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Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)

On a trip to South Africa a few years ago I visited the remnants of Robben Island where Nelson Mandela and his comrades were held. I marveled at the lush beauty of the Cape, but my thoughts were somber as we boarded the ferry that took us there.
Many of us wept as we felt the pain of their experiences as well as the joy of their overcoming. We realized how they transcended hate with self-respect, hope, and love. In 1962, Mandela and some of his comrades were snatched from their people and families as they engaged in the struggle against apartheid. They were found guilty by a draconian Court, stripped, searched, clothed in "boys" shorts, shackled by two's and displaced to that infamous bastion of degradation- Robben Island.
There they were imprisoned in an inferno of hell designed to break their spirits. As political prisoners they were assigned to the lowest category of a system which classified them from A to D, which permitted them only one visitor and one letter every six months. Censored mail was not unusual, sometimes whole paragraphs were removed leaving only a salutation. Encased in this shrunken world, they hungered for the tidbits of communication we sometimes take for granted: births, marriages and other rituals of daily living.
Their days began at 5:30 a.m. with the clanking of a bell and shouts of "Get Up, Wake Up!" as the warders entered their cells. They rolled up their jute mats and blankets used for sleeping, cleaned their cells and then were led down the corridor to empty and cleanse their iron sanitary buckets known as "ballies." These were their toilets, a concave top on these buckets held water, which could be used for shaving and to clean their hands and faces.
After a breakfast of porridge cereal, they were marched to the work site outside where they spent endless days of harsh labor at the lime quarry, breaking rocks into gravel. A short lunch break was given at midday. The standard meal, a bowl of soup, was often described as "smelly." At 4:00 p.m. the workday ended on a whistle and they were marched from the quarry back to the compound. White dust caked their faces and bodies as they strained to see through their tearing eyes.
One half hour was allotted for them to bathe themselves before supper. There was no hot water, only cold sea water from two showers, and three large galvanized metal buckets to stand in as they washed themselves. This short period of time gave them a chance to talk to each other and sometimes they sang to raise their spirits.
Their food was delivered at 4;30pm, the usual supper was mealy porridge, sometimes with a small piece of vegetable or fat. The colored and Indian prisoners received a few more supplements, but for the most part, the cooks kept the best food for themselves.
Their cells were cold and damp so they slept in their clothes to supplement the thin blankets given to them. The warder ordered them to go to bed at 8pm, but the bulb in each cell burned day and night. The clanking of the bell and the warder's shout signaled the next day. Some amenities came later as they planned their strategies and worked for justice, but these daily adversities confronted them for years.
Isolation from the group for even the smallest infraction was common. They learned how to resist, not with force but measured responses. Mandela remained steadfast and represented some of the inmates for some of the beatings and injustices they received from the warders. The challenge for Mandela and his comrades was to pattern their lives as closely as it was before they entered Robben Island and to visualize how it would be after they left.
Mandela was given a life sentence, but viewed it as temporary. Daily exercise and remembering the pleasant moments spent with Winnie and family members helped to dissipate some of his stress and to model this behavior.
Although Mandela and his comrades were of different religions, ethnic backgrounds and political affiliations, they learned tolerance by exploring their differences. Robben Island became know as the "University" because they taught each other from ballroom dancing to the studies of art and languages.
It was in 1990, twenty-eight years after his imprisonment that Mandela affectionately known as Madiba, walked to freedom with a raised fist and shouts of "Amandla"(Power!). The power was in this warrior's peaceful ascent.
The potential for hate, as well as love, dwells within each of us. But we can make choices to ascend to a higher road, no matter how far we have detoured. In a civilized world where mankind uses religion and ethnicity to further their political views- to divide and conquer, and where violence, rather than negotiation is the norm, has Nelson Mandela's journey given us a blueprint for survival? Perhaps it has. Long live the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela!





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