When I went to South Africa in the winter of 2008, I was eager to cross the Atlantic Ocean and set foot on African soil for the first time. Also, I was excited to be able to meet and share ideas with the other young finalists of the International Essay Competition I have mentioned before in my blogs. And yet, I wasn’t expecting that South Africa would also teach me a lesson about how cruel human beings can be as well as how crucial forgiveness is for a society.
On my first day in Cape Town, a beautiful blue sky and strong wind gave me an unforgettable welcome. I had just met Saptarshi (from India) and Hermann (from Ivory Coast) the night before, and we decided to walk to the city’s Waterfront, where we visited the Two Oceans Aquarium and were able to witness a breathtaking view of Table Mountain. We then decided to go to Robben Island, where the old Apartheid jail was. So, off to the island we went, crossing the deep blue sea while Cape Town and Table Mountain looked more and more majestic as you can see in the picture I took as the boat moved ahead.
If I remember right, “Robben” is an English adaptation of the word for penguins in Dutch. The island was called Robben Island, because hundreds of years ago, penguins used to be all over the island. At some point in the early 19th century it was decided that all lepers would be sent there to be kept away from society, and that every building they touched would be torn down (that’s why there are only two buildings on the island that survived those years). Many years later, the Apartheid jail was built there, to be home to some of the greatest cruelty and injustice our world has seen.
When we arrived at the jail, we met our guide (the one in the picture) who had actually been a prisoner there. He told us that all guides had also been prisoners so as to include testimonies and make visitors from all over the world conscious of the awful events that had taken place there. Hopefully, that would help make sure that things like that would never, ever, happen again in South Africa or any other country in the world.
He let us in his memories of those dark years and he made it clear that the scars left by the torture he suffered were never going to fade away. As he told us the story, I almost cried twice and I asked myself: why do things like this happen? How is it possible that human beings, just like us, could do so much harm? These are questions to which I will never be able to find a good answer.
He also told us that all was forgiven now (which was confirmed by his peacefulness and serenity, as well as his words full of wisdom). He showed us Nelson Mandela’s cell and he told us stories about how the whole revolution was planned from the inside of the jail, and how peace, forgiveness and hope started to be built since the moment Mandela was out of jail. As a Colombian who has lived all her life in a country that has very deep scars from violence, for me South African history teaches an amazing lesson of forgiveness.
Ever since that day I can’t help to wonder: are we, the new generations, conscious enough of all the mistakes our fathers made, to not make them again? I just hope the answer to this question is yes. Our world needs youth that care about the past to learn from it, and apply that experience to the present we live in and the future we’re planning, to achieve truly positive impact.