After more than 21 years in prison Nelson Mandela remains the most potent symbol of South Africa’s long black liberation struggle. At 65, he has spent almost one-third of his life behind bars, serving a life sentence for treason. Yet his spirit remains resolute: last month he turned down an offer of freedom because he found the terms unacceptable. The government of South African Prime Minister Pieter Botha was prepared to release him, but
only if he went to live in the nominally independent South African tribal “homeland” of Transkei. Mandela vowed that he would never accept a conditional release or have anything to do with the homelands, the rural regions in which the white minority government is resettling more than 3.5 million blacks in an attempt to blunt revolutionary fervor. Mandela also reaffirmed his allegiance to the underground opposition party, the African National Con-
gress (ANC), outlawed since 1960, of which he is leader.
Mandela received his life sentence in 1964. He had already served one year of an earlier, five-year sentence for organizing a general strike by South African blacks when security police raided a farmhouse north of Johannesburg and arrested seven top ANC members who were in hiding. The government accused them of forming a revolutionary wing of the congress and moved Mandela out of the prison on Robben Island—South Africa’s version of Alcatraz off Cape Town—to stand trial on the new charges of fomenting subversion. The eight accused faced possible death sentences but they did not deny the charges. Mandela charged in court that legislation had eliminated all other means of opposing white supremacy. He stated, “We either had to accept inferiority or fight against it with violence.” Later, during the trial, in a ringing closing statement he declared his commitment to a nonracial democracy in which all people would be free. “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve,” he said. “But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Those words were Mandela’s last in public. The court sentenced all eight men to life, and Mandela returned to prison.
For the past two decades it has been a crime in South Africa to print anything that the ANC leader has said or written, but his long imprisonment has given Mandela a pre-eminent position among black South African nationalists. Prison authorities treat him with care and allow him regular visits from members of his immediate family, including his wife, Winnie, 49.
In addition to Mandela and the other still-imprisoned leaders of the ANC there are about 750 political prisoners in South African jails. One recently released political prisoner, Neville Alexander, spent 10 years in prison with Mandela. Alexander, who does not belong to the ANC and who says that he has “some quite basic disagreements over ideology and strategy” with the ANC leader, describes him as “unquestionably one of the most impressive people I have ever met.” According to Alexander, both the prison guards and the other prisoners realized that the government had singled Mandela out for special treatment for fear of world outrage if anything were to happen to him, but Mandela never took advantage of it. Said Alexander: “A lesser person might have baited the warders, but he always treated them with total courtesy and respect. In most cases that was reciprocated. They were all impressed by him.” Added Alexander: “Some even admitted as much.”
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