Eddie calls his time on Robben Island a “boon time,” whereas most would consider imprisonment and forced labor a “bust.” Eddie uses a different measure of life than most of us to justify that he was indeed lucky for his time spent on Robben Island. For him, he was lucky because of who he was with, what he did with his time and what he learned from his experience.
Eddie was imprisoned with other political prisoners, in isolation from all others because they were considered the biggest threat to the South African state. They were by no means the first political prisoners on that island. According to information at the dock, the first known political prisoners held on Robben Island were Autshumato, a native who spoke Dutch, and two khoikhoi men who were sent there in 1658. So, by the time Eddie arrived, Robben Island had a history of holding political prisoners spanning more than 300 years.
For the first couple of years, prisoners weren’t allowed to leave their cells and prison yard. This meant they spent all of their time completely cut-off from the outside world. They were surrounded by high walls, allowing no one to see in or out.
To give you an idea of how small their cells were, I measured the cell in paces. Putting heal to toe together, I paced cell dimensions as 6 by 7 paces. When German Shepherd dogs were brought in to monitor the inmates and to track attempted escapees, their kennels were significantly larger than the cells of the prisoners.
Eddie’s cell was at the far end of the hallway. This added to his feeling of isolation. Mandela’s cell, on the other hand, was closer to the entrance of the prison yard.
Mandela was only one of the great men Eddie spent his time with. Because all were political prisoners, they had much in common. They came from different religious, education and economic backgrounds, but all were there for the same reason-fighting against apartheid.
One of the men Eddie said was, “truly inspiring,” is Johnson Mlambo. On one occasion, Mlambo was accused by a guard for throwing his soup on him, staining the guard’s uniform. For this alleged offense, he was sentenced to six lashes.
When Mlambo was taken out of the company of the other prisoners, they knew he was being punished. All of them sat in the prison yard, smashing their stones with hammers, as they did every day. Each time the door to the yard opened, or someone walked past, they looked to see if it was Mlambo.
After some time he returned, bloodied from the six lashings he had received. Considering that one lash is enough to open skin and make one bleed, six lashes would be too much for most to bear. As he walked in, the prisoners watched his every move. The guards also watched, hoping to see some sign of weakness. Any indication of pain would give the guards some sense of accomplishment in knowing they had beaten him down.
Mlambo was an educated man and a gentlemen. He always carried himself with dignity. Without a wince or grimmace, he walked the same exact path he did every day. He sat in the same place and silently began chipping away at the stones.
Together they sat. Together they continued in silence. Together they faithfully worked at their demeaning task. Together.
Eddie said that all of the men were heartened by Mlambo’s courage and strength. They found new purpose in what they were doing. By going about his business, as though it were every other day, Mlambo displayed a spirit that refused to be crushed by an oppressor. Based upon this and similar experiences, one could argue they experienced more freedom in prison than they had known in public.
Eddie was blessed because of who he was with on Robben Island. He was surround by men, such as Mandela and Mlambo, whose spirit could not be crushed. He found a purpose in demeaning labor because he was working with men he admired and loved. There was a great sense of community and meaning in what they were doing.
What about you? Who have you surrounded yourself with? Are the people in your life lifting you up or dragging you down? Why?