For more than a quarter-century, the sorely divided republic of South Africa has existed in the lengthening shadow of Inmate No. 466/64. To a succession of white-supremacist governments, he has been an enduring black threat to their hold on power. To the nation’s 28 million blacks, hostages to the doctrine of apartheid, he is a symbol of eventual emancipation. Last week, with the government’s promise to release him soon and unconditionally, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, at 71 probably the world’s best-known political prisoner, moved onto the threshold of what may prove to be the biggest challenge of his 45-year struggle: living up to the enormous expectations that will inevitably await him when he at last walks to freedom.
Hero: During the 271/2 years of his imprisonment, the hero of black Africans became a legend among white liberals and rebellious nationalists around the world. While he wielded a sledgehammer in the rock quarry of infamous Robben Island prison off Cape Town, his defiance of brutal suppression inspired songwriters, playwrights, politicians and clerics to invoke his name and hold candlelight vigils to demand his release. In the latter stages of his sentence at Victor Verster prison, 64 km northeast of Cape Town, his captors began permitting more visitors, and those lucky enough to get much-coveted meetings with Mandela were guaranteed headlines for their accounts of what he said, how he looked and how he spent his time. But freedom will end the aura of mystery. For the trim, six-foot, white-haired black man about to leave prison, harsh reality will severely test his confidence and his convictions.
Mandela’s return to his people and his 55-year-old
wife, Winnie, will end a remarkable chapter in South Africa’s tumultuous history. He went into prison little known to the outside world. He will come out as the focus of resistance to racial and social injustice for millions not even born when he was imprisoned. The City College of New York and Africa’s National University of Lesotho have awarded him honorary
doctor of law degrees. He is an honorary citizen of Rome and of the fabled Greek village of Olympia, where the ancient Olympic Games were first held. He is a Freeman of the City of Glasgow, honorary president of University College, London, and co-winner with King Juan Carlos of Spain of the 1983 Simón Bolívar prize awarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Cities around the world have named buildings, streets and squares after him. In 1985, a song entitled Free Nelson Mandela reached the top 10 on Britain’s rock-music charts.
Legend: The legend had an unlikely beginning: Mandela was bom on July 18,1918, as heir to the chieftainship of the Tembu, the largest tribe in the Transkei region on South Africa’s southeast coast. In 1937, he graduated from Healdtown Methodist boarding school and the following year enrolled in Fort Hare University College, where his study of politics introduced him to the writings of Marx and Lenin. In 1940, he and Oliver Tambo, who would become African National Congress president, were expelled for disruptive behavior. Partly to avoid the Tembu tradition of an arranged marriage, Mandela left the Transkei for Johannesburg, where he worked briefly as a mine policeman. With the help of future ANC secretary-general Walter Sisulu—himself released from prison last October along with seven other long-term black activists—Mandela got a job with a law firm as an articled clerk and completed his studies for a bachelor’s degree by correspondence.
In March, 1944, Mandela’s growing passion for politics and his opposition to the participation of Communists and East Indian liberals in the struggle for black liberation led him to join with Tambo
and Sisulu in forming the ANC Youth League. Four years later, he became its national secretary and, by 1950, he had risen to the league presidency and began co-operating with the South African Communist party, a move that put him on a collision course with the ruling and fanatically anti-Communist National Party. In December, 1952, shortly after he and Tambo opened South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela and Sisulu were given nine-month suspended sentences under the Suppression of Communism Act for holding proCommunist meetings.
Treason: But Mandela’s days of freedom and the ANC’s commitment to nonviolence were both rapidly nearing an end. In December, 1956, he and 155 other activists were charged with treason for urging defiance of apartheid laws. They were imprisoned during the trial, which dragged on for nearly five years, until the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. However, that verdict was largely meaningless because the government had already banned the ANC following the 1960 deaths of 69 people in the black township of Sharpe ville, near Cape Town, when police opened fire on several thousand demonstrators against the socalled pass laws that required blacks to carry identity cards.
The ANC went underground and Mandela went with it. The first step away from nonviolence was the formation of an armed wing, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which became known simply as MK, and Mandela was named commander-in-chief. For the next 17 months, while MK’s acts of sabotage made him the most wanted man in the country, Mandela eluded capture by keeping on the move and using disguises: once, a window washer, another time, a municipal policeman. In January, 1962, he slipped out of the country for six months, visiting other African nations and Britain. He received military training in Algeria. In Ghana, he was reported to have obtained weapons and explosives from Cuban agents led by revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara.
The chase ended soon after his return to South Africa. On Aug. 4,1962, police acting on a tip stopped a white theatre director’s car on the road between Durban and Johannesburg. The chauffeur, wearing a knee-length white coat and a black peaked cap, was Mandela. He was convicted of incitement and leaving the country illegally and sentenced to five years in the notorious 350-year-old Robben Island prison. Several months later, security police locat-
ed the MK’s headquarters in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia and found what they said was evidence of a foreign-backed plan to manufacture weapons for widespread terrorist attacks aimed at bringing down the government.
Following a widely publicized eight-month trial, Mandela and seven others were convicted of plotting the violent overthrow of the govern-
ment. In an eloquent, impassioned 4V2-hour speech in his own defence, Mandela made no apology for his actions. He concluded: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which persons live together in harmony. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He and his codefendants, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, were returned to Robben Island.
Prison: Altogether, Mandela spent 20 years in South Africa’s Alcatraz, digging in a lime quarry for the first six. Then he was put to work gathering seaweed, a task he preferred because, he later told visitors, he could watch ships pass. In 1982, he and Sisulu were moved to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town, where he was permitted to grow tomatoes and strawberries and read newspapers and magazines.
More significantly, the government, under growing international demands for Mandela’s release, began allowing him more visitors. In 1985, he told Samuel Dash, a professor of law at Washington’s Georgetown University, that
while he hoped for peaceful change, “if white leaders do not act in good faith towards us, then there really is no alternative for us other than violence.” When Dash asked him how his liberation program would affect whites, Mandela replied, “Whites in South Africa belong here, this is their home.” When another visitor asked about his daily activities, he replied, “I get up at 3:30 every morning and do two hours of physical exercise, working up a good sweat.” But the regimen could not safeguard his health. In August, 1988, he was taken to hospital with tuberculosis.
Respect: When he recovered, he was moved to Victor Verster prison and installed in the bungalow whose previous tenant had been the prison’s deputy governor. Besides the three bedrooms, the villa has a swimming pool, kitchen, lounge, dining room and a combined study and gym where Mandela rode his stationary bicycle, lifted weights and did aerobic exercises. One British newspaper said that a relationship of apparent equality had evolved between Mandela and his three white prison guards, who referred to him respectfully. A stream of visitors over the past year—cabinet ministers, labor and antiapartheid leaders and family members—variously described Mandela as friendly, I authoritative, remarkably 5 well-informed about world 1/1 events, politically sensitive and wryly amusing.
That humor and other emotions were evident in the letters that he wrote to his family and allies. Of a stormy 1979 crossing to Robben Island, he said: “I kept my eyes glued on a life belt a few paces away. I said to myself, if something happens and this boat goes under, I will commit my last sin on earth and tender my humble apologies when I reach heaven: I will run over them all and be the first on that belt.” Two years earlier, in a sombre letter to his daughter Zindzi, he wrote: “There are moments in life when people forget their precious gifts as human beings, times when those who are always sure of themselves begin to hesitate, when something caves in and an otherwise tough and dynamic person melts into soft and motionless jelly. They mean this when they say life is no bed of roses.” For Nelson Mandela, life has never been a bed of roses. But his own toughness and dynamism are legendary, and now he is poised, as a free man, to enter the next phase of his long fight.
RAE CORELLI with CHRIS ERASMUS in Cape Town and correspondents’ reports
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