Seeking Adventure at Halong Bay in 2013!

We rang in the New Year with an adventurous day-trip to Halong Bay, located in northeastern Vietnam, which translates literally to “descending dragon bay”. Halong Bay was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 for its outstanding, universal aesthetic value, as well as its outstanding geological and geomorphological value.

Boats docked at Halong Bay

Some of the many islands of Halong Bay

In 2009, the New 7 Wonders Foundation included Halong Bay on its list of nominations as one of the World’s New 7 Wonders of Nature. In 2012, the New 7 Wonders Foundation officially named Halong Bay as one of the new 7 natural wonders of the world. During our 3-½ hour drive through the fertile flood plains of the Red River Delta, we observed rice fields and rural towns. We also stopped at Hong Ngoc (red jade), a bazaar that included textiles and ceramics created by young adults with disabilities. Donations benefiting the disabled workers were also accepted. Once we arrived at Halong Bay, we boarded a private boat for a 4-hour cruise of the stunning area.

Our vessel awaits!!!

On the boat, we dined on a delicious fresh local seafood feast. When the boat docked, we explored two of the limestone caves in the bay. These breathtaking limestone caves have gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments.

Natural light peaking through at the Dau Go Cave

The evolution of the karst in this bay has taken 20 million years under the impact of the tropical wet climate. After exiting the cave, we were greeted by local vendors selling coconuts. Several of us purchased said coconuts.

COCONUTS AS BIG AS YOUR HEAD!!!

The coconuts’ refreshing water was just the right way to reenergize after our steep hikes up the trails surrounding the caves. After the caves, we boarded the boat once again, taking time to reflect on our amazing journey atop the boat’s top deck while enjoying our last moments to take in the view of a small portion of the 2,000 islands (only 1,000 of which are named!), which come in various shapes and sizes. Alas, as we write this blog post, we are back on the bus, making the long 45mph drive back to Hanoi. All in all, it was a fabulous way to kick-start 2013 in Vietnam!

Klaudia Stolarczuk and Elyssa Pavone

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Overview of International Legal Duties of Vietnam

Law Study Session: Day 2

Today the students of John Marshall Law School attended their second day of lecture at the Galaxy Law Firm in Hanoi, Vietnam. Today’s discussion and debate centered on the Vietnamese Government’s adherence to international human rights treaties. Professor Chu Manh Hung, Hanoi Law University, led the discussion. It became apparent quickly that the students of John Marshall Law School had different views of what obligations the ICCPR and ICESCR imposed on a signatory state. Specifically, the students raised questions about Vietnam’s State Ordinance on Belief and Religion. This ordinance allows the government of Vietnam to limit religious practices contrary to the principles of International law.

The students also discussed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, (“CRC”). Many questions were raised about what steps the Vietnamese government is taking to improve the education system. Currently, twenty percent of the Vietnamese budget is devoted to education expenses. However, the national average education of an adult still remains around 5.5 years. This number takes into account the lower level of education for ethnic minorities in mountainous areas. This is only a nominal increase from 4.4 years in 1980. Professor Hung pointed to the population’s lack of awareness regarding their rights to education as a major obstacle in further growth of education. He believed that using a majority of the budget to increase awareness of educational opportunities would be helpful. It was made clear today that there is a great disparity in education system between rural and urban areas of the country.

The students also learned about the government’s attempts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Vietnam. The government has taken steps to inform the public of risks of HIV/AIDS, as well as providing prevention treatments for those who have already contracted HIV/AIDS. The government seeks that these steps will bring awareness to the issue and reduce the spread of disease throughout the nation.

We concluded the evening and the year with a festive New Year’s dinner. Joining us were Dr. Hai and a number of other individuals connected to the law studies.

~Shayan Davoudi, Eric Bibsy & Jack Sheehan

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The Beauty of International Comparative Law in Vietnam

Law students from The John Marshall Law School and Vietnam National University School of Law, and representatives from Vietnam Lawyers' Association

The amount of warmth and hospitality that we have been shown since we have arrived in Vietnam is almost awe inspiring given the short period of time that has passed since the U.S. war in Vietnam. Today we attended our first day of law study meetings in Hanoi, and we received the same warm greetings that we have received everywhere in the city. Our discussions of the day began at the Galaxy Law Firm where Professor Nguyen Khac Hai, Head of International Cooperation of Vietnam-American Law Center of the Vietnam Lawyers’ Association, gave an overview of Vietnam’s penal code and criminal procedure code. Professor Hai informed us that our U.S.-Vietnam law study exchange was the first of its kind. This is the first time in the post-war relations between the U.S. and Vietnam that the Vietnamese government has invited a U.S. law school to its country to discuss the development of law, human rights, and the legal system in Vietnam. Through our discussions, we learned about the impact of international human rights law in Vietnam’s legal development. We also had the opportunity to ask questions regarding comparative criminal laws and constitutional laws between Vietnam and the United States.

One interesting area of criminal law where we noted a stark difference is the sentencing limitations for juvenile offenders of serious crimes. Death penalty and life in prison for juveniles is treated very differently between the nations. Juveniles have long been protected against the death penalty and unusual punishment in Vietnam, while a constitutional debate has waged in the U.S. over what rights juveniles retain. Prior to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2005, states could impose the death penalty on juveniles at the ages of 17 and 18. Only recently has the U.S. made headway on juvenile justice, finally ruling that mandatory life sentences and the death penalty for juveniles are unconstitutional. Discussions with Professor Chu Hong Thanh, Deputy Secretary General of The Vietnam Lawyers’ Association, and Professor Hai helped to illustrate the need to integrate the international human rights standards into the Vietnamese criminal justice system.

From left: Dean Ruebner, Professor Thanh, Professor Dana, Teresa Do

Comparative analysis of Vietnam’s Constitution

The Constitution of Vietnam has been revised four times since the Declaration of Independence of Vietnam, following the end of World War II.  The current version was adopted in 1992, and the last constitutional amendment was passed in 2001. There is a movement in Vietnam today to amend and streamline the Vietnam Constitution and to incorporate international human rights standards into the Constitution.  Scholars and lawyers in Vietnam are consulting legal scholars and experts from around the world to find ways of improving the Vietnam Constitution. The John Marshall Law School is also contributing to this process. For instance, Professor Thanh raised questions concerning effective constitutional provisions ensuring checks and balances between main branches of government. In our discussions today, John Marshall law students questioned the absence of judicial review which would allow the courts to invalidate unconstitutional legislation. Furthermore, the students recommended inclusion of a new Supremacy Clause that would recognize international treaties and humanitarian law as part of domestic law.  This is a great opportunity for The John Marshall Law School, and it is a great honor to work with the Vietnamese government to ensure full constitutional protection for the people of Vietnam.

Law Study session on the Vietnam's Penal Code and Criminal Procedure Code

 

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Xin Chao (“Hello”) from Vietnam!

As part of an International Human Rights course at John Marshall Law School, we are exploring Vietnam with 12 students, Professor Dana, Teresa Do, and Dean Ruebner and family.  Our trip consists of 15 days of law study meetings, and touring major cultural landmarks.  Late last night, we arrived in Hanoi, one of Vietnam’s largest cities.  After nearly 24 hours of traveling, we were all pretty exhausted, so it was straight to bed.  We woke up bright and early today to play tourists for our full day tour of the city.  Our day started off with a visit to the Temple of Literature, the site of Vietnam’s first university, which dates back to 1070.

The Temple highlights the importance Vietnamese society has placed on education, and the professors are highly respected.  The complex is divided into five courtyards, with different paths that would originally have been reserved for the Emperor and his mandarins.  One of the courtyards contains stone steles mounted on the backs of turtles, inscribed with the names of the university’s first graduates.  Another holds the statue of Confucius, the “King of Philosophy,” guarded by two beautiful bronze storks, standing on turtles.

After the Temple, we took a short bus ride over to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  “Uncle Ho,” as he is referred to by the locals, was a man of the people.  His legacy outlasts his life, and he’s remembered to be one of the most modest and influential people in the country.  Ho Chi Minh lead the Viet Minh Independence Movement, from 1941 onward, and established the communist-ruled Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  Although he officially stepped down from power in 1955 due to health problems, Ho Chi Minh remained a highly visible figure and an inspiration to those Vietnamese fighting for a unified, communist Vietnam.  The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum contains his preserved body and each day, thousands of people wait in line for hours to pass by his body and pray.  Our group was among those thousands today.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The Presidential Palace, locally known as the “Yellow House,” was Ho Chi Minh’s residence for a short while.  He moved out of it because he preferred to live in a more modest dwelling while the country was in shambles.  The Presidential Palace today is used to welcome dignitaries and for official ceremonies only.

The Presidential Palace (The "Yellow House")

After visiting the Museum of Ethnology, which is dedicated to Vietnam’s 54 ethnic minority peoples, we ended our day near Hoan Kiem Lake, just a few short blocks from our hotel.  Here we were entertained by a live water puppet show.  Water puppet shows were originally developed by the rice farmers in Red River Delta of North Vietnam.  When the rice fields would flood, villagers would entertain each other with these shows.  The puppet show we saw detailed the classic Vietnamese cultural traditions, and was very beautiful.  Below is a picture of the show’s interpretation of the “Tay Nguyen Highland Dance,” which also looks remarkably like Teresa Do’s yoga poses.

Water Puppet Show

Below are some pictures from Hoan Kiem Lake and the entrance to Ngoc Son Temple.

 

Hoan Kiem Lake

Ngoc Son Temple

Tomorrow we look forward to law study meetings.  Our blog will be updated by our fellow classmates.  Stay tuned!

 

Lauren & Jordan

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Centre for Child Law Blog by Svetlana Gitman, 16 March 2011

On Wednesday, March 16, we visited The Centre for Child Law at the University of Pretoria. The representative from the centre told us about the most recent cases the centre has been involved with. Recently, the Constitutional Court decided in favor of the Centre for Child Law and held that minimum sentencing requirements did not apply to children age 16 and 17. The Centre for Child Law believes that a minimum sentence for children under 18 is unconstitutional because section 28 of the Constitution implies that imprisonment of children should be the last resort. The minimum sentencing requirement for children age 16 and 17 would make it that a prison sentence was mandatory, and therefore, not the last resort.

The Centre for Child Law is currently working to repeal provision 15 and 16 of the Sexual Offenses Act 32 of 2007. This act criminalizes consensual sexual relations between children age 12-16. According to these provisions, if two children age 12-16 have sex, they could both be prosecuted for statutory rape. Moreover, this act states that consensual acts such as kissing, hand holding, or petting is also a criminal violation.

I think this law is problematic in multiple ways. First of all, it is mandatory for anyone aware of sexual relations between children mandatory reporters. In a country where HIV/AIDS is an enormous problem, this will put children off from using contraception in fear that they will be reported to the police. When we went to Freedom Square in Soweto, we saw a non-profit organization doing outreach to the community by encouraging people to know their HIV status. I saw firsthand how young people walked by the table and paid no attention to the message. One of the organizers actually screamed after them that they should pay attention and know their status! This law will make the young population even more resistant to knowing their status. The young population is the future of South Africa and I think teaching teenagers about safe sex, instead of abstinence, is a more realistic approach to reducing the HIV/AIDS rate as well protecting children.

Second, I think this law is contrary to section 28 of the Constitution, which protects children from the penal system. This law is essentially criminalizing normal behavior between children. It would be naive to ignore that children are having sex. Furthermore, punishing them criminally, instead of educating them, is not the answer to curbing the rate of HIV/AIDS, STI’s, and unplanned pregnancies. Also, putting children through the stress of investigation and prosecution will traumatize them more than any possible negative effects of having consensual sex at a young age.

I was really impressed that every person we met with on this trip referenced the Children’s Act in some form; each person we met with emphasized that South Africa is very committed to protecting the welfare of children and therefore put forth a lot of effort into creating a comprehensive Children’s Act. However, I think these two provisions of the Sexual Offenses Act have the potential to hurt children rather than protect them. More importantly, provision 15 and 16 are in conflict with the Children’s Act. The Children’s Act allows children to consent to abortions, serious surgery and contraception prior to turning 16. If provision 15 criminalizes consensual sexual acts between children age 12-16, then in fact children do not have a right to obtain contraception since having sexual intercourse is illegal.

One final thought: a few opening remarks made by representative from the Centre for Child Law really stood out in my mind. The representative said that while certain special groups were winning more rights, those rights were not trickling down to everyone. For example, gay marriages are legal in South Africa, however in reality only white, wealthy people are benefiting from this newly gained right because traditional black communities do not accept gay marriage. In fact, corrective rape of lesbian women is a gigantic problem in South Africa. This made me think about whether the provision 15 and 16 of the Sexual Offenses Act will protect children of all different socio-economic backgrounds or weather these provisions will only affect specific groups. I think provision 15 and 16 of the Sexual Offenses Act will actually only reach the lower socio-economic communities, and they will affect children in those communities in a negative way. When a girl 12-16 year old becomes pregnant in the township, she can potentially be prosecuted because there are fewer resources available to her. However, girls of wealthier backgrounds are more likely to be able to take care of their pregnancies “privately” and avoid prosecution. I hope the court finds provision 15 and 16 unconstitutional.

 

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Cotlands Orphanage, Johannesburg by Sharday Shelby 14 March 2011

It is truly amazing to see what wonderful things can be achieved when a few people are able to get together to affect change and be of service to those less fortunate than themselves.  Cotlands is evidence of this change and service being possible. Cotlands currently operates as an orphanage for abused and neglected children, as well as some children who have been removed from their homes by social services.  It currently is housing sixty-five orphans under the age of ten, but can house up to seventy children.  The orphanage is unique in the fact that approximately ninety percent of the children housed there are infected with HIV.  They pride themselves in being able to provide adequate healthcare, education, emotional support, and love for these amazing children.

This year will be a particularly exciting year for them as they celebrate their 75th anniversary. However, this will also be a challenging year, as they find themselves in a difficult economic environment.  Although the South African government requires corporations to donate money to a nongovernmental organization (NGO) of their choice (something my colleagues and I found to be amazing) and Cotlands has received some corporate funding, they are still struggling to receive adequate funding from private donors and other sources due to the international economic crisis.  Additionally, they do not receive a large portion of their budget from governmental funding.

Although Cotlands is struggling financially, I am convinced that they are not lacking in the substance of the amazing work that they do.  As we entered the orphanage, two employees of Cotlands greeted us and took us on a tour of the building. One of the first things we saw was a painting of Dorothy Reese, the woman who founded Cotlands originally as a shelter for single mothers and their children. Presently, one of the most impressive aspects of Cotlands is their educational program for early childhood development, which has been used as a model for other educational programs in South Africa.  I think it is fair to say that we could all tell just from walking into the classroom that this program must be beneficial to the children, because the room was in disarray from recent child activity and there was much evidence of interactive projects.

As we continued our tour, we encountered a group of children, roughly four to six years old, walking back to “sanctuary” from school.  “Sanctuary” is an area of the orphanage with cots and a play area.  These were the first children we were able to meet and they touched all of our hearts.  The most moving part for me was when one of the children walked right up to one of our colleagues and hugged him. Several of the other children immediately began to do the same and hugged several of us. It was remarkable that after all the abuse and neglect some of these children have experienced in their lives, they were able to be so trusting of our group, who were to them complete strangers.
Another equally moving experience was the opportunity we had to see the children in hospice.  I should explain that hospice at Cotlands does not currently carry the same connotation of expectant death as it does in other places.  At Cotlands, the hospice area started off as an area where a great number of the children that were placed there would likely not survive.  However, with recent RAV drugs, the children in this hospice area are likely to survive, but may be currently in poorer health than the other children.  As we approached the hospice area we were able to look through the windows and see that most of these children were just young babies and toddlers under the age of 4.  They were abandoned, neglected, and sick.  We were given an opportunity to go into their rooms and see them.  It was truly a sad moment for many of us. However, as sad as this was to witness, it is truly an amazing and exciting thing to see that this orphanage has taken these children in and created a safe, happy, and healthy environment.

Our visit to Cotlands was by far the most emotionally stimulating experiences thus far, for me, of our trip to South Africa. Their work is truly a testament to the generous and caring nature and existence of humanity in the world.  I have nothing but positive expectations for the future of Cotlands.

 

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High Court of North Gauteng by Brandon Eichhorn, 15 March 2011

The group was given the opportunity to visit the High Court of North Gauteng and visit with sitting Judge Pretorius.  When we arrived at the court we had no idea that we were going to be blessed with an exclusive opportunity that most visitors do not get.  After a brief introduction we were led by her Registrar (clerk) down to the lower sections of the Court and to visit the old holding cell for the Court.  This cell is special because it once held Nelson Mandela and seven of his brethren as they awaited trial in 1964. The clerk, using a old fashioned key, unlocked the door and let us in the room to take a look at what was inside.  The cell was a very basic holding cell besides the writing on the wall.  We got to see the very first draft of the Bill of Rights and Preamble to the Constitution written on the cell wall. This experience was made even more exceptional when we learned that Judge Pretorius herself had never been in that room.

Following this we returned upstairs to the actual court in which Mandela and the others were sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island.  Here we sat down and had a very enlightening conversation with Judge Pretorius. The discussion really focused on the idea of change.  Judge Pretorius strongly believes that the populace has embraced the values and ideals of the new Constitution and that the South African concept of “Ubuntu” (humility or togetherness) has spread to every citizen of all races.  Judge Pretorius discussed the general makeup of the court system as evidence of this change and pointed out the racial and gender composition of the current sitting high court judges.  Currently there are 72 judges 56 of which are of a non-white race and 14 of which are women.  This was compared to 1993 when 51 of the total 52 judges were white with one Indian member.  Some of those 51 white judges who were appointed under the Apartheid regime still sit on the bench currently.  According to Judge Pretorius these individuals have been able to adapt to the new government and are not burdened by the past.  This comment rose a bit of alarm. While it is very plausible that an individual is capable of such a drastic change, it is hard not to believe that when a judge or attorney is trained in one system of law and then proceeds to practice and adjudicate under that system for a significant period of time, it seems unlikely that he could turn around and learn an entirely new system and be able to make fair judgments without any influence from his original legal training.

Judge Pretorius made some additional comments that the group found interesting regarding her personal view on how to make fair judgments in South Africa. She stated that one must look at the broad picture as well as any historical implications when making a ruling. In the American system of law this would be a very liberal approach to legal analysis which some might find objectionable.  But in South Africa this may not be just a personal legal approach but rather a necessary means of resolving conflict in this particular country.  South Africa suffers from a past that influences every decision in every aspect of a South African’s daily life.  Therefore when a judge seeks to resolve a legal dispute he or she must factor in those same influences that affected the decision that is at issue in court.

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South African Human Rights Commission Blog by Joshua Scanlon, 17 March 2011

The South African Human Rights Commission is a “Chapter Nine” body, or independent agency, under the South African Constitution. This means that it answers only to Parliament, similar to the Office of the Public Protector that we visited earlier in the week. The Commission, however, has a much broader mandate. While the Public Protector can only pursue action on claims made regarding public governmental organizations, the Commission can pursue any claim regarding a denial of any constitutional right, against anyone, public or private, who has denied or violated that right. The Commission also, aside from pursuing claims of rights violations, has the additional obligations to research human rights issues and to educate the populace on the rights to which they are entitled.

As explained to us by Eric, the Deputy Director of the Commission’s Legal Services Program, and Jennifer, the Director of the Gauteng Provincial Office; the Commission can pursue claims that are brought before them in a number of ways, specifically they can inspect, investigate, mediate, and litigate. Most often, the commission will inspect and investigate a claim by using the usual legal tools: questioning the parties involved, requesting information from parties and related entities, and by using their power to subpoena documents against any unresponsive or uncooperative parties. Often times once the inspection or investigation has progressed this far a claim will either be found invalid, or be settled through mediation if found valid. This result is apparently more likely if the parties are more rural or more distanced from government influence.

If, however, the Commission finds that a violation has occurred, and the case is not settled, then the matter must go to court for litigation. This is because the Commission’s decision that a violation has occurred, while influential in court, is not legally binding. This is a source of difficulty for the commission, as many of the claims brought before it cannot be solved solely by the a, and also because the Commission does not itself represent individuals whose claim they support. The Commission may aid the individual bringing the claim in finding representation, but cannot by itself represent them. Instead the Commission acts as a kind of expert witness, providing a report to the court, and testifying as to that report before the judge. The judge will then make a binding decision, which both the parties, and the Commission, must then abide by. The decisions act as a sort of precedent for future investigations by the Commission.

As to the Commission’s other duties, research and education, other branches of the organization deal with those. The Advocacy division is regularly engaged in presentations and workshops within the local communities, and the Media division works on the more basic advertisement style outreach in the form of television, radio, and other kinds of marketing. The research division examines human rights issues and how they are analyzed through out the country as well as internationally, to help inform them of what might constitute a right violation. This type of research is important, as they explained to us one of the major issues which the Commission must deal with in it’s every day work is the ability to define the rights about which they receive complaints.

For example, one of the complaints they receive is in regard to the right to housing. As actually laid out in the Constitution, the right is a right of “access” to housing. The difficulty comes in defining the word “access,” what is access? Does it mean a person has a right to a plot of land with nothing on it? Does it mean he has a right to materials for a house? Does he have a right to own a house? These kinds of questions are what the Commission must address each time a claim is made that a right has been violated. It must balance the facts of the case, against its understanding of the right, and then pursue the claim to the best of its ability. The people working for the Commission are passionate people though, who believe strongly in the work they are doing to help South Africa realize the rights embodied in its Constitution; and we wish them well as they take on their daunting but important task.

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Do You Know Your Rights? by Sarah Smith, 18 March 2011

Our first morning in Pretoria was spent at the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. I was surprised as we walked into the office to see posters hanging up that advertised various rights to each South African citizen, such as sexual orientation and gender. This has been a running theme throughout our stay in the country. Similar posters are hanging in court houses, the Public Protector, and the Human Rights Commission. I’ve met several South Africans who are clearly aware of their rights, afforded to them in the Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Our tour guide, Moses, has experienced check points by the police, in which he told the authorities that if they pull him over, they must pull everyone over. While the country is still working on making sure every citizen, including those in the rural areas, is aware of his rights, it’s still in stark contrast to America.

The average US citizen will likely read the Bill of Rights and walk away with one interpretation of what it means. The best way to understand your rights under the US Bill of Rights is to talk to a lawyer, and probably a constitutional lawyer to be safe.

I’ve thought a lot about the relationship South Africans have with their constitution compared to the relationship we have with ours. I think part of it comes down to age. The US Constitution was ratified in 1789 and the Bill of Rights ratified in 1790. Clearly, there are no longer citizens who remember the transition from the Articles of Confederation to the current constitution. When I think about the US Constitution, the image that comes to mind is that of an ancient document protected behind glass in Washington DC. Sure, I’ve got a couple pocket constitutions I use for law school, but even when I read it I’m always struck by the strange spelling and historical grammar. In short, it’s a document that may define my citizenship, but it was written so many generations ago that I often wonder if the Framers had any idea that one day the Constitution would protect a person like me.

It is absolutely different in South Africa. Even our guide Moses just gave us another three minute history lesson on the transition from apartheid to democracy as we’re driving out of Pretoria. I don’t remember the last time I brought up the Revolutionary War to relate to my voting rights (not that I would have had voting rights at that time). South Africa has a long history: hundreds of years of colonial rule and wars between the British and Boers. But the history that matters most to all South Africans is not even twenty years old. So many South Africans remember life under apartheid that life under this constitution has a significant meaning. I only fear for the future generations of South Africa who may not appreciate their constitution because it’s over 200 years old. At the same time, though, the idea of the South African Constitution lasting that long is a beautiful thought.

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Robben Island by Jessica Youngblood, 16 March 2011

Cell of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island

Cell of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island

Robben Island Today we toured the former prison at Robben Island where the leaders of the struggle against racial apartheid in South Africa, most famously Nelson Mandela, were held as political prisoners for many years.  The boat ride out to the island was not very long but as we moved further and further out  to the prison, now a Cultural Heritage Site and museum, I began to wonder what so many of the prisoners must have been thinking as they made their way across those very same waters.

Though the entire tour of Robben Island invoked a lot of emotion and stirred my conceptualization of freedom and reconciliation, two pieces of the tour exaggerated that experience the most.   First, we learned that all of the prisoners on Robben Island were forced at one point or another, to contribute to the building of the very walls which would hold them captive.  From 1962 to 1964 the first prisoners began the extracting and breaking of blue slate to build parts of the prison.  Over the years as prisoners continued to enter Robben Island, the breaking of the blue slate continued to be the focal point of prison labor.  Viewing the place where the blue slate was broken we learned two critical things: (1) as results of the extraction of the slate, many prisoners, including Nelson Mandela, now have life-long health conditions.  Specifically, issues with eye sight.  Second, the area where the blue slate was extracted was very often the place where political prisoners would meet to discuss and strategize on the very issues which had unjustly and unfairly placed them in prison.

As I sat looking at the piles of blue slate and rock, I was moved by the thought that while the apartheid government had illegally and unjustly stolen the physical freedom of these political prisoners, forced them to build the walls which held them captive, and in the process destroyed the physical health and eye sight of so many; they ultimately failed to steal their spirit of freedom, to hold their hearts captive, and would never destroy the vision of hope they held for their country.

This spirit is the second critical thing which impressed me on this tour.  Our tour guide today was a former political prisoner on Robben Island.  His presence made the tour rich, connected, and personal.  He was arrested and charged with treason and conspiracy to commit terrorism during the apartheid regime.  As we moved through the former prison, he described prison life on Robben Island including the limited visitation privileges, prisoner diets, and the relationships between the prisoners.

Lastly, he described why he decided to come back to Robben Island to work and live.  Today, just under 200 residence live on Robben Island, including former prisoner’s such as our guide, former guards of the prison, and current employees of the museum.  When asked how or why he could possibly return to this place of pain, brutality, and injustice, our guide responded that, he felt that it was his responsibility to tell his story and the story of so many other prisoners as a duty to South Africa and the world.  This spirit of reconciliation and the dedication to telling the story made this tour an emotional and informative experience but also a hopeful and inspiring adventure.

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