Robben Island, the bleakly beautiful island off the coast from Cape Town, is now a national museum and a World Heritage Site. It was once a leper colony, and then for decades housed the prison where Nelson Mandela and scores of other political activists were brutally imprisoned. Tour boats now shuttle regularly between the island and the Cape Town waterfront. Once you get to the island, you climb aboard a bus, led by an elderly guide who is likely to be a former prisoner.
The most important stop, of course, is the tiny cell where Mandela was kept in isolation for decades. But what I remember most from my first visit in 1999, just two years after the prison was decommissioned and opened to the public, is a limestone quarry, a high white cliff blinding you even in the winter sun. During the years of apartheid, this was where Mandela and many of his companions were put to meaningless work, chiseling away at the cliff to no real purpose, permanently damaging eyes and lungs. With the dust and the wind and the glare, it is a relief to get back on the bus and head back toward the sea. But as the bus turns from the quarry toward the main road, you will notice a small pyramid of stones, carefully piled at the crossing. It is an odd sight, jarring. It looks like a burial mound. But it is in fact a marker of new life. After the prison had been closed and apartheid ended, there was a reunion of former prisoners at this site. They erected this cairn of remembrance as a signpost on the road to freedom.
I took a photograph of that rockpile. As the world mourns Mandela’s death, I think of this image as an icon for Advent—an icon for this season of waiting. When the racist government imprisoned Nelson Mandela all those years ago, their intention was to put an end to expectation, to cut off hope. But Mandela knew how to wait. For South Africa, his release signaled the triumph of hope over the tyranny of fear, a triumph poignantly celebrated in those memorial stones.
The triumph of hope: that, after all, is what this Advent season is about—hope in the midst of suffering. In these mean times in our own country, when immigrants are demonized and the poor get poorer, it is well to remember whom we are waiting for: an impoverished child, born in a shed to parents uprooted by tyranny, a Savior who will suffer at the hands of tyrants only to rise triumphant not in vengeance but in mercy, seeking not retribution but restoration, offering both reconciliation and a thirst for justice. Mandela himself was no Messiah—he knew that better than anyone. But his long walk to freedom allowed us a glimpse of what true redemption will look like. It’s worth the wait.
God Bless Africa;
Guard her children;
Guide her leaders
And give her peace, for Jesus Christ’s sake.
A blessed Advent and Christmastide to all.