Cape Town: President Pratibha Patil on Satuday visited Robben Island housing the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 long years, describing it a "place of pilgrimage" which encapsulates the spirit of South Africa`s historic struggle against the abhorrent system of apartheid.
Mandela, who became South Africa`s first democratic President, had written his famous book `The Long Walk to Freedom`, which had helped topple the apartheid regime, at the Robben Island, which is now a World Heritage Site and museum.
Besides, Mandela, who is now 93, the Island`s maximum security prison had once held the founding leader of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe.
From the 17th to the 20th centuries, Robben Island served as a place of banishment, isolation and imprisonment.
In the visitors` book, the President wrote "Robben Island is today a place of pilgrimage" for all those who respect the inalienable right of all people to a life of freedom and dignity.
"This place encapsulates the spirit of South Africa`s historic struggle against the abhorrent system of apartheid and symbolises the triumph of human spirit over adversity and brute force. It also reminds of the extreme hardships faced by the heroes of the freedom struggle."
"My visit to the island and the prison cells where Nelson Mandela and his fellow freedom fighters were incarcerated for over 17 years has been a deeply moving experience. Their saga of extraordinary strength, courage and sacrifice shall always inspire the youth of today and future generations for preserving freedom and justice," Patil wrote.
The President went around the prison, including its five number cell which housed Mandela.
Sparks, a former political prisoner who is now a guide at the place, told reporters accompanying the President how the apartheid regime brutally treated those fighting for freedom.
"The political prisoners were the worst treated and were never given jackets and shoes in spite of the extreme cold," he said, adding that getting permission for higher studies was a real privilege as it took years to get it.
"Only once Mandela and other political prisoners were given jackets and shoes to wear as there was an international outcry over the way they were being treated and apartheid regime wanted to send the message that it cared for them," Sparks, who spent seven years in the prison, said.
He said Mandela had secretly written "The Long Walk to Freedom" during the imprisonment and was successful in smuggling it out.
African National Congress leader Mac Maharaj, who published the book, later became Independent South Africa`s first Transport Minister under Mandela.
Robben Island has not only been used as a prison. It was a training and defence station in World War II (1939-1945) and a hospital for people with leprosy and for the mentally and chronically ill (1846-1931).
In the 1840s, as there was no cure and little effective treatment available for leprosy, mental illness and other chronic illnesses, Robben Island was a kind of prison for the hospital patients too.
Robben Island was declared the World Heritage Site in 1997.
The nomination at that time had said "The buildings of Robben Island bear eloquent testimony to its sombre history...Robben Island and its prison buildings symbolise the triumph of the human spirit of freedom and of democracy over oppression."