Eighteen years ... it's the duration of one's life until they come of age, the age which the law considers a person to be an adult capable of making their own decisions. The first eighteen years of one's life mark the first of many phases in life, and for that person making the journey into adulthood, it feels like a lifetime. For the average Canadian, eighteen years is nearly a quarter of their entire life ...
Eighteen years ... referencing A Tale of Two Cities once more, it's also the amount of time Dr. Manette spent in the Bastille, unjustly imprisoned by a powerful French nobleman because of his knowledge of a secret that could destroy the nobleman's family. It's a brilliant story, but fantastic in the sense that it is so unbelievable, so far from reality that it could never happen in real life. Imagine a similar story taking place in South Africa, one in which a great man is wrongfully imprisoned for nearly two decades by powerful men, for fear that he could destroy the nation's way of life, reducing the governing regime to rubble. Something like this could never happen in real life, right?
Eighteen years ... it's not the number of years Nelson Mandela spent as a political prisoner; he actually spent 27 years in jail. But eighteen years is how long Nelson Mandela was incarcerated at Robben Island, South Africa's most infamous penitentiary during the Apartheid era. For all of Cape Town's beauty and must-see attractions like the V&A Waterfront, its beaches, and Table Mountain ... Robben Island is really the place every tourist here is obliged to visit, because it not only tells the story of a great man, but also the tale of the rebirth of a nation.
It's not easy visiting here, as the island is limited to only a small number of visitors per day, requiring that tickets be booked several days in advance, but it's well worth the effort. Though Mandela is its most famous past resident, the tour through the island tells the stories of many others, detailing their despair and the inhumane conditions they all suffered through. It's interesting to note that all the tour guides who walk you through the prison are actually former political prisoners, because it makes you wonder why anybody would want to return to a place filled with such horrific memories ... but that's how important the tales of Robben Island are, and how important it is for people to hear and learn from them.
Beyond the human rights violations, perhaps the most striking aspect of prison life here was that Apartheid still reared its ugly head at every opportunity. Daily rations were distinctly different depending on the prisoner's race - always less for Africans, and more for coloureds. Our guide told us that in the end, these rations didn't matter - the coloureds always shared whatever they had with the Africans, and it's a telling fact about the human spirit, that even in prison, government-mandated discrimination couldn't defeat the spirit of unity that the marginalized peoples of South Africa held in such high regard.
Rainbow Nation is a term used by Desmond Tutu to describe post-Apartheid South Africa - simple words conveying the idea of multiculturalism. Whether or not South Africa has achieved the ideals of the Rainbow Nation is debatable, as the racial divide is still far too blatant, at least, to the casual observer. But in some South African indigenous cultures, a rainbow represents hope and a bright future - who knows how long it will take for that future to become reality, but when it does, it's important to remember that the seeds were sown in, of all places, a prison.