In 2016 I was invited to spend time on Robben Island, a small island off the coast near Cape Town that was once used as a political prison by the apartheid government. Former president Nelson Mandela spent eighteen of the twenty-seven years he was imprisoned on Robben Island.
During that trip, our group visited the house where anti-apartheid activist Robert Sobukwe was held in silence for six years. John Vorster, minister of police at the time, described Sobukwe as “a man with a magnetic personality, great organising ability, and a divine sense of mission.” Sobukwe had been deemed such a threat to the apartheid govenment that a special parliamentary decree – the Sobukwe Clause – was passed to detain him and keep him in silence. Guards were under strict orders not to speak to him.
As I sat on the cement floor, next to the single bed where Sobukwe once slept, I was overcome by the profound inhumanity of his enforced silence. I was also reminded of the power of a single voice. If our voices are that dangerous to the status quo, how dare we stay silent in the face of injustice?
A few days later, I was asked by a Black friend to take a group of writers – most of them white – back to Sobukwe’s home. I felt completely unqualified, especially to lead others to the great activist’s house. A voice in my head yelled, You have no right! You are an Afrikaner woman. You are part of the people who locked Robert Sobukwe up in that house.
Another part of me remembered the deep conviction: you dare not stay silent. So I took a deep breath. Then I asked the participants to walk in silence to the house where Sobukwe was kept. We humbly, awkwardly entered into the story, honoring and remembering the great suffering.
From “Recovering Racists: Dismantling White Supremacy and Reclaiming Our Humanity” by Idelette McVicker