Last week, I went to prison.
Everyone told me I had to go—that’s just what you do when you go to Johannesburg. So I took a cab to the top of the hill and paid my ticket and joined the group.
They were all South Africans—all young, all black, and all very fashionable. And then there was me, American and white, lagging behind, listening to the guide who was too young to remember what it used to be like in his country.
He told us the horrors of life in this prison, known simply as “Number Four,” where political prisoners were locked away for months and years. He took us into the communal cell and showed us the concrete floors where more than 30 men would fight for blankets and a place to sleep.
The young guide detailed the racial injustices suffered by prisoners—how on Christmas Day, white prisoners received a pound of cake, while black prisoners received only a cup of coffee with a measured ounce of sugar. How they were humiliated, tortured, physically and psychologically abused.
And this wasn’t so long ago—Number Four was only closed in 1983, more recently than Alcatraz or Auschwitz. Some of the prisoners were common criminals—others were men who defied the laws of apartheid.
Standing beneath the stark net of barbed wire, I realized that it was nearly impossible for me to understand a life without freedom. I was born in America, raised on a hippie’s diet of civil rights and Black History month, and I have spent most of my life wandering freely around the globe.
But not so very long ago, the majority of South Africans held passbooks that dictated where and when they traveled, which places they could visit and where they could not. Those who defied the passbook system often ended up in prison, and those who defied the political system of apartheid were locked away in places like Number Four.
I have often said that the freedom to travel is the greatest freedom of all, and yet for Africa’s most prosperous country, this basic freedom was denied. Twenty years after the fact, South Africa has made an incredible turn away from the injustice of apartheid and offered another vision for today’s world—a world of celebrated difference, of equal opportunity, and above all, basic human compassion.
I am reminded of this compassion whenever I travel to South Africa. It is not a country without problems, but it is a land that takes huge pride in turning a painful past into a bright future. That the prison complex of Number Four was transformed into South Africa’s Constitutional Court is just one example—the very place where Nelson Mandela was held captive, in violation of his most fundamental human rights, has now become the vanguard of civil rights for the entire country.
Traveling in South Africa, you cannot escape Nelson Mandela—it seem as if Madiba is everywhere. He is on the 50-rand note in my wallet, he is a beaded sculpture at the Johannesburg Airport, and he is a larger-than-life metal statue at his namesake shopping mall, Nelson Mandela Square (now home to the Hard Rock Café, Johannesburg).
I cannot think of anyone else who has transitioned from prisoner to global legend in my lifetime, nor can I think of anyone else who showed the rest of the world how this can work: equality, forgiveness, and progress.
Returning from the prison at Constitution Hill, we drove right past Nelson Mandela’s house. It’s a compound in Johannesburg’s Houghton Estates, and when I gave my address to taxi drivers, the only reference they knew was when I spoke of “Madiba’s House.”
“He is home right now,” said the driver, as we coasted past the outer walls of the estate. And that alone was enough—to know that he was there—a single human with a very basic idea that changed a nation and the world.
Then just yesterday, Nelson Mandela died. We all expected it: the world has been watching his heart rate for months. I suspect every newspaper and magazine had their articles and images lined up a year ago, ready to hit “publish” and wallpaper the Internet with homage and obituaries.
But not me—I am still in shock. As Twitter fills up with Mandela quotes and the radio and TV waxes on and on about what was entirely predictable, I can only remember back a week, to the prison of Number Four—a prison where Nelson Mandela did time. For me, it’s a haunting memory—more haunting than Robben Island or any of the other Mandela destinations across the country.
I can’t say why, for sure. My travels have taken me into some dark places, and it has also shed light on the real victories of people on the planet. Good travel is the opposite of apartheid because it forces you to leave the area you feel most comfortable in and surround yourself with someone else’s reality—it makes you understand people and the place they live.
Of all the quotable quotes uttered by Nelson Mandela, my favorite are the words he spoke about language, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
As a traveler, I strive to follow Mandela’s counsel. Saying “Thank you” to someone is nowhere near the same thing as saying, “Siabonga, Enkosi, ke a leboga, or Dankie,” and no matter where I go in the world, I do my best to speak at least a few words to the hearts, rather than the heads of those who live there.
And so, I leave South Africa behind and head home to America, taking with me not only the memory of Mandela, but the memory of Mandela’s prison, Number Four. I will remember the cold and lifeless walls versus the color of the flag that flies on Constitution Hill, and I will remember the naked net of barbed wire stretched across the endless, untouchable sky.