We peered past the barred door into the cell which had held one of the most notorious political prisoners of modern times. Concrete walls, floor, and ceiling with a barred window enclosed the space. Two layers of woven fabric, which suggested a sleeping mat, lay off to the side of the two-and-a-half meter squared space. A neatly folded blanket rested on a covered stool. A low 20” X 30” table, with stainless steel bowl and plate, completed the accouterments.
Six years ago, my son and I were on Robben Island, five-and-a-half miles off Cape Town, South Africa and its swanky shops. For eighteen years Nelson Mandela had been the notorious prisoner on Robben Island. When not in that cell, he was breaking rocks or working in the prison. After his release in 1990, his decision not to take revenge on the people who took twenty-seven years of his life showed a man with higher objectives than getting even.
Initially pledged to non-violence, Mandela began advocating violence following the Sharpeville massacre of unarmed blacks by police in1960. Later captured, he was put on trial and narrowly escaped the death penalty. To this day, some still call him a terrorist. Many more call him a great man, a liberator.
Nelson Mandela could have easily suffered the fate of Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness movement. Biko’s torturing and death at the hands of the South Africa Security Police in 1977 aroused an international firestorm of protest.
Biko’s death and the unfeeling attitudes of some in positions of authority shocked me out of my indifference. At first, I figured I had no possible leverage to impact conditions in South Africa but three years later, I was working in southern Africa. While talk of dismantling apartheid (the white government’s policy of racial separateness) came up in nearly every social gathering, I wondered how the country would survive if it came to pass. Racial conflict and bombings were common; the blacks had almost no experience running a large village, let alone a country.
Most people with any knowledge of the history of the Republic of South Africa (RSA, as it was known then) predicted a blood bath in the wake of majority rule. At the least, widespread chaos and breakdown of the infrastructure and social order appeared certain. While Americans generally found Afrikaners friendly, their government kept freedom on a short tether. I bought a copy of Michener’s The Covenant as soon as it came out. Two weeks later, I went to the same RSA bookstore to pick up a copy for a friend but every copy had been taken off the shelves—typical response by a paranoid regime that banned people, publications, and political parties.
A week after Mandela’s death, he’s praised and vilified. He was more a pragmatist than an ideologue, making national reconciliation his chief aim. At different times, he opposed armed struggle and advocated violence. No doubt he’ll be known as a heroic figure, a man who brought whites and blacks together without destroying the nation. The firebrand (also his his ex-wife) Winnie Mandela called him a failure, saying he didn’t do enough for his people. Others criticized him for failing to address the issue of economic equality and for placating the white power elite during his time as president.
At base, Nelson Mandela’s commitment to forgo bitterness and retribution against his former enemies kept South Africa from fracturing into racial anarchy. He achieved heroic status because he didn’t give vent to hatred and revenge. However, it must be said that little would have happened without the proactive work of F. W. de Klerk, the former president of the Republic of South Africa
RSA, who worked with Mandela to forge the transition to majority rule. For that, they both won the Nobel Peace Prize.
While the reprehensible apartheid system is gone, elites in the African National Congress (A.N.C.) promote and practice widespread corruption that prevents equitable treatment of both blacks and whites. Many of them appear eager to grasp Mandela’s legacy as their own, but the current president, Jacob Zuma, seems primarily interested only in personal enrichment. We can pray that capable, inspirational men and women will rise to overcome the cynicism and corruption that threaten the moral climate of that nation.
As we should pray for our own country.
- How Many Times Did Cable News Mention Steve Biko This Week? (mediaite.com)
- Former Robben Island Inmate Recalls Mandela’s Discipline, Courage (npr.org)