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Taking the Kids: A visit to Robben Island

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Content Agency on

The community center does the best it can to occupy children after school, teaching some the ancient art of drumming while teens sketch and women paint pottery to be sold.

Robben Island, meanwhile, is considered a symbol of "the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, suffering and injustice." It is here that Mandela emerged as a leader of the African National Congress.

Nelson Mandela was in his 40s when he arrived on June 13, 1964, already a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. His cell had no furniture, only a bucket for a toilet. Virtually the entire leadership of the African National Congress had been arrested and Mandela, already serving a prison term, was given a life sentence and transported to Robben Island. From 1962 to 1991, some 3,000 political prisoners were incarcerated here.

Mandela's famous autobiography "Long Walk to Freedom," was begun when he was at Robben Island and last year, on the centennial of his birth, "The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela," was published, documenting not only his treatment but his efforts to stay connected with his family. He was not permitted to see his two youngest children, just toddlers when he went to prison, until they were teenagers. He was not permitted to attend either his mother's or his eldest son's funerals.

"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom," Mandela famously said, "I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."


After his release (in 1990), he served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, sharing it with Frederik Willem de Klerk, who as president of South Africa had released him and had worked to end apartheid.

But like others here who grew up during apartheid, Langda Township's Nboda Mbombo has no education and limited prospects today, nearly 30 years after Mandela walked out of prison. Many adults here are illiterate. Unemployment is at 80 percent. "I wake up every day and look for work," he said. "I think maybe tomorrow will be my turn."


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