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'A very sacred space': Minn. Orchestra musicians visit Mandela's Robben Island cell

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Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Robben Island
Cape Town is a 40-minute boat ride away from Robben Island, but it's still visible in the distance. European colonists to South Africa used Robben Island as a prison for hundreds of years in part because it was so hard to escape. It now offers a dramatic view of Cape Town and Table Mountain.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

It's a 40-minute boat ride from the Cape Town harbor. A group of Minnesota Orchestra musicians, some who had come straight from the airport, bundled up on a bright but cool day and stared across the water to Robben Island.

It's a beautiful but infamous spot. The Dutch East India Company began using it as a prison more than 300 years ago. It was home to a leper colony for a while, and an asylum. But it is perhaps most famous for one inmate: Nelson Mandela.

In 1964, a South African court sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment after being found guilty of treason for his activities with the African National Congress. The white minority apartheid government saw him as a terrorist. He and political allies saw themselves as freedom fighters. After the guilty verdict, guards took Mandela straight to Robben Island, where he remained until 1982.

The Minnesota Orchestra began its two-week, five-city tour of South Africa Wednesday, as part of a yearlong celebration of the centennial of Mandela's birth. Nearly a third of the orchestra's musicians visited the prison where the ruling white minority imprisoned Mandela for 18 years.

The musicians climbed onto a bus and began driving around the island. They learned the island's history, and about life in prison under apartheid.

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Robben Island
Robben Island guide Derrick Basson spoke with members of the Minnesota Orchestra outside the prison on the island Wednesday. Like other guides at the former high-security facility, Basson is a former political prisoner who served time on the island under the country's former apartheid regime.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Under the race-based regulations, black prisoners were forced to wear short pants, but Indian inmates were allowed to wear long pants. Even the prison food depended on your race: Black inmates weren't given bread, because someone decided it was culturally inappropriate.

The guards imposed strict discipline, and the prisoners could be thrown in solitary for the smallest infractions.

Much of their time was spent breaking rocks, first in the prison yard, and then later in a nearby limestone quarry. The bus stopped by the quarry and the guide pointed out that Mandela and his fellow prisoners had worked there for years. Many of them were to take important roles in government when apartheid fell.

"The apartheid government openly said they were somewhat surprised [at] how prepared the guys were that were locked up for years for the negotiating process," he said. "And I thought to myself, 'You were surprised? You kept all the masterminds locked up in one section of the prison. What do you think they were talking about?'"

The group's second guide was Derrick Basson. He was a political prisoner who served five years on Robben Island. He walked the group through the block where Mandela was held. 

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Robben Island
Members of the Minnesota Orchestra toured Robben Island Wednesday and saw the prison cell on where South African leader Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years after a treason sentence during apartheid. The orchestra is touring South Africa as part of the celebrations of the centennial for Mandela's birth.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom," Mandela wrote how his cell was so small his head and feet touched the opposite walls when he laid down. The cell is tiny, and pretty much as bare as it was for the 18 years that Mandela lived there.

Orchestra flautist Wendy Williams said the visit to Robben Island deepens the orchestra's experience of playing "Harmonia Ubuntu," the piece based on Mandela's writing and speeches that was commissioned for the tour.

"It was incredibly moving to be in the hall with the rooms of the men who gave their very lives to fight for the end of apartheid," she said. "It felt like a very sacred space."

Violist Sam Bergman remembers being in junior high when Mandela was released from prison in February 1990. Just a few years later, Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected president. Bergman said the visit to the island gave him a new understanding of that piece of history he watched from afar.

Minnesota Orchestra in South Africa: Robben Island
Robben Island is now an international heritage site, but barbed wire and remnants of its high-security past remain. Visitors from all over the world come to see the infamous prison across the water from Cape Town, South Africa, that once held Nelson Mandela.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"It's obviously wonderful for us to be here playing music," he said. "But I don't know. For me it's not even that this puts music in perspective. This puts life in perspective."

The musicians will take that perspective with them over the next few days as they meet and rehearse with local music students, and then play their first concert of the tour Friday.