Illinois governor visits Mandela's island prison - Quad-Cities Online: Illinois

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Illinois governor visits Mandela's island prison

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Posted: Monday, May 29, 2000 1:00 am | Updated: 8:33 am, Mon Apr 28, 2014.

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- Illinois Gov. George Ryan wrapped up a six-day visit to South Africa on a somber note with a visit to Robben Island, home to the prison where former President Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his 27 years behind bars.

Ryan described his South Africa visit -- which has been primarily aimed at promoting Illinois businesses -- as an outstanding success. He said he hoped it also would benefit South Africa's economy.

``We will go back with a willingness to bring our state and this country closer together. ``We have a better understanding of what South Africa is all about,'' he said of his visit that ended Sunday. ``Our trip has come to an end, but not our commitment to South Africa.''

During the week, Ryan opened an Illinois Trade Office in Johannesburg and announced an exchange program that is to bring South African youths to the Chicago stock exchange.

Two Chicago-area firms represented in a trade delegation accompanying Ryan signed deals. The Solo Cup Co. signed a $1 million contract to manufacture plastic cups for South African Breweries, the world's fourth-largest brewer, and ServiceMaster Co. clinched a deal to do training in South Africa.

Robben Island, once described by Mandela as the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in apartheid South Africa's penal system, is now a museum and popular tourist destination.

Ryan, together with his wife Lura Lynn Ryan, Illinois Senate Minority Leader Emil Jones, D-Chicago, and business delegates, took a bus ride around the island, which is home to deer, penguins, abundant birdlife and about 120 museum staff and students.

The tour included a stop in the quarry where Mandela spent years doing hard labor. His eyesight was permanently damaged by the sun glaring off the limestone, which he had to chisel for up to eight hours a day.

The group next visited the dank, cold, stone prison block where inmates were housed. Ryan filmed the courtyard where prisoners used to sit chiseling stone with a video camera.

Later their guide Sindile Mngqibsa, who was imprisoned on the island between 1963 and 1978 ``for fighting the police,'' showed the group cell number five, where Mandela was held.

In his autobiography ``A Long Walk to Freedom,'' Mandela described how he had to sleep on the floor after being sent to Robben Island in 1964.

``I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side,'' Mandela wrote. ``I was 46 years old and that small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.''

Ryan, who met Mandela earlier in the week in Johannesburg, said the prison visit had given him a better understanding of the former president. He said he was amazed at Mandela's lack of bitterness toward his former oppressors.

``I think he handled it brilliantly,'' Ryan said.

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