Standing inside Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell in section B of the maximum security prison on Robben Island, I felt inspired by hope. Robben Island, located off the coast of Cape Town, is the Alcatraz of South Africa. They kept two types of prisoners here: the criminals convicted of the crimes you would expect, and political prisoners.
Mandela was a political prisoner for 27 years, the first 18 of which were spent on Robben Island in this tiny cell. He spent the remaining 9 years in two other prisons on the mainland, until his release in 1990. When I saw his former cell, the first thought that surfaced was “how did he fit lying down?” He was a tall man, and there is no way that he could have lied down comfortably and fully extended on the ground. This cell was maybe 6 square meters, and he not only spent 18 years there but it was this prison cell where he developed his perspectives on freedom and kept faith that he would one day be free. The conditions of the prison were not grand by any means.
I was fortunate that my tour today was being given by a former political prisoner who was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1977-1982. He was arrested as a teenager, and during his high school years was an active voice against apartheid. Hearing about life in prison through his eyes and experience made it feel all the more real. Mandela successfully inspired a nation to come together and avoided civil war in the 90’s. He shared: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison.” During a walking tour of Cape Town yesterday, I visited the historic place where Mandela made his first speech as a free man.
There were apparently over 100,000 people who waited all day to hear his words. The crowds made it difficult for him to actually get to the stage. He was scheduled to speak at 2pm that day and was not able to appear until 9pm that night. Among his many messages to the people was the instruction to vote in the election that would end the apartheid. Mandela embodied hope and it was his struggles that gave him the strength to help free the nation.
When I reflect on the struggles I’ve experienced in business, relationships and health (both physical and mental), I am reminded that these very struggles have been a source of strength for my life. And my attitude towards struggle begins to change and be one of gratitude.