A pilgrimage to Robben Island
Archbishop Denis Hurley would have approved of a pilgrimage to Robben Island in his honour taking on a profoundly ecumenical form.
The pilgrimage — which coincided with the Cape Town launch of Paddy Kearney’s biography of the late archbishop of Durban, Guardian of the Light — was organised by the Dutch Reformed Rev Deon Syman under the auspices of the Justice and Reconciliation group of the Anglican St George’s cathedral.
The pilgrimage visited sites connected to the child Denis Hurley, who lived on the island where his father was a lighthouse keeper until 1923, and places on Robben Island that evoked prayers for justice, inter-faith relations and an end to the stigmatisation of the vulnerable.
Guided by present lighthouse keeper Peter Saaise, the group visited the lighthouse, climbing to the top of the structure to survey a scene which the young Denis might have observed when he accompanied his father to work.
The 18m lighthouse was built on the island’s highest location, the optimistically named Minto Hill, in 1864.
Reflecting on the Hurley family’s homelife, Mr Kearney noted that young Denis doubtless acquired his sense of fairness and his abhorrence of all forms of bigotry from his Irish father. From his mother Theresa especially, young Denis learned his deep, abiding love for the Catholic faith.
In the 1920s, there was a Catholic church on the island, dedicated to Our Lady Star of the Sea, which apparently burnt down. After dropping by at the island’s primary school which young Denis and his sister Eileen frequented, the group visited the Anglican Good Shepherd church, the only property on Robben Island not owned by the government.
The small church, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and first dedicated in 1895, now serves as a memorial for the victims of leprosy who were interred in the island’s leprosy colony — against their will in terms of the Leprosy Repression Act of 1892.
At the large lepers’ graveyard, tombstones give silent testimony to the marginalisation of people shunned by society because of their illness. For example, Friedrich Gustav Ferner, who died on July 31, 1912 at the age of 75, and his wife Wilhelmina, who died a day later at 62, were to society a century ago what those living with HIV/Aids are to many of us today: social outcasts whose illness and suffering we often prefer not to think about. In a reflection at the graveyard, Rev Snyman prayed for an end to such stigmatisation.
At the Moturu kramat, a sacred site for Muslim pilgrimage, the group prayed for inter-faith relations. The building houses the remains of Sayed Abdurahman Moturu, prince of Madura, who was one of Cape Town’s first imams. He was exiled to Robben Island in the 1740s and died there in 1754.
The main attraction on Robben Island, of course, is the prison which incarcerated so many opponents of the apartheid regime. There is a sad poignancy to the prison yard, almost unchanged, in which Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu et al sat, breaking stones.
Mr Mandela’s cell has been restored to resemble its state when he began his long imprisonment on Robben Island, with a thin mat and blanket on the cold ground serving as his bed.
The jail obviously invites reflection on the nature of reconciliation and forgiveness. It is easy to dismiss this glibly as sentimentalism. That would be mistaken: the lessons of Robben Island — the inhumanity of apartheid and the invitation for forgiveness and reconciliation which so many Robben Islanders extended after the demise of the evil system — may never be forgotten
Today we observe a precipitous resurgence of racism which threatens the non-racial (or a least non-racist) society which most South Africans are looking for. White racism and the superiority complex in which it is rooted remains very much alive, even if it takes forms that are quite different from the naked, brutal bigotry of the bad old days. At the same time, there is an alarming rise of African chauvinism which fails to account for justice and reconciliation (and, indeed, regards the latter as laughable idealism). Not rarely it serves as a cover for pure ambition for power and wealth. Where former President Thabo Mbeki encouraged this chauvinism, President Jacob Zuma — a Robben Island prisoner for ten years — is rightly concerned about this.
Before we departed from Robben Island on the elegant Sikhululekile (“we are free”) ferry, the group gave thanks:
“For the pilgrimage;
“For all that Robben Island means in the history of South Africa;
“For the life and witness of Archbishop Hurley.”