Ron Allen's spiritual journey to Robben Island

REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK - I’ve been to South Africa many times dating back to the early 1990’s, just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and just before apartheid ended...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I’ve been to South Africa many times dating back to the early 1990’s, just after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and just before apartheid ended.

But I had never been to Robben Island, and its notorious and iconic prison where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in captivity. After the week of historic events mourning his death and celebrating Mandela’s life, I seized the moment, took a flight to Cape Town and then the 30 minute ferry ride across the bay to a place that is disturbing, moving and surreal.

The hot sun was beating down that summer day. Not long after leaving the beauty of Cape Town, in the distance, tiny Robben Island starts coming into view. It’s a forlorn, dusty, and eerie place. The last prisoners left in 1991. Soon after that, Robben Island was turned into a museum. A few other structures, such as the jailer’s residences, administration buildings, and perhaps ironically a church, are scattered across the flat landscape, its brush battered by the sea breezes. The brutal contradiction about this horrible place is that it sits in a very beautiful corner of the world, close to the bottom of the African continent. There’s an absolutely spectacular view of Cape Town and its wondrous Table Mountain about 4 miles away. Mandela wrote in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, that the view of Table Mountain was like a “beacon of hope,” that helped keep him connected to the mainland, where he was determined to return someday. It truly is a stunning sight to behold.

The most intense place on Robben Island is Mandela’s former cell, since his death a shrine. It’s the fourth cell on the right as you enter from the courtyard. And it is absolutely stunning how small it is, about 7 feet by 7 feet, with a tiny barred window, barely wide or long enough for a prisoner to lay fully extended. There’s a thin straw mat for a bed. Real beds arrived in the 1980’s for some. Mandela never had one. The cell has a partial view of the courtyard where prisoners gathered and exercised. Tennis was a favorite sport, and very pragmatic past time as well. The prisoners communicated with inmates in other parts of the facility by slitting the balls, and hiding paper messages inside.

The far corner of the yard, now overgrown with cactus and vines, is where Mandela kept a garden. He also buried the pages of the book he secretly wrote, which would eventually become his autobiography. The guards discovered the buried pages. Eventually, the book was smuggled out years later, by another inmate who hid it in a photo album when he was released.

Former inmates have said they would often rise early in the morning, and Mandela would already be awake, reading. Often sitting on the floor, legs extended straight and covered by a blanket because of damp conditions. Winters were bitterly cold at times. The black African political prisoners were issued uniforms with short pants. Indian or “Colored” prisoners wore long trouser. Such were the dictates of apartheid. Mandela was “purposeful,” so many former inmates have said, and his time not wasted idly. He encouraged, if not demanded, that every man there leave better prepared to carry on the struggle.

Then, there is the limestone quarry, where Mandela and so many others toiled endlessly, digging and breaking stone. On a hot sunny day, one can only begin to imagine the back breaking daily routine. The reflected light from the white stone is blinding. Many inmates left with eye damage because of the intensely bright dusty conditions. It’s believed Mandela’s respiratory problems, which in part repeatedly caused his frequent hospitalizations as his life declined, can be traced to those brutal days mining limestone by hand.

One thought that makes Robben Island perhaps a bit less disturbing, is that at the end of the day, decades later, the horrors ended and South Africa became a free and democratic nation. A prisoner became President. Other former inmates are now prominent leaders in their own right. The human spirit triumphed over the decades of inhumanity and deprivation. Mandela was prisoner number 466. Overall, some 3000 political prisoners did cruel time there.

Robben Island reminded me of visits to places like the Auschwitz Nazi death camp in Poland. I went there while covering Pope John Paul’s final days. The camp is not far from the late pontiff’s home town.  The Island also brought back memories of Bunce Island, a former slave trading post off the coast of Sierra Leone. It’s a short trip from the capital Freetown. During a darker era, thousands of slaves were sent from there to destinations in America like Charleston, South Carolina. Each is unique. Each was the setting for unspeakable acts of human barbarism. None has been turned into a Disney World like tourist attraction. The horror of what each used to be endures.

After half a dozen trips to South Africa during the past few years, while Mandela’s health was fading, and his life ending, I wonder now if life and work ever will bring me back to South Africa.  That’s why I was determined to get to Robben Island, for a better and more profound understanding of who Mandela was, and what he and so many of his comrades were able to overcome.

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