Stations of the Cross on a special South African pilgrimage
THIRTY Anglican clergy members, led by Bishop Garth Counsell, undertook an unusual pilgrimage a few weeks ago.
Its format – that of the traditional stations of the cross – was set in the context of Robben Island with its layered history as a place of banishment and cruel isolation.
At the Robben Island Gateway, we read from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24. This story of the two disciples meeting Jesus while walking from Jerusalem to their home in the village of Emmaus resonates with the island’s stories of social death, its examples of resurrected hope and, ultimately, liberation.
Our first station was at the penguin board walk. Here the African penguin featured as a symbol of hope. By the 1800s these flightless seabirds, vulnerable to the excesses of human settlement, were listed as extinct. The penguins were reintroduced to island life in 1983 and they chose to give it “another chance and once again to make it their home”.
We broke for tea after visiting the shrine dedicated to the memory of Sayed Moturu, a prince and Muslim cleric.
Here we greeted one another with a Salaam alaykum (Peace be upon you), followed by the reply, Wa alaykum as-salaam (And upon you be peace).
Father Mzwandile Magadla rattled off the greetings in impressively accented Arabic. Others, such as the rector of St Mary’s Woodstock, Father Donavan Meyer, were verbally generous with their Al hamdu lillah’s (Praise be to God).
We were reminded that Arabic was a language and not a religion, and that it was the linguistic progeny of Aramaic, the mother-tongue of Jesus.
The stories on the walls of the cell in the maximum security prison provided an insight into how Robben Island contributed to the South African story of reconciliation. The ordinary dramas of family life would test many.
One fellow learnt that his wife, carrying the child of another man, had been sent back to her family. On his release seven years later, this man sought out his wife.
He returned home with her, their children and the two children from the other man. He regarded all the children as his own and, referring to his wife reportedly said: “She didn’t send me to jail.”
We spent a long time in the house where PAC leader Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe was interned and held in solitary confinement.
The description of his silent gesture of greeting and solidarity whenever prisoners trooped past his house, engendered a deep respect for this man of whom little is said or written these days.
We concluded our pilgrimage with the Eucharist in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.
In November 1999, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane rededicated the chapel as a place of worship.
Father Njongo had spent three years on Robben Island. He is numbered among those who lit the pilgrim’s path. He and others, such as the poet Dennis Brutus, left a legacy for successive generations to know that resistance is possible and evil can be overcome.