|FEBRUARY 17, 2014||SPRING 2014, No. 6|
Anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada and Ford Foundation President Darren Walker travel to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other activists were imprisoned for decades.Saturday, February 15, 2014
Morning came very early once again for the entire Ford team. This time it was to catch a quick breakfast before heading toward the Cape Town harbor for an hour boat ride to Robben Island - the prison home to Nelson Mandela for 27 years.
We had been looking at Robben Island for the last two days from our hotel while during our visit to the University of Cape Town and from Tabletop Mountain. But nothing really prepared us for the long boat ride navigating the large and menacing swells of the Atlantic Ocean. It was further away from Cape Town than it had appeared from land It was far enough that the only semi-successful escape had occurred in the 1600s, semi because the prisoners escaped their cells only to later drown in the ocean.
The host for our tour was Ahmed Kathrada, a native South African of Indian descent who had joined the anti-apartheid struggle early on. He spent 18 years on Robben Island and another 7 years in another prison with Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. After his release in 1989, he was elected as a member of parliament and served as parliamentary counsellor in the office of President Mandela. Today, he serves as chairperson of the Robben Island Council, and once in a great while, helps host a tour. When President Obama visited Robben Island, Ahmed hosted the president.
Ahmed spoke reverently about his time at the prison. He, like the many other political activists imprisoned there, had given up a great part of their own lives and had been separated from their families for the greater cause of fighting apartheid. It was not a decision to be taken lightly then or to be taken for granted now.
After the private tour, he boarded the boat back to Cape Town with us as if the routine of just visiting the island had always been possible for him. As he walked from the boat to his car accompanied by an aide, I saw tourists pass by him unaware that they were in the presence of a very special man. He didn't seem to mind having grown accustomed to being humbled over the many years.
Providentially, I had stopped by the gift shop to buy a couple of Mandela T-shirts when one of my fellow board members told me that a book of his memoirs was also on sale. I bought it. Just as I left the gift shop, I saw Ahmed walking by unnoticed by the new crowd of tourists headed to the Island.
I caught up with him and asked if he would sign his memoirs. He smiled gently, accepted the book and the pen from me, and then signed it. His writing was small and humble, much like the man himself. He smiled again when he handed it back to me.
I often wonder why I have been given the privilege to visit so many wonderful places and come to know so many extraordinary human beings. I'm still not certain I understand the personal journey that I am meant to travel, but I am certain that having met someone like Ahmed Kathrada, I have come to know more about personal suffering and dedication, lifelong commitment and authentic sacrifice.
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