Obamas ‘humbled’ by Robben Island


1 July 2013

US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle, along with daughters Malia and Sasha, visited Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town on Sunday in an “experience the family would never forget”, Michelle Obama said.

Although Obama had previously visited the island as a senator, the US president told journalists following the visit that it was unique to experience it with his daughters.

“Seeing them stand within the walls that once surrounded Nelson Mandela, I knew this was an experience they would never forget. I knew that they now appreciated, a little bit more, the sacrifices that Madiba and others had made for freedom,” Obama said.

Ahead of the family’s trip to Robben Island, South African President Jacob Zuma had said it was significant for Obama and his family to visit the island together.

“Your lovely children need to know what Madiba and all freedom fighters were subjected to. In this way, as future leaders, they will be able to build a better world, in which no human being would be subjected to such violation of freedom, basic human rights and dignity,” Zuma said at a dinner held in Obama’s honour in Pretoria on Saturday.

The family’s Robben Island guide was Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. He took the Obamas to the rock quarry where prisoners were forced to crush and lift heavy rocks, as well as his and Mandela’s cells.


‘Important lessons from Mandela’s struggle’


“It was amazing to see Mandela’s cell, a tiny room – about 6 feet wide – where he spent 18 of the 27 years he was in prison,” Michelle Obama wrote in her travel journal, published on the White House website.

The family also learnt how Mandela was not allowed to read newspapers, listen to the radio or have a clock in his first few years on the island, and how he was forbidden from attending his mother and son’s funerals.

“Yet despite these conditions, Mandela and his fellow prisoners never lost hope,” Michelle Obama wrote.

“They vigorously debated philosophy, politics, and the direction of the anti-Apartheid movement. They stood up to mistreatment by the prison guards. And they found ways to communicate in secret, such as stuffing notes inside tennis balls that they would pass along during recreation periods.”

She said one of the most touching parts of the story for her was how Mandela found it in him to forgive, to overcome bitterness and hatred, and even invited three of the prison warders from Robben Island to his inaugural celebration.

“While very few of us will ever encounter the kind of discrimination and brutality that Nelson Mandela endured, all of us can learn important lessons from his struggle.

“We can learn about the importance of standing up for what you believe in, no matter what the cost,” she wrote. “We can learn about how, with self-discipline and courage, we can overcome the most unthinkable hardships. And we can learn about the power of forgiveness to turn enemies into friends and help us move forward from a troubled past to a more hopeful future.”

SAinfo reporter