Culture, Diaries, featured, Geopolitics, podcast, Travel
Comments 2

Starting A New Decade: Hope for the Future from South Africa’s Past

Happy New Year! This past month has been a whirlwind. After leaving Italy, I came back to NYC and enjoyed a few days at home before heading to the west coast of Mexico, Zihuatanejo, for 3 days, hoping on a flight back to NYC for an event and an early AM flight to Detroit with Glam4Good. After a relaxing holiday break with my family, I’m so excited to head into this new decade. I’m jumped headfirst into work and have a strong feeling that this year will be a year of major change personally and professionally. I have so much content to share with you and am often torn (and exhausted!) keeping up with social media that I neglect NAPW. But I have such a deep satisfaction from writing that I’ll never give up blogging. My resolution is to be more consistent with it! Not just the consistency from microblogging on social media.

me with Thulani Mabaso

When thinking about the new year and the future, I went back to an interview I did with South African ANC freedom fighter, former Robben Island inmate, Nelson Mandela comrade, Thulani Mabaso. Listening to his words took me down a rabbit hole and the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 was happily, maybe a bit feverishly preparing this for you. I thought about solely writing a post for my blog, but then with the videos I had from our interview and walking, the idea kind of morphed into sound. The strength and cadence of Thulani Mabaso’s voice… I really wanted to share it with you guys. Then I had over the top sound effects and production ideas in my head from listening to too many true crime investigative podcasts. Listen to it here, via SoundCloud or on Apple Podcasts — I’m working on loading it to Google Play. Let me know what you think about audio stories like these? Should I work on more interviews in the new year. I love any way to bring you stories of the places and people I encounter on my travels.


I had been in South Africa for a little over a week now. Spending time in Johannesburg and Hoedspruit on safari. Now, I was in Cape Town. I’ll admit I was a bit biased. This whole country was beautiful, but I really caught a vibe in Johannesburg, dancing all night at an Every Day People Party, visiting a recording studio, seeing interracial couples at Neighborgoods market. Johannesburg, despite the warnings seemed like the future of South Africa. When I announced I was going to South Africa on social media, someone asked me to write about tips on how to stay safe there. A minister had just compared the gang warfare in the country to being in a war zone during an interview I heard on the BBC. That’s not the Johannesburg I saw. I had an Uber driver get out of a car and survey an area that he was dropping me off to a party to make sure I’d get in safety. I haven’t had something like that happen in any major city I’ve visited, in New York they’re gone before I get through my front door.

boat to Robben Island

Cape Town was a much wealthier city, I was told. Movie stars like Will Smith & David Beckham had homes here. It’s wealthier and it’s whiter. Older money. I definitely saw that in a few of the restaurants we went to, and the mixology bar I ventured to on my own. Throughout my life, I’ve gotten used to being the only black person in many rooms… but this was Africa. Nevertheless, the beauty of this city, with Table Mountain over it is unparalleled. 

What I loved about my trip up to this point, was the emphasis on South Africa now, South Africa of the future. As a black American, standing in Nelson Mandela’s home, seeing the site of uprisings, remnants of Apartheid, happening in my lifetime was incredibly moving. But that’s not the story I came to South Africa looking for. I wanted to see today’s South Africa, tomorrow’s. I wanted to cover the art scene as I’d done for Tel Aviv and Medellin in Paper magazine, the vibes and new cool businesses as I have done for Vice. AND the South Africa BEFORE Apartheid — the different tribes and ethnic groups that South Africans proudly hail from.

So, while I knew I had to go to Robben island while on this trip, on the day of as we took off from the VA waterfront in Cape Town, I thought “Not another prison,” as Table Mountain receded in the distance. Another journalist on my trip skipped it all together. I didn’t have that luxury. Yea, I could have made up an excuse, but, what would the ancestors think!

We had an interesting guided tour of Robben Island. Our guide managed to make it light, incorporating the quarry history of the island. The wild dichotomy of it being a forced hard labor quarry, home for abandoned leprosy victims and simultaneously a place of critical debates and lifelong learning. Robben means seal, like the animal and Robben Island, believe it or not is home to a nature reserve and a beautiful array of plants and wild life. About 200 people live there now — enemies of the past, now neighbors. There’s even a golf course here and it’s sometimes used for conferences — as our guide Toya pointed out, Robben Island has the advantage of being the best conference city in the world as delegates can’t go anywhere! Many tour guides there are ex-political prisoners.

Since the 1600s the island has been used as a prison. 6 kilometers off the coast of Cape Town. With the passage of the Pass Laws Act in South Africa in 1952 meaning no black person could be out and about without identification, an average of 1,000 people were arrested per day. The island’s prison walls were overcrowded with political prisoners. I took in the gravity of solitary confinement, the deplorable conditions, records of human rights violations as we were allowed free time to roam the prison and museum. My groupmates opted to continue the tour into future walls of the prison. Personally, I had had enough of the degradation of the black bodies for the day and welcomed the time to sit down with Thulani Mabaso.

In a dimly lit former administrative room of the prison, away from the blinding mid day South African sun, I spoke to a former resident of Robben Island for 6 years, 9 years total in South African prison. His charge, sabotage and terrorism, arrested in 1983 — sentence, 18 years. He set off a mine bomb in the South African defense force building in Johannesburg. No one die but 57 people were wounded.  At the prison in Johannesburg he was tortured, waterboarded, naked electric shocks…  

Yes, there were abuses at Robben Island, Mabaso himself was thrown in solitary confinement for 4 days for saying hello to a prison guard…

TM: So to greet him, while  he was busy counting, so he became — he reported that I’m disturbing him.

NR: For Greeting him?

TM: Yea

NR: Like a hello?

TM: goeie môre in afrikaans

NR: Oh

TM: I was interfering with his duty

NR: Wow

TM: So that’s why, that’s what happened.

NR: Wow. And how long were you kept for something — seems to me so small

TM: Not small to them

NR: Yea

T: 4 days

NR: 4 days, wow And the solitary confinement here, do they let you out for like an hour a day or something and exercise.

TM: You go in the morning, you go and wash. I think about 20 minutes

But Robben Island was also almost this sacred university of activism… 

TM: Each one teach one. And we made sure that you must progress. People came here with a low level of education. People came here couldn’t speak english, couldn’t speak any foreign language like English, Afrikaans. What do you do when you are here… When they leave here, they were just like shocked!

More on that later…

But how did Mabaso get here? As an American, as a westerner, my body almost inadvertently cringes at the word terrorism

NEWS CLIPPINGS, ACT OF Terror, Act of Terror.

As a child, Mabaso’s family was forcibly removed from their land. 

TM: You must remember, these people, they forcefully removed us from our land, my family was forcefully removed out of the rich land. Today there’s a mine there. They built a mine there.


NR: Did you know — because you grew up in apartheid. Did you know when you were a kid that something was wrong with this system?

TM: Yea. When I was attending schools, I knew the system was wrong because we never had proper education. Even if you had school, it was what you called mud school. You know?

NR: No, what’s that?

TM: Mud school, and 1 teacher, up to 86 children, 1 blackboard, 1 book … you know? No benches, no table, we sit on the rocks, when it’s rainy and windy, the school, it blows. And at the same time. While we were attending, the police would come with dogs, with tear gas, some of my schoolmates disappeared without trace. … You go to town, you must get the permission, in your own country, you must get the permission to go to town. You go there, you find out there are two doors, this door is for whites, this door is for blacks. You can see in our are curriculum was terrible. When you go to the suburbs, whites area, the schools are so neat, the wind, kept fresh, but when you come to our township, you see we were completely neglected. We were treated just like aliens.

We must do it ourselves Mabaso told me. At 15 he joined the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed resistance of the African National Congress. And at the same time got a position at the pro-apartheid South African Defense force buidling. This leads us to the bombing.

™: I had hope when I started to take arms, that we were going to liberate South Africa. And then when I got arrested, I said there’s two things — it’s to kill me or to put me in jail.

Three years into his 18 year sentence, Mabaso was transferred to Robben Island. This notorious prison that has turned out 3 South African presidents; if you go to South Africa’s Parliament today roughly 15% are former inmates.

TM: Coming here to Robben Island, mixing with other comrades, discussing political matters, brainstorming the situation in the world, in the country. We all foresee that the country we are going to liberate South Africa. Because South Africa was under siege from the world. Sanctions, world court … financial sanctions, they couldn’t survive, so that’s what helped us to say we’re moving forward. And when they Berlin collapsed, we knew about it and we said, “If the Berlin Wall goes down, Apartheid is following.” And we were right. That is why we were here. We even drafted our constitution…

TM: So when you look on our draft, and the South African constitution, there’s a lot of similarities. At this present you most know that, we were not yet thinking about our sentencing, we were busy planning. We were busy preparing to govern South Africa. That is why we make sure that you go to school, you study, you must pass your exam. We had our own career counsel, counseling. We had our own teachers, our slogans. Our slogan “each one, teach one.”

These men, in some cases denied formal education, developed a different kind of hierarchy in prison. The kind where teachers, professors, trained lawyers like Mandela imparted knowledge, curriculums to their fellow inmates!

TM: you must remember that the curriculum in South Africa was very partisan. And especially history, where they always feel like, they always say that our forefathers, blacks, our forefathers were cattle thieves, while the whites were the heroes. So we know how to convert it you know.

Legal representatives and their human rights lawyers smuggled them information from the outside. It was miserable, but the perseverance of these men was unparalleled.

™:  I always give time, I always tell to my people “Patience pays. Take one step at a time. Then we will all achieve our goals.”

With the future of a nation, of their people on their shoulders, they never lost hope. 

Of course, by this point, with the tour, and the landscape, and then the honor of this one on one, I was already sold on a trip to Robben Island being well-worth it. More than reliving of trauma, more than seeing documents and even speeches by esteemed men, I began to see the humanity in the movement. Nelson Mandela received an honorary doctorate from my alma mater, Amherst College in May 2005. I was apart of a student organization, Social Council during my four years at Amherst that played a major part in student extracurricular life, events, club funding, etc on the campus. I remember organizing buses for Amherst students to go and see President Mandela receive his degree. Imprisoned for 27 years, now in  St. Bartholomew Church in Manhattan, Nelson Mandela cut a figure that seemed larger than life. To me, he was the South African freedom movement, he was apartheid. And, as it was happening while I was in grade school, these horrors weren’t in history books, they were happening concurrently, so the facts about what was going on were murky at best. You hear about Mandela, you hear about Ghandi, yes, they were extraordinary men, but I’m sure they’d be among the first to highlight the strength of the movement behind them.

TM: I think people need to understand that there was not Mandela on an island. People have this conception, Mandela, Mandela, Mandela, there were a lot of Mandelas here. You know Mandela, yes he was here, but he never did things alone. He did things collectively. So that is one of the things that people look at and say “ohhh, I want to see Mandela’s site.” But I’m here! How about going to see my site! That is why Mandela, when I was with him as he was the president. he always said “you know people they’ve got the wrong perception. think that I was alone. The people must be told, I was not alone.” Whatever Mandela do, did, he always made sure that, he was a very consultive person, he made sure that he consulted. And as he leader, he always studied  to guide, what is the right position when he do things. 

After we cleared up a lot of my questions and misconceptions about South Africa’s past. We moved the conversation to its present and future. Recently, I thought back to this conversation watching Miss South Africa, Zozibini Tunzi being crowned Miss Universe. 

I wonder if Mabaso could think that a young woman who could be his kin, would be on a world stage, representing South Africa in a beauty pageant. This is the generation of the born frees. Apartheid ended when Tunzi was 1 year old in 1994. He’d be proud of her, and her strong platform for education. Mabaso’s hope for the born-frees?

TM: The Born-Free generation, I hope that one day they’ll go to school and study, because without education, you can’t go anywhere. 

Of course Thulani Mabaso keeps up with worldly current events, he travels around the world lecturing about his experiences. Coming to South Africa, being confronted with the recent history of apartheid, I could help but being afraid for the state of the world, and my home country, the United States. South Africa figuring out land reappropriation while black Americans are fighting for a serious conversation to be had about reparations.

TM: When you talk about the redistribution of wealth, it’s still very far. Because you must remember for 365 years, we passed 3 stages, colonization, slavery, colonization, apartheid and to break down those daggers, it will take another decades, you must know that it’s still very far, but I’m very optimistic that we are moving forward.

Optimism, throughout our conversation. One of the realest people I’ve ever met in my life, Mabaso has seen some of the worst of humanity, yet he still believes in the greater good of the world. He believes in the strength of a just government when he saw a malicious one destroy his people. He believes in the strength of his constitution. A belief that many of us Americans need right now.

TM: You know one thing that we managed to put down. Is to create a very constructive constitution, the constitution is the key, it blocks everything. So whoever tries to disrupt it or to cause … war. That president will know, that he’s going to face the might of law, because the world will support it…. But nothing is permanent. There are those who feel lost because of this democracy and mostly those people are white… they’re called far right wingers.

NR: Yea, Klu Klux Klan is what we have. So do you have a fear in the sense that — today when we were touring around, we saw the jewish quarter and a lot of jews came here avoiding the holocaust and then they were apart of the apartheid system when their parents had left because of something similar. DO you ever fear in humans we’re kind of destined to repeat that stuff? Even though foreseeing things like that happen?

TM: Yea, they said the Jews were apart of it … But we are a majority and the world is a majority, and that is why, even if they tried —  but I always say no, people don’t you trust me… No, I don’t have fear, I fear no one.

NR: And the sanctions that the world was inflicting on South Africa gave you hope right?

They weren’t operating in a vacuum. They had hope that the world saw the South African regimes atrocities, TM: Yea, sanctions from the world, yea sanctions gave us hope

We discussed Kim Jung Un, Donald Trump, the hope that is America, immigration. Particularly poignant as new reports show South Africa’s bout with xenophobia. Mabaso reflects:

TM: I always bring it back. You must fix yourself internally, before you go outside. 

Another major hot topic in America right now: Prison reform

NR: I was wondering, how is the prison system here now, because it was so messed up before with political prisoners and passbook prisoners. Do you find that there’s more prison reform compared to other countries. 

TM: There’s more. Prisoners in South Africa… you can see them there. they’ve got television, they’ve got phones in there. They eat the best food.


TM: Yea! That’s why. Sometimes, I even comment. They’re just like in a hotel. We were not in a hotel. Our prisons we call them correctional service, so there’s correctional service, the reason is that they’re trying always to do reforming. They’re called offenders, they are reformed offenders. So when they go out, they must be productive. Yea there’s a lot of change.

South Africa still has prisons, and criminals go to them, there are prison gangs, they’re not peachy keen resorts, but there seems to be a vested interest in preventing human abuses of the past and reforming. It’s not a perfect place, there are problems, we discussed the recent commission looking into the extremely wealthy Gupta family, accused of pillaging South Africa with bribes and exposing the corruption of the ANC. Mabaso acknowledged that South Africa’s new government inherited debt and corruption like in any other democracy is being rooted out. People should still consider their investments safe in South Africa. While we were on a PR tour of a safe South Africa, I asked him a question from one of you guys, my listeners, my viewers, my followers…

NR: And then, what do you think about the way that the news — when you were talking about that it’s dangerous in the townships — how do you feel about how the news portrays south africa now. Like when I put on my social media that I was coming to South Africa someone said to me “Can you write a post about how to stay safe in South Africa.” And I’m like how do you stay safe in London, how do you stay safe in New York?

TM: How do you stay safe?!

NR: Someone said that to me!

TM: You need to discipline yourself! 


Other words of advice that the travel writer in my heart leaped at? I swear, I didn’t prompt him: 

TM: without education you can not do anything. They must study, they must learn. And they must be tourists, they must visit, they must tour the sites, and that they must be productive. Wake up in the morning, don’t sleep the whole day and think that somethings will come to you. Go and look for it.

Again, this chat with him brought a humanity to the movement, doesn’t he sound just like your uncle? Do better, don’t sleep all day!

We walked across the gravel towards the dock. Several people greeted Mabaso. A younger gentleman offering us a ride, and you can see the reverence in his brown faces addressing a living legend. As I saw the sun hit Thulani Mabaso’s ebony face as he looked towards the horizon, seeing boats of tourists come and go, I had to ask.

NR: But I guess, because you work here too. Is it hard to be back here ever? Or is it just more work for you now?

TM: Not just more work… it’s uhh.. I don’t know how to express it. It’s something that you feel it. You know? You feel it. And uh It comes to your brains. You know? Something … whether I’m working or not. It’s something that is in me. Something that I feel to say, people need to know, people need to learn. Because you need to know where you come from, so that you can know where you’re going. It’s not just work. It involves a lot of emotions. A lot of emotions are there. It involves a lot of emotions, but sometimes you control those emotions you know? So that you can move and continue to move forward. 

Time flew…

TM: I don’t want you to loose your boat.

NR: Thank you, I totally forgot!

The boat was transporting me back to Cape Town’s VA waterfront, transformed, inspired, free and tasked.

Nelson Mandela speech

Letter to Thulani Mabaso from First Lady Michelle Obama

Recommended reading from one of my favorite comedians, Trevor Noah, on his experiences growing up in South Africa.

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood


  1. Pingback: Biden Announces New U.S. Travel Requirements - 'N A Perfect World

  2. Yuko Parker says

    Dear NR

    My name is Yuko Parker from NHK the Japanese public broadcaster.
    We are making a documentary programme about Elizabeth II, commonwealth and South Africa both positive and negative legacies.

    I saw your blog and really enjoyed it.

    I would be grateful if you could help us get in touch with Thulani Mabaso for an interview which would no doubt help Japanese audience understand the point of view of former colonial countries and people.

    I will reimburse for your time if you could name a fee to do this as we need to contact him very urgently due to our production deadline.

    I am very much looking forward to hearing from you.
    Thank you very much for your time.

    Best wishes

    Yuko Parker
    Mobile +44 7956154186

Leave a Reply