Robben Island – A Journey of Leadership Discovery

By Esther Hadassah Amankwah.

Robben Island is known as a South African National Heritage  and UNESCO World Heritage Site, because of it historical significance in the lives of the people of South Africa and the world. Robben Island was discovered in 1488 by Batolomeu Dias, a Portuguese explorer, when he anchored his ship in Table Bay. The name Robben Island was derived from a Dutch word (“robben”), which means a seal. The Island was inhabited by a variety of wild life, birds, penguins, seals and tortoise before it became a prison and an isolation center for political prisoners. The Dutch settlers were the first to use Robben Island as a prison, and its first inhabitants were political leaders from various Dutch colonies, including Indonesia. The island was also used as a leper colony, a mental hospital, an outpost, a grazing ground, a post office, and a place where people were isolated, banished and exiled for many years.

The history of the Island can never be divorced from the life story of the world celebrated icon and first Black President of South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and a philanthropist. Mandela served 27years of his life in prison, out of which 18 years of hard labour, isolation and desperation was spent on Robben Island and the rest of those years in Pollsmoor and Victor Verster Prisons. After 27 years of imprisonment, long suffering and fierce opposition, Mandela walked out of the gates of Robben Island unbroken but as a strong Black leader who was full of hope and determination to liberate his people from colonial rule and apartheid. This had been a very long-walk to freedom of twenty-seven (27) years of imprisonment and hardship.

Despite all the challenges, Mandela’s goals were met and his long walk to freedom finally brought a new day to all South Africans. His walk to freedom liberated his people from oppression and saw the re-birth of a new country, a nation with a new identity and a great culture. His walk saw the realization of a dream come true, a dream that was not only for one man but for the nation of South Africa as a whole.

Sailing across the ocean to the Island and interacting with Lionel Davis (a prison colleague of Mandela) who acted as a tour guide and shared his life story and experiences on the island instilled in us the need to persevere, endure, overtake and break all the shackles that bind and entangle the power of imagination. It rekindles the inner desire to reflect and pursue one’s goals in life.

Touring the island and walking through the leper colony, the cemetery and the lime stone quarry where Mandela worked during his stay on the island was one of the most powerful experiences for my comrades and I since it gave us a solemn chance to reflect on our leadership journeys and the sacrifices that leadership calls for.

The struggles and success stories of Mandela and the other leaders who spent most of their youthful years as prisoners on the Island motivated us to look beyond the limitations in our lives and focus on the brighter side of things to come when the efforts are made to persevere through challenges. Robben Island gave us a thousand reasons to follow our dreams and a million reasons to persevere until we succeed in life. It was a moment of self-discovery, reflection, introspection and inspiration to pursue greater heights because whiles in prison Mandela and his colleagues never gave up on their dreams; they formed a united front and planned, they worked hard, discovered their talent and skills, educated themselves and came out of prison as graduates and professionals in different fields. Their great legacy can never be overlooked in our professional, social and leadership journeys.

The visit to the Island was undertaken as part of this year’s Leading in Public Life Training (Fellowship) Programme, which was organized by the Building Bridges Programme, of the Graduate School of the University of Cape Town in South-Africa, to give participants a feel of the rich history of South Africa, and the leadership journey of its first president and other leaders who sacrificed their lives and freedom to attain independence for their country South Africa.

Apart from the journey to the Island, we had the opportunity to go through the process of Journaling (a process of thinking in a critical and analytical way, reflecting on our leadership journeys and documenting the findings), where we were  helped to discover our hidden talents as youth leaders whiles developing strategies for achieving our leadership goals in life. Many lessons were drawn from this process to build on our capacities as emerging African leaders.

An interaction with Hon. Jackson Mthembu, the Chief Whip of the African National Congress (ANC), Nelson Mandela’s party, at the parliament house educated us on some of the proceedings in the South African Parliament house and their engagements with the media. This gave us the opportunity to consider the similarities and differences in our various country’s parliamentary proceedings.

Lawyer Douglas Mwanzora, (Advocate and Secretary General of the MDC Party in Zimbabwe, a strong opposition party to Robert Mugabe’s ZANU PF) shared his political journey and stressed the need for Africans to write and tell their own stories to have the needed impact.

Justice Albie Sachs, a retired Justice of the South African Constitutional court also shared his political struggles during the apartheid liberation to inspire and motivate us to take the mantle of leadership without fear.

We were also inspired by the tutorials of great Professors, Politicians, lecturers, Activists and renowned journalists who took us through the process of writing and using narratives to pitch and tell our stories.

There was a cultural night to depict and showcase the diverse and rich cultural values which are shared across the six African countries (Ethiopia, Senegal, Zambia, Ghana, South Africa, and Tanzania) that participated in the programme.

The two-week educative programme saw the participation of 23 emerging youth leaders from the six selected African countries. The programme was meant to equip participants to develop and sharpen their skills, unearth their potentials and also understand the role of leadership in the development of Africa. The journey to Robbin Island was a moment of self-discovery and a total reflection on our leadership journeys.

#Sincere gratitude to Dr. Marianne Camerer, Dr. Maria Phalime, Mr. David Schmidt,  Ms. Mabel Sithole, Wendy, all the resource persons, facilitators and lecturers#

#Mr. Emmanuel Ametepey, thank you for the nomination#

Tristan and Celine Dufor, I am most grateful for the reviews.






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