A Tale of Two Prisons

I’ve been in South Africa for the past month doing fieldwork for my dissertation. My topic is looking at barriers to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities at the community level. I’m working with colleagues of my Irish advisor at the University of Stellenbosch and have been based in Cape Town. It’s been an amazing learning experience for me!
While here, I’ve also been able to do some site seeing and learn more about South Africa and it’s history.  In doing so, I’ve made some interesting connections to my time in Ireland.  For instance, when I was in Belfast earlier in the year, one things that stuck with me was a particular mural on our mural tour that depicted many faces that were not Irish. They were prominent leaders in the black communities in the US, South Africa, and around the world. It was a show of solidarity in what many consider a struggle for freedom. One of these faces was Nelson Mandela.
While we were in Belfast we also visited the Crumlin Road Gaol, which was famous for housing, at least temporarily, many political prisoners during the Troubles.  In South Africa, I visited Robben Island, the prison that housed Nelson Mandela for 27 years during apartheid. It was incredibly humbling to drive through the lime quarry where he and others toiled for years in the hot sun and to see the tiny cell where he spent his days. Such a long time period is hard for me to even comprehend; it is longer than I have been alive.
Though my studies are not focused on ethnic conflict or the politics of deeply-divided places, it is an inescapable fact of life in Northern Ireland and South Africa. It is difficult to wrap my head around, having spent my formative years in multi-cultural settings that openly celebrated diversity.  All I can do is try to deepen my understanding by reading the history, and more importantly listening to people’s stories and perspectives while I’m here.  The complexity of it all just leaves me with more questions.
One of the other very powerful things about Robben Island was that, during the tour they shared the names and stories of some of the thousands of people who passed through the jail or lost their lives during South Africa’s struggle towards democracy.  It reminded me of a research project I assisted on in undergrad mapping all the political-conflict related deaths in Belfast during the Troubles. So many people die in these struggles who never have their names known. So many people who sacrificed or whose lives changed forever but were never recognized. I am not a citizen of either of these places, and it is up to them to figure out how to work together and forge a future that can overcome the inequalities, divisions and violence of the past. However, I hope that in the future, when we learn about places and their histories, we can look deeper into these stories. Rather than celebrating only the heroic leaders and figures, as deserving as they are, I hope we can also find ways to recognize the role that ordinary people play in history and in movements that bring about change.

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