Rather than blessed with this gift from birth, he had to work at it. In the privacy of his cell, he had enough time for introspection – 27 years to be exact. He practiced the craft of self-control and over time had become a master of measured responses. Responses that were lacking the tone of hatred, that refused to reveal his disappointment and denied his enemies the satisfaction of witnessing any type of emotional impact.
Cape Town is a port city on South Africa’s southwest coast, on a peninsula beneath the imposing Table Mountain. Slowly rotating cable cars climb to the mountain’s flat top, from which there are sweeping views of the city, the busy harbor and boats heading for Robben Island in Table Bay. The notorious prison that once held Nelson Mandela is now a living museum.
Nelson Mandela was a very private person. He didn’t like to talk about himself. He never put himself in the foreground but didn’t shy away from the limelight. He preferred to talk about hope, reconciliation and nation building when he was released from prison in 1990. Five decades of oppression during the era of “grand apartheid” in South Africa, had ended. He never laid blame against his ruthless captors, nor did he complain about the poor treatment he had received for all these years. He never hated his enemies. He was merely angry at them, but he hated the system they were imposing on his people. When asked how he had changed during his many years in prison, he answered in characteristic brevity: “I came out mature.”
Nelson Mandela has gone down in the history books as one of the greatest leaders the world has seen in recent memory, and I consider myself fortunate to have lived during the latter part of his lifetime, to have witnessed his struggle for freedom from oppression and to have seen his triumphant election as president of South Africa in 1994. And now I am here on Robben Island, the very place where Mandela had spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration. For me, this is a pilgrimage of sorts; an opportunity to put myself, even if only for a brief time, into the very location where Mandela had suffered. Here he wrote his autobiography, contemplated strategies that would lead to the defeat of the apartheid system, appealed for unity among the fractured opposition and struggled to keep faith. But let me take you back a few years, refresh your memory about the suffering of black people in South Africa and the opposition movements that arose during the 1960s and 70s.
Throughout the 1960s South Africa was a successful nation; the economy grew, foreign investment poured into the country, immigration of white Europeans was on the rise and trade with Western nations rose in leaps and bounds. There was only one problem: the black majority was excluded from the success. In fact, the government tried very hard to push blacks out of urban environments. According to the government, black urbanization had to be prevented at all cost. Cities were reserved for the white population. Policies and laws were introduced that were designed to move the black population to so-called townships, which were located outside of the cities. They made sure that every skilled trade and craft was reserved for white workers and education for blacks was limited to the level of proficiency required for manual labour only. The government spent 16 times more on education for white children (per pupil) than for black children. Eventually, homelands were created, pieces and parts of South Africa that were useless to the government but could be used as ghettos for black communities. For the most part these homelands had no infrastructure, no sanitation, no schools and no natural resources that could be traded and no economy. To survive blacks had to become migrant workers; they rode trains into the cities in the morning, worked long hours during the day and returned to their families late in the evening. They were not allowed to form trade unions and their movements were restricted. In addition, blacks living in homelands lost their South African citizenship. The dreaded “Pass Law” required all blacks to wear a passport which was to be carried by all blacks entering white urban areas. Blacks were only permitted to stay for a maximum of 72 hours at any one time.
The ANC (African National Congress) was founded in 1912 and grew to become the ruling party in South Africa under the leadership of Mandela in 1994. While the ANC was only one of many freedom movements in the country in the 1960s and 1970s, it always played a leading role in the struggle against the apartheid regime. First a peaceful movement, it developed a militant approach to their cause after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 during which 69 blacks were gunned down by police during a peaceful protest. To the South African government, opposing apartheid was worse than murder. The ANC was persecuted because the organization was supposedly endangering the nation by refusing to conform.
The government was relentless in its crackdown of black activism. In the famous Rivonia trial of 1963, almost the entire ANC leadership was arrested and sentenced to life in prison. At that time, Mandela was already serving a five-year sentence. On June 13th of 1963 Mandela was transported to Robben Island, less than 10 km off the coast of Cape Town here in South Africa. At 518 ha in size, the island has a long history as a place of banishment for murderers, lepers and uncooperative tribal chiefs under colonialism. During the early 1960s it was to become the home for political prisoners, especially the ANC leadership and the leaders of PAC (Pan-Africanist Congress) and SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) which fought for Namibia’s independence from South African rule.
Upon their arrival, the political prisoners were forced to work in stone quarries, shape the stones they cut and build their own maximum security prison. Mandela and the other ANC leaders were placed in solitary confinement, forced to sleep on mats on the floor, their cells no larger than 1.8 m x 2.1 m. They communicated in secret by leaving messages for each other in matchboxes with false bottoms and by drawing messages in the sand. An enormous feat in clandestine activity was Mandela’s writing of his autobiography in 1976 and the subsequent smuggling of the transcript to the outside world by a released fellow prisoner.
Knowing the power of Mandela’s influence and charisma, the government, for more than a decade wanted to make sure he was forgotten by his supporters and that his name was erased from the public’s mind. His speeches were banned and it was forbidden to publish his photograph. However, all of this changed in 1980 when, in the wake of a major anti-apartheid revolt, the Soweto newspaper The Post started a campaign, demanding Mandela’s release with a banner headline FREE MANDELA. The campaign caught the public’s imagination. By now, a different generation had replaced the freedom fighters of the 1950s and 60s. White university students and liberal politicians made their voices heard. Mandela, a mythical figure held captive on this mythical island, once again became a symbol for the rights and freedoms of black people in South Africa. In 1982, the government decided to move Mandela to a different prison on the mainland near Cape Town.
The apartheid system in South Africa entered its final years of terror amid secret negotiations between Mandela and P.W. Botha, the country’s prime minister. While mostly symbolic in nature, the talks were a recognition and acknowledgement of Mandela’s importance in finding a solution to South Africa’s isolation from the world community, international sanctions and racial turmoil in the townships. However, it was not until Botha’s successor F.W. de Klerk took office in 1989 that negotiations moved along in earnest. Eventually, after 27 years of incarceration Mandela was freed from prison in 1990 and the end of apartheid was proclaimed to the world. Democratic elections were held and in 1994 Nelson Mandela elected president. The miracle was complete.
I have long thought about the forces that were at play during those last years of apartheid. What finally gave the impetus to freedom for all blacks in South Africa? Mandela was definitely a key component and de Klerk acted as a catalyst as the different anti-apartheid organizations relentlessly pressed for change. But unlike the disintegration of the Soviet Union which was based on the failure of communism and the collapse of the economies behind the Iron Curtain, the apartheid system in South Africa had not failed. Despite sanctions and strong opposition from the rest of the world, South Africa’s government was strong and its military force mighty. It could have suppressed the blacks’ freedom movement for much longer. It was the shift in public understanding that led to South Africa’s miracle. In my opinion, what really moved the ball along was the arrival and political influence of a new generation of South Africans. The mood had changed, the country was tired of conflict and the public’s consciousness was raised to greater awareness of fairness.
When taking his oath of office after winning the elections in 1994, Mandela spoke to his people: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
As I am standing at the door to his cell, the place where Nelson Mandela was held captive for 18 years, where his dignity was denied him, where the possibility of failure must have crossed his mind more than once, where his plans for the future were formed in his mind, where he perfected his formidable self-control and where he dreamed of a brighter future for his country, I try to put myself into his shoes. But I can’t. His life, his struggles and his eventual political success are too far removed from my life experiences. Nevertheless, I can still have admiration and respect for a man who, through his unassailable conviction, took on a formidable system and military might - and won.