Nelson Mandela (1918 -
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
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 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
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!