Koos Kombuis
Koos Kombuis

A short story about a small room

“I’ll get stuck in a small room with you
Any day now, any day now”
Karen Zoid

Recently, I took part in a video shoot on Robben Island.

The day’s work entailed that I had to spend several hours in Madiba’s old jail cell, the little space where he had spent seventeen of his twenty seven years behind bars.

While I had to wait for the crew members to set up their cameras in the corridor outside and in various positions in the close proximity of the cell, I was left all alone in the room. I sat on the bed. I looked at the bed stand. I stood up, took in the limited view through the window.

I was all alone. In that room. That very small room.

At first, it was not a moving experience at all. There was certainly nothing mystical or magical about it. After a while, I started getting simply bored.

Nothing to do. Nowhere to go. No relief from the drabness, the monotony, the sheer infuriating lack of sensory input.

After some more time in the cell, I became aware of other things. I started hearing the wind outside. It was a terrible sound, the sound of desperation and longing.

I wondered what it felt like to hear that wind almost every day for seventeen years. To hear nothing but the wind. To become literally nobody. To get to that point where all hope is abandoned, where neither gods nor men hold out a helping hand, that crucible of pain in which you face yourself, and yourself alone.

Several hours in that drab little room certainly was no picnic. But seventeen years of the same would have utterly destroyed me as a man. After such an experience, almost anyone would be an empty shell, catatonic with grief, overwhelmed by cynicism or the lust for revenge.

Yet, incredibly as it seemed, that was the room where something incredibly positive was born: the idea of South African reconciliation.

If Nelson Mandela had not spent time in that cell, our hope for a better future would have been forever extinguished. The candle of our faith would not have survived the raging wind.

A day in that small room reminded me that I, too, am a South African. And it gave me the hope that we can handle whatever fate throws at us. If he could make it, we can make it.

I think I understand now what helped Madiba. I have thought about that tiny little space, and I think I know the truth.

Even though he had no view from his window, he had another view, a view his captors could not see. He had a vision of the new South Africa. He heard the awful moaning of the wind around the walls of his prison, and he heard in it, not the sounds of hopelessness, but the sounds of hope. Others smelt the confinement of the prison. He smelt the scent of the sea. For him, that howling wind became the wind of change. And he knew that, one day, that wind would blow away all the cobwebs of the past, all the remnants of racism and habits of hatred and the culture of blame.

We can escape from the small room of our prejudice and resentment and we can enter a bigger place, a place as large as this whole country with all its wide open spaces and wonderful opportunities.

I believe, like Madiba, that we can rid ourselves of the shackles of the past. We can make it. We must make it. For his sake.

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  • In Tambo they trust
  • Justice is fundamental in dealing with the effects of mass trauma
  • Reflections on my life on Robben Island