Monday, December 02, 2013

Prisoner 44664 :

Master of his fate. Captain of his soul.

Looking back to Cape Town from the boat heading to Robben Island

One of the highlights of our recent trip to South Africa was a visit to Robben Island, the former prison, now a museum, some 7 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. A prison since the 17th century, its most famous prisoner was, of course, Nelson Mandela who was the 446th man to be incarcerated at Robben Island in 1964.

Many children born after 1994 have heard of Nelson Mandela but some may not know why he is famous. "What exactly did he do?", my daughter asked, as our boat headed out of the harbour on that beautiful clear day. Similarly, lots of children living outside South Africa have heard about apartheid but don't really understand why this recent history is important - not just to South Africans - but to everyone who believes in social justice and human rights.

So our visit to Robben Island provided context to my explanations. Seeing the prison cells, hearing the stories - the guides are former political prisoners and former prison guards - made these important events and people real and immediate. This really happened but the commitment of Nelson Mandela and many other activists eventually led to significant social and political change in South Africa.

Mr Mandela is now 95 years old and is in poor health. At the time we visited South Africa, there was genuine sorrow in the country because Mr Mandela represents all that is good about post-apartheid South Africa, the ideal of a free and harmonious society. He is a beloved and unifying figure in a country facing complex social, racial and economic challenges.

You can find out more about Nelson Mandela and apartheid if you click on the links.

Nelson Mandela's prison cell, Robben Island

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years at Robben Island after being found guilty of the crime of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1982, he was transferred to the first of two other prisons in which he served time (for a total of 27 years) before his eventual release in 1990.  In 1994, following the first open elections in South African history, Mr Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

Mr Mandela's inspiring story is representative of many who were involved in the struggle for democratic rule in South Africa. It is the triumph of the human spirit over great adversity. Mr Mandela's greatest achievement, in my view, was to emerge from his long ordeal without bitterness and recrimination, still believing in the possibility of a free and harmonious South Africa and prepared to make it a reality.

At his 1964 trial (the Rivonia Trial) which led to his imprisonment, Mr Mandela made a court statement which became a catalyst for the anti-apartheid movement to agitate, both in South Africa and internationally, for his release - and that of other political prisoners - and for the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa. The most famous part of the statement is:
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Literature plays a significant role in the story of Mr Mandela who has published a number of books including his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which was written during his internment at Robben Island where the manuscript was hidden in the garden in a prison yard.

The poem, Invictus (meaning unconquerable or undefeated in Latin), by the English poet, William Ernest Henley, is said to have provided solace to Mr Mandela during his internment at Robben Island where many of his ideas about social equality and good government were formed and developed. The poem was first published in 1875.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The film, Invictus, based on the book, Playing the Enemy by John Carlin dramatises the events surrounding the 1995 Rugby World Cup which was won by South Africa and used by Mr Mandela to unite the nation behind the Springboks team. It is worth watching.

The prison yard where Mr Mandela hid the manuscript to his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom

Recommended Books for Children

Of course not everyone can visit South Africa but, luckily, this is a place where we talk about books - which can take us on all sorts of journeys even when we have to stay put.

I asked Marj Brown, the national coordinator for the Kids' Lit Quiz in South Africa and Gill Murdoch, the coach of the 2013 Kids' Lit Quiz world champion team, to recommend some children's books about this era in South African history.

Journey to Jo'burg by Beverley Naidoo (1985)

Journey to Jo'burg is about two children who go on a journey to Johannesburg to find their mother who is a domestic worker. It is very good for explaining apartheid.

Beverley Naidoo is a South African writer who was a political activist. She has lived in exile in the United Kingdom for many years. Beverley's book, Chain of Fire, describes the Homelands policies and forced removals of people. Also see Beverley's website where she describes her political activism and how it led to her exile as well as information about her books and her work as a children's author.

Long walk to Lavender Street by Belinda Hollyer (2002)

Cape Town's District Six is a lively community of people from many different ethnic backgrounds and it's a wonderful place to live. It's 1966 in apartheid South Africa and the Group Areas Act will turn District Six into a whites only area. Whole families are being forced to move to segregated zones, according to the colour of their skin.

92 Queen’s Road by Diane Case (1995)

Living a sheltered life with her loving family in Cape Town in the 1960s, Kathy comes to realize that she is considered a lesser person by many because of the color of her skin. Diane's first book, Love David is also recommended. A story about a Cape Coloured boy growing up during the apartheid era who becomes involved in illegal activity as he tries to escape the poverty of his family life.

Ruby Red by Linzi Glass (2007)

Ruby’s opulent Johannesburg neighbourhood is a far cry from the streets of Soweto where anger and hatred simmer under the surface. Ruby falls for a blue-eyed Afrikaans boy whose presence brings hushed whispers and disapproving glances.

Solomon's Story by Judy Froman (2011)

A very good book, set in 1977, about a freedom fighter - a young activist - who joins Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC (African National Congress).

Blood Runner: The Long Race to Freedom by James Riordan (2011)

Inspired by Josiah Thugwane, the first black South African to win an Olympic gold medal. The story starts with a peaceful protest against the carrying of Pass Books, in which the protesters are mown down by police gunfire.

Soweto by Peter Magubane (1978)

A great photographic essay about Soweto's uprising in 1976.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela (1994)

There is also an abridged version of Long Walk to Freedom written by Chris van Wyk (1990) who has also written a series about freedom fighters (activists). His own story as told in the book, Shirley, Goodness and Mercy (2004) is wonderful.

Thank you, Marj and Gill, for these recommendations.


  1. I wrote this post in October after our return from the Kids' Lit Quiz world final in South Africa. I thought that it might be prudent to keep a post in reserve in case one of the guest authors broke a leg or was otherwise unable to deliver their post on time. But as you can see if you look over this last month - everyone was magnificent! So, here's the spare post. I hope you find it interesting - but if not, look over the last month's writing. There's lots of great writing on interesting topics by fantastic writers.

  2. "Long Walk to Freedom" has recently been made into a film, featuring
    Idris Elba.

    I attended the Australian premiere last Sunday at the Canberra International Film Festival whethe film was introduced by the South African High Commissioner to Australia. It is worth seeing, if you can.