Is humanity’s innate nature good or evil? Would we, without thinking, give our hand to someone who has fallen and raise them up, or would we keep walking or worse still, push them back down. This has been a subject that academics and philosophers alike have been pondering for centuries.
At its core, the simple question is are we basically good and are corrupted by society, or are we born bad and society keeps us in check? An ingenious study conducted by the inventive brains at Yale University has suggested that even the youngest humans have a keen sense of what is right over wrong and better yet prefer good over evil. This elegant study will be a subject for a later column but today I prefer to take you on another journey.
This odyssey begins from the southernmost tip of this glorious continent. The sun blazes, casting its radiance as far as the eye can see. I think there should be a special name for the blue the sky projects. A gentle breeze cools our stage. This is Cape Town at its finest. My brother-in-law Aamir described it as perfectly as I could imagine. He says in this city wherever he looks he only sees everything in high definition. Today we climb aboard to embark on a journey. The craft we board is not for a private champagne and caviar tour of Cape Town’s finest sights. This journey is far more sinister. It is a journey into the deepest darkest night. The blackness of the human spirit, the true heart of darkness.
Here I must retract, this is not the beginning of the story, it began in 1948 with South Africa’s segregation policies. This was the genesis of apartheid. What a strange word. It looks strange and sounds even worse. The architect of this policy under its thinly veiled guise instated white supremacy and enforced racial segregation, was Hendrik Verwoerd. It allowed the white government to separate and curtail the human rights of the majority black population. This brutal government would stop at nothing, not even murder to enforce these barbaric laws. Here I wonder why no one in his inner circle or even his wife Betsie might have said to him, “Hendrik, we have our domestic workers and they love their children like we do, laugh at jokes like we do, and I even saw somebody scrape their knee and their blood was red just like ours. How are they any different from us?”
I now return to our journey. Our destination, as I am sure you have already guessed, is the iconic Robben Island. As we disembark, the view afforded us is astonishing. Table Mountain in its full glory. One can only imagine what Bartholemeu Dias must have thought when he rounded the tip of Africa and happened upon its most vivid physical feature. As we soaked up the atmosphere, in any other than these grim circumstances this place would be paradise. It is here that South Africa’s guilt is present for all to see. As we gather and make our way to the main buildings I am encouraged by my surroundings. It is almost like the United Nations. Some people wear skin of all colours and articulate words in many languages. Indeed this is now truly the Rainbow Nation. What might have seemed impossible years ago was now an undeniable reality.
In the main reception area, we were given name tags and assigned to our guides for the tour of the island and its buildings. This is a moment etched in my psyche forever. Standing in front of us, all of 70-plus years, wearing black trousers with a white shirt and accented with a burgundy beret, was Alfred. Even Jay Z on his best day would do well to look half as cool as him. He had a beautiful kind face with a little smile cemented on his lips. It was a seemingly sad smile. But what really gave it away was the melancholy in his eyes. He had been an inmate on this island prison. When he spoke, he spoke clearly but deliberately, with a slight tilt of his head. I could not take my eyes off him and I hung on his every word. He had been incarcerated on Robben Island for seven years. Why I cannot remember, but just know it was a crime no worse than me teasing my little sister Sadia. As he took us on the tour and related apartheid’s cruel story I could not help but think why would Alfred return every working day to the place that attempted to steal his soul. I then realised, but who better to show the world than somebody who had taken that trek himself. One would have thought that the air would be permeated with sadness. Surprisingly, it was not. But rather there was a feeling of strength and solidarity that the former inmates had injected into the atmosphere. This was a place where hearts were forged from steel and brother protected brother. During the expedition, there was an interesting bit of information imparted. The Robben Island warden was relocated periodically. Why you might ask? Apartheid’s engineers may have been cruel, but foolish they were not. They realised that even their own may not agree with its manifest. As time on the island passed and days became months, the jailers would have realised that these were men who wanted nothing more for themselves than what the rest of the free world had. A family to love, dignity and freedom. And when compassion and mutual respect raised their heads, it was time to move on. Finally, it was time to see the stark 2x2m former home of Africa’s most famous prisoner. Prisoner 46664. Overwhelmed with emotion and a sense of fierce pride I realised that in this little space, Prisoner 46664 defied Newton’s Laws. No gray walls or iron bars could contain his invincible spirit.
It was time to say goodbye and bring this cathartic journey to an end. Alfred turned to us with that indelible smile and asked if we had any questions. I could interrogate Alfred for a thousand years and still not have all my questions answered. But today there was a single searing question. “Was it difficult to forgive?” It was as if time stood still as Alfred gazed at a chosen spot on the floor. Did it have the answer? The time passed. It felt like an eternity but no words came. The silence became deafening. Then finally, “It was difficult, I was angry and bitter for many years. But I finally realised that I was only hurting myself feeling that way. It was only then when I forgave, that I myself could find inner peace.” We were mesmerised. I fought a titanic battle with my lacrimal glands to stem the tsunami of tears approaching. My resistance was futile and a single tear unleashed and crashed down my cheek on its gravitational journey. A second followed. It was a war I did not fight alone. You could feel apartheid’s shame weighing on our entire Rainbow Nation group. Black, white, and brown all together as one.
I pay tribute to this great man, Alfred. Apartheid’s attempt to shred this man’s dignity and destroy his soul had failed. David had slain Goliath. There were family members who by their actions big and small helped fight the apartheid beast. My uncles Zeib and Alim Jeeva, Shamshudin Chand (who along with him and his family were brutally murdered in Sikwane by the apartheid secret police), and my father Aziz Chand. But most of all I pledge honour to my hero, OUR hero, a man of immeasurable strength, indomitable spirit, wisdom, and most of all forgiveness, the incomparable Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. May his beautiful soul Rest In Peace.
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” – Nelson Mandela