'This is how we honour the old man' Mandela

Glynnis Underhill

A family pilgrimage, following former president Nelson Mandela's journey, has taken a poignant turn at Robben Island.

The Dlamini family approached Murray Bay Harbour on Robben Island. (David Harrison, M&G)

'We had to ­follow in the footsteps of the old man," Mcebo Dlamini explained on the boat going over to Robben Island in Table Bay this week. 

We were rocking around on the ancient Dias, a steel-hulled vessel once used to transport political ­prisoners to the island.

"It is a special trip for us before Nelson Mandela is buried," said the softly spoken retired school principal from KwaZulu-Natal. "We want to see where he stayed for some of the 27 years he was locked up in prison."

As the wind crept up at sea, his wife, Thokozina, had to hold down her blue floral dress. "Nelson Mandela was an amazing man and he meant so much to us as a family," she said earnestly, her curls whipping around her face. "He meant so much to all of us in the country. We want to see the prison where he was locked up, so he could free South Africa from apartheid."

This past week, the two ­pensioners undertook a long pilgrimage by car and train across the country to pay homage to Mandela.

For the Dlaminis, who are both in their 60s, it was a spiritual journey.  As Mandela fought for the liberation of all South Africans from the shackles of apartheid, they had followed his incredible story from their home in Emondlo township outside Vryheid in KwaZulu-Natal. This pilgrimage gave them the opportunity to pay their last respects. 

They dressed in fine fare for the trip to Robben Island. Sitting between the couple on a rusty bench was their beautiful granddaughter, 19-year-old Phakamile Khumalo, dazzling in a fuchsia-pink full-length dress. 

'Born-free' generation
A member of the "born-free" generation, she seemed carefree, a young student at the Durban University of Technology, with none of the baggage that came from living under the apartheid regime. Her mother also accompanied them on the trip, but declined to be interviewed.

The three generations travelled by car from KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg, where they stayed with relatives in Soweto. 

"We wanted to see where Mandela came from, so we went to his old home in Vilakazi Street, where the struggle started, and then we came down here," said Mcebo. 

They boarded a train to Cape Town, where they spent a night, and would later head back to Johannesburg to pick up their car, and return home. 

The Robben Island bus and prison tour is a slick operation, with former political prisoners used as guides on the island. We stopped off at the lime quarry, where Mandela did hard labour, and grandfather Dlamini was one of the few who stepped out of the bus to gaze at its vastness. 

"It is pathetic. It really hurts to see how he was forced to live," said the former headmaster. "The old man did a brilliant job, especially when you see what they did to him on the island."

Madiba worked in the quarry for 13 years digging up the lime, which was mixed with seashells to make roads on the island. The glare damaged his eyesight as the prisoners were not allowed to wear hats or sunglasses, Athlone struggle veteran Allan Fourie explained on the bus. 

Now a world heritage site, the bleak Robben Island is much in demand as a tourist spot and it no longer houses any prisoners. People from around the world learn on the island about the "dompas" ­– the dreaded passbook – and other historical facts about the apartheid system.

It was Kgotso Ntsoelengoe, a former political prisoner on the island, who led us to Madiba's cell number five. 

Alongside a mat on the floor, a candle is now flickering in honour of the passing of Mandela, prisoner number 46664. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Madiba said: "I could walk the length of my cell in three paces."

We later passed the isolation block, which is closed off to ­tourists.

"Former political prisoners took a decision that it is still too painful for us," Ntsoelengoe quietly explained to the Mail & Guardian. "We are not ready yet to go back in there."

'It is so sad'
Mcebo walked apart from his family as we headed back to the boat.

"It is so sad," he said, as he came to the end of his pilgrimage. "I am pleased that the great man was released from this place and that I have now finally seen where a lot of Mandela's life was wasted."

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