to Robben Island was standing inside the prison yard and not being able to see out. Our guide told us that the stone walls were purposely built just high enough to block sight of the ocean, the harbor, the city lights – and Table Mountain. A few inches, or perhaps a foot or two. Stone walls and barbed wire. To know that so much beauty was on the other side. An attempt to break the human spirit. 

I've wondered if knowing – visualizing – what was beyond those walls is something that kept Mandela going (he was a visionary, after all). He used to tend a garden in the prison yard. He secretly began writing his memoir A Long Walk To Freedom here. The inmates, including Mandela, were transported around the island for forced labor in rock quarries, and so they could glimpse the world beyond while breaking limestone; but the intent of their daily view inside the prison was isolation and dehumanization. 

The (same) table view from Robben Island that inmates would not have been able to see from behind the walls.

Walls just high enough to block the view of Cape Town; Mandela tended a garden in this prison yard.

Visualizing Robben Island: Google Street View Tour, guided by former political prisoner Vusumsi Mcongo 

I sometimes picture my husband playing on Blouberg Beach as a kid in the mid-1980s. Mandela had been transported to another prison in Cape Town a year or two before this (he spent 1963-1982 on Robben Island), but in my head, I envision both of them in front of the table view, on the same day, separated by some waves and water. If they both stare forward, at the very same moment, they should have the very same view. But they don’t. One sees the table. One sees stone wall and barbed wire. One is a child who has no understanding of the island or the prison or what it represents. One is an adult who knows the world is not just, and that there is a beautiful vista just beyond his sight. 

I've asked Shane if he remembers his earliest years in a segregated society, but things like separate water fountains or "Whites Only" signs or identity numbers coded by race didn't register to a child. These were institutions put in place by adults. Adults who understood what they were doing [note: the colonial history of South Africa and how Apartheid came to be in 1948 is something to read up on separately]. Shane says he does recall the 1992 Referendum – mostly because he remembers his family wearing "Yes" buttons (voting to end Apartheid; the referendum was limited to white voters, roughly 11% of the nation). He was nine-years-old, so his most distinct memory is buttons...but he didn't really comprehend what was happening.

It all makes you reflect on how worldviews are shaped. As Mandela said: 
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

Mandela believed deeply in education, the example set for our younger generations, and constant growth: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” The more I've learned about South Africa, my own country, and the world through my travels the past decade, the more I've been humbled by how much I did not know, and how much I have to learn.

I continue my lessons from South Africa in Part 2 – my first trip there, which was the week Nelson Mandela passed away...

 Continued: Read Part 2: My First Trip To South Africa: The Week The World Lost Mandela

Nelson Mandela's 8 ft x 7 ft cell on Robben Island. He slept on a straw mat. Blacks or "bantus" (Category C) were rationed less food than whites (Category A) and coloured/Asiatics (Category B).


Mapping it: Cape Town is situated on the southwestern corner at the very bottom of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans meet.

Robben Island and Bloubergstrand both look inward toward Table Mountain (De Waterkant area on map).