December 5, 2013 5:08 PM EST

Relentlessly pounded by the angry surf and chilled by the icy winds of the south Atlantic, Robben Island is the unlikely cradle of South African democracy. That wasn’t exactly what the Dutch and British empires had in mind when they began, from the 17th century, using the two-square mile rocky outcrop four miles off Cape Town as a prison. Being sent to live out their day on Robben Island was the fate of those who dared resist the incursion of European settlers. And the white-minority regime that inherited the reins of colonial power maintained that tradition.

Nelson Mandela, leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress spent 18 of his 27 years in prison there, and emerged to lead all South Africans, black and white, in a process of democratic reconciliation that became a global icon of humanity’s ability to transcend racism. But three centuries before Mandela broke rocks in its dusty quarry, the Island (as it was known in South Africa) had held the indigenous leader Autshumao, known to the Dutch as “Harry the Beachcomber”, mutinous slaves brought to the Cape from the Dutch East Indies, and the Xhosa insurgent leader Makana who had risen against the British in 1819.

But it was Mandela and his cohort who put the Island on the international map. Having taken up arms against the apartheid regime when all channels of peaceful protest were closed by violent repression, their insurgency was crushed, and like Autshumao and Makana before them, they were sent to rot on the Island, their fate intended as an object lesson to all who would dare challenge the authority of the white man.

A new study says lower back is the number one condition that causes the most disability worldwide. Everyone has dealt with back pain at some point in their lives. Often the pain goes away on it's own, but in the most unlucky cases, it is chronic and becomes debilitating. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Americans spend at least $50 billion each year on low back pain, and it's the number one cause of job disability. In a new study published in the journal the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, researchers gathered data from 117 studies from 47 different countries and other national surveys from countries around the world and found that it's the greatest cause of disability around the world. They found that lower back pain came out as the top for years lost due to disability. About one in 10 people had lower back pain and the prevalence was highest in Western Europe and lowest in the Caribbean and Latin America. The problem is that the world's population of elderly people is continually growing, which means people are living longer and may live longer with pain. "With ageing populations throughout the world, but especially in low and middle income countries, the number of people living with low back pain will increase substantially over coming decades," the study authors write. Besides of the work time and years of life that lower back pain can stunt, another issue is that it can be tricky to treat. There are ways to treat back pain with standard pain killers--though addict is a common worry--heat or ice application, and even surgery if it's particularly painful. Some people prefer acupuncture or even more intensive medication like opioids. However, one the greatest treatments for back pain is thought to be exercise--being sedentary is thought to be one of the causes of back pain after all. "Exercise may be the most effective way to speed recovery from low back pain and help strengthen back and abdominal muscles. Maintaining and building muscle strength is particularly important for persons with skeletal irregularities," the NINDS writes on its website. The best type of exercises for back pain typically incorporate some muscle work and stretching--something like yoga is thought to do wonders. Walking and swimming also combine muscle building and stretching, and any discomfort during exercise should fade away as muscles in the right places start to bulk up. Alas, there's no magic bullet to prevent the onset of lower back pain, especially if it's brought on by age, but there are ways to keep the changes at bay. For instance, getting regular physical activity, making sure kids don't wear backpacks overloaded with heavy school books--kids actually go to the emergency room for backpack related injuries a little too regularly. "Governments, health service and research providers and donors need to pay far greater attention to the burden that low back pain causes than what they had done previously," the study authors write.  
Claudia Van Ryssen-Bolofo

Things didn’t work out that way. Despite the best efforts of the prison authorities to break their spirit, the prisoners organized themselves and steadily expanded their control of the institution’s culture. The Island became known as “the university of the struggle,” each new wave of young rebels brought to the prison falling under the tutelage of Mandela’s generation, leaving the prison to rejoin the fight with the equivalent of a revolutionary MBA.

And what Mandela taught them was the ANC’s core belief that, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” Many young convicts came to the Island hating white people, having watched their unarmed peers cut down in the streets by the apartheid security forces; Mandela and his comrades, through patient political education on the ethics and mechanics of political change, brought them round to a vision of a common future for all South Africans.

And it was during his years on the Island that Mandela closely studied the psyche of his Afrikaner jailers, his encounters with their humanity and fears profoundly shaping his negotiations with the minority regime that enabled a peaceful transition to majority rule.

Robben Island remains a shrine to South Africa’s unique achievement in liberation and reconciliation, revered precisely because it failed to serve its purpose.


Koto Bolofo was born in South Africa and raised in Great Britain. He has made photographs and short films for clients such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ. More of his work can be seen here.

Tony Karon served as senior editor at TIME from 1997 – 2013, where he covered international conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, and the Balkans.


Contact us at letters@time.com.

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