Photo by Gary Rothstein © - The Brooks' Bunch travels listen to a lecture about Nelson Mandela's imprisonment on Robben Island
(contributed by Charlie Nobles)
CAPE TOWN, S. Africa - At first, the much-anticipated ferry ride to Robben Island - where former South African President Nelson Mandela spent 26 years in prison fighting apartheid - appeared in jeopardy. The wall of a Chinese-registered ship blew open several days ago and spilled up to 200 tons of oil into the nearby bay.
Tampa Bay Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, who is sponsoring a tour of this country for an entourage of 39 dubbed Brooks' Bunch, including 20 deserving teenagers, most from the Tampa Bay area, quickly began thinking of alternatives. A helicopter ride to the island would cost $3,500, he was told. Let's do it, he said.
"This is a must-see for us," he said. Fortunately, the oil slick had dissipated enough by Tuesday to take the ferry ride.
And a memorable trip it was.
The touring group saw the closet-size cell where Mandela spent much of his time here, South Africa's equivalent to Alcatraz. It learned that, on the day of Mandela's release, he couldn't cry for joy because the omnipresent lime dust in the area had closed his eye ducts. It heard that inmates classified as "black" were the lowest class of prisoner, often outfitted in shorts and sandals while everyone else received long pants and shoes to ward against the persistent winds and seasonal cold, and survived on the most meager of diets.
It also saw a monument with the following inscription from a prisoner named Ahmed Kathrada after Robben Island was made a museum, "We want Robben Island to reflect the triumph of freedom and human dignity over oppression and humiliation." It gazed at a 1966 photo of Mandela talking with one of his advisors, Walter Sisulu, in Section B, a cell block reserved for political prisoners. It found that the inhabitants of Section B had no beds, just several blankets and a small piece of carpet. A moment later, it was heartened to hear that one of Mandela's contemporaries learned to read and write in prison and became the country's deputy president.
And to top it off, the group heard a passionate speech from a tour guide named Eugene, oozing with credibility as a man who spent seven years here as a political prisoner.
He said that South African blacks suffered the greatest of indignities in that they "had to be protected from our own species. We were treated as a sub-species," he said.
But ultimately, he noted, the strength of the human spirit prevailed and fairness became the law of the land over narrow-minded thinking. Mandela was released in 1991 and three years later became the country's president. Interestingly, Eugene said, rather than harbor resentment, most South African blacks have chosen to try to work together with their former torturers.
As Eugene talked about the struggle to end apartheid and the resilience exhibited in the fight, Bucs Coach Tony Dungy, here with his wife Lauren, often nodded in agreement as he worked his video camera. It clearly was an emotional time for him.
"I'm not sure all of the kids could fully appreciate what he was saying because maybe they haven't experienced that much discrimination, but as someone who's 45, I have," Dungy said. "I saw my dad being limited in the service to certain jobs and certain rank. I saw that when he went to work teaching school (in Alexandria, Va.), he had to teach at the all-black school when the white school was right next door.
"Myself, 25 years ago I couldn't have been the head coach of the Bucs," he added. "When I was with Kansas City, we had J.T. Thomas, who was the first black player at FSU. Derrick (a former Seminoles standout) might take it for granted that it was easy to go there, but they had no black players before the late-1960s. Glen Edwards, from St. Petersburg and a player we had at Pittsburgh, was an incredible talent but he had to attend Florida A&M because none of the big schools would give him a scholarship. We had a number of cases like that with the Steelers. A lot of improvement has been made over the last few decades."
Brooks sat spellbound as the prison tour guide painted a vivid picture of what prison life was like.
"It was powerful," he said. "Everything is different coming from someone who's been there. You know, I've never been referred to as a sub-species. I've been called a black American, an African American and a Negro, but never that. It puts it in perspective what they were facing. And it makes me pause and sit back and think about what I say and how I treat other people."
Brooks' Bunch also seemed to thoroughly enjoy the visit.
"This was the best part of the trip so far," said Felteena Williams, 13, a Tampa Middleton Middle School student and a nationally-ranked chess player. "Everything he said was interesting."
Added Natasha Spencer, a 15-year-old from Tampa Bay Tech, "We tend to take for granted the freedom we have. This makes me realize we should be more appreciative."
To Fulani Daniel, 17, of Tampa Robinson High, the prison guide's words were "so melodic and meaningful that he seemed to almost be singing to us."
Near the end of the visit, Laura St. Fleur, 15 of Apopka High, asked the guide why he came back to Robben Island when he obviously has many bad memories about the place. The answer was simple enough.
"I was pulled back by economics," he said. "It's a job."
On Thursday, the CBS television affiliate in Johannesburg will follow the group around, and the following morning on the Early Show Brooks' Bunch will be featured nationally in America.