As a rickety old boat plods along from the bay, a nervous chill engulfs the travellers. The ticket price surely demands a better service. In interest of being solemn, no one speaks out and they all watch the receding shore. As the boat docks at Robben Island terminal, two men tie the boat to the moor. All the passengers are asked to take seats on waiting buses.

The first glimpse of the island is so calm and pristine that what follows from the young tour guide is shattering. The very eloquent guide educates the guests on the wretched and unfortunate history, which turns out to be a perfect 45-minute class in a history that no one should (or will) forget about.

The silent and serene of the island actually masks the hate and abuse that has taken place here. In a mind numbing and back breaking 'job', Nelson Mandela and senior leaders were asked to break sandstone with small hand tools and grovel it into fine sand to ‘pave’ a road. 

For eight hours a day for several years, this act was a cruel remind of depravity of human mind and triumph of the human spirit at the same time. The prisoners found ways to use this work to gather around, discuss politics and policies in the only time they had. A small cave is what was their shelter from weather elements during this work and was the only place where they could talk to each other, confide to each other, eat lunch and relieve themselves.

The stink of human waste made it unbearable for guards to interfere in the cave, which became the fertile grounds of imagination of new South Africa post-apartheid to emerge. This cave is often called as the ‘First parliament of a free South Africa.’  

Another lesser known ‘convict’ of the prison, Subukwe, who preceded Nelson Mandela, is a lesson in ‘dying for conviction’. His quest to dismantle apartheid carried on from Mahatma Gandhi’s quest in South Africa to get rid of the ‘pass.’

The final tour of the actual prison is more stirring than the tour of the island. A former political prisoner gathers us around and in his loud and husky voice brings everyone to attention. The group that had lost its smiles hearing about cruelty is brought back to life by the stirring spirit of Itumelang Makwella, a former political prisoner of this same prison. He in a halting and reflective manner takes us into a ‘community prison’ and hints at life in a prison in the apartheid era. The image that stands out is him holding a giant size replica of a ‘prison card’ and smiling.

The stories of how prisoners stuck together despite atrocities reflect the bonhomie in their worst of times. We all soak it in and then take the final paces towards the most known and photographed section of the prison, the prison cell that held Nelson Mandela for 18 of the 27 years. 

I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether it comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic keeps one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward” – Nelson Madela

To imagine that he remained hopeful, positive and did not forget to fight back the right away, despite the nature of the mental, physical and emotional cruelty bestowed is unthinkable. His sense of optimism, captured in this beautiful quote from Long Walk to Freedom, a book he wrote secretly in this prison and smuggled out with the help of some of friends, sums up the triumph of the spirit of mankind. 

I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether it comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic keeps one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I could not give myself up to despair.  Of all the inadequacies I have perceived, I wanted to get back up and face my fears because everything we ever want is on the other side of our fears."

As the tour comes to an end, Makwella shakes hands with us and reminds us of a very ‘administrative issue’ that there is no bus waiting to take us to the boat. He says in his booming voice, “the short walk to leave the prison towards the rickety boat is to be walked like the prisoners' own long walk to freedom and towards the same rickety boat.

Coca-Cola South Africa is a supporter of Robben Island Museum, where former President Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 out of 27 years