South Africa, Where the Sun Sets on an Empty Prison


Former assistant news editor Joergen Ostensen reflects on the time he has spent in South Africa, where he has taken classes at the University of Pretoria and done things such as visit Robben Island. (Courtesy of Joergen Ostensen for the Fordham Ram)

By Joergen Ostensen

The sun was rising above the bush as our vehicle made its way to the lion. This was the same lion whose roars I had heard just beyond the boundaries of camp the night before, under the blazing stars and the reddish glow of the moon.

He sat there now, his mane catching the light. I will probably never forget how beautiful his hazel eyes were as they looked in my direction. It was truly a moment to imagine a different relationship between humanity and the other creatures of this wonderful planet — a world devoid of greed, hate and exploitation.

Context of the history of South Africa in mind, I am overcome with sadness at how such experiences were and continue to be denied to the native people. I am reminded of Nelson Mandela’s description of seeing elephants and lions for the first time while he was in exile in Tanzania.

Lamenting how the apartheid regime restricted the movements and liberty of black people in South Africa, Mandela wrote that, while in Tanzania, he was exposed to “the Africa of myth and legend for the first time.” While it is no longer illegal for Africans from townships and informal settlements to visit the wild places of their country, it seems impossible to imagine them ever being able to make such a journey.

South Africa, 25 years after the end of apartheid, is the most unequal nation in the world, according to The World Bank. The generational poor is segregated into unspeakable places, with little opportunity for social mobility.

I spent a considerable amount of time in one of these places, Plot 175, located in Pretoria North. People live in houses made of sheet metal on unpaved streets littered with trash. One weekend, a man was stabbed to death by a Zimbabwean immigrant, prompting a xenophobic rally in front of the nursery school at which I volunteered. Another informal settlement I visited was segregated, with whites living on one side of the school and blacks on the other.

In the classroom, the attendance sheet defined the students by their race and their country of origin. One of the black teachers told me that if he were to walk over to the white side, he would likely receive racial taunts.

The legacy of apartheid hangs in the air in these places like the fog that obscured our view of the Atlantic Ocean from the top of Cape Town’s picturesque Table Mountain. South Africa is starkly split, simultaneously a constant cognizance of the country’s brutal history and the presence of immense natural beauty.

At the University of Pretoria, where I have been taking classes, students struggle with food insecurity, affordable accommodation and passing classes taught in English, which is usually not their first language. There are homeless students who illegally sleep in the university library.

This reality, which is the case at universities around the country, gave rise to the #FeesMustFall movement in 2015. Fees Must Fall caused the cancellation of the 2017 Ubuntu Program because protests sometimes turn violent; in February, a 20-year-old student protester named Mlungisi Madonsela was shot and killed at Durban University of Technology by private security forces using live ammunition on campus.

Despite these realities, my time here has not been dominated by misery. I vividly remember one evening on campus where students came together to celebrate their culture with an event with the theme of Vernac and Expression. Students of all races recited poems, sang love songs, rapped, danced and played instruments. It was wonderful hearing so many of the country’s 11 official languages represented and seeing the happiness on the faces of all those in the crowd. Knowing that black students would not have been allowed to enroll in the university and the content of their performances would likely have been banned during apartheid, the event was a reminder of how far this nation has come in the last 25 years.

No description of my time in South Africa would be complete without sharing the profound experience of visiting Robben Island. The activist and poet Dennis Brutus, who spent a year and a half in the island’s prison in the cell adjacent to Mandela, described life there as “a barred existence,” caged in a world of “cement-grey floors and walls/cement gray days/cement-grey time.” Walking on the island, it was easy to see why Brutus viewed the prison as a total separation from everything colorful, meaningful and beautiful.

However, it was our tour guide, who had been sentenced to 20 years on the island at the age of 18, who helped me to understand just how profound it is to go there. He described the awful experience of being transported by car from the distant Pretoria, hand and foot bound with chains, a metal ball in his mouth to prevent him from speaking. He told us that he did not expect to survive the boat trip. Released in 1991, he spent seven years on the island.

Hearing him tell us he was released demonstrated that a major reversal occurred when the prisoners were freed. South Africa and the rest of the world is still filled with injustice. However, this man, who expected to die on Robben Island, gets to teach people like us that what happened to him was wrong. He got to leave at the end of the day. What is more beautiful than that?

The sun was setting into a yellow haze as the boat transported us back to mainland. Every wave slightly lifted the boat. Every wave reminded me of how far this island is from the rest of the world. Every wave called up how political prisoners were separated from their families, their hopes, their dreams and their lives.

I cannot help but think about my own country. I cannot help but think of the more than 2 million Americans in prisons. I cannot help but make the connection between incarcerated Americans like Mumia Abu-Jamaal and Leonard Pelletier and South Africans like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Ahmad Kathrada, who were eventually freed despite advocating and engaging in a violent struggle against injustice.

I cannot help but think that the Robben Island they knew must be similar to the prison in Guantanamo Bay. I cannot help but think that America has a lesson to learn from South Africa, where the sun sets on an empty prison.