Mandela revisits cell where he spent nearly 20 years

February 12, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa -- Nelson Mandela visited the 7-foot-by-9-foot room that was his home here for almost 20 years, celebrating yesterday the fourth anniversary of his release from prison, which marked the turning point against apartheid.

As he looked around the bare walls of his cell, crowded with its sparse furnishings of a bed, table and chair, he told reporters that it looked exactly as it did when he did his time there.

"I never believed in decorating prison cells," he said after a boat trip to the island, about seven miles off Cape Town.

Mr. Mandela was joined by six of the eight men who were convicted with him in 1963. Seven were sentenced to the prison on Robben Island. The eighth was white, so he went to another facility. Mr. Mandela was moved to a mainland prison in 1982.

Those convictions and imprisonments aroused a new phase in the struggle against apartheid. Mr. Mandela became an international celebrity whose silence from his cell spoke with a powerful eloquence. And Robben Island became an international symbol of oppression.

At one time, as many as 1,000 political prisoners were held there. Mr. Mandela and his co-defendants retained their senior status, with Mr. Mandela the first among equals.

He was the one who had started the armed struggle against apartheid, the one who had romantically eluded capture as the so-called Black Pimpernel, and who had galvanized a far-flung audience with his "speech from the dock" after his conviction.

His day would begin at 5:30 a.m. "We would be allowed to go to the toilet to freshen up," he recalled yesterday.

After a breakfast of porridge, the prisoners headed for the limestone quarry where they spent their day in the heat and dust, mining the rock with picks and shovels.

There they found it was possible to conduct low-level conversations while working. Their confinement seemed to focus their political commitment in endless debates over programs and policy.

Their news came from friendly guards, newspapers taken from the prison dump, in one case from an unsuspecting Dutch Reformed preacher who kept his eyes closed as a prisoner prayed with him for a long time so others could rifle the minister's briefcase.

But it also arrived in crueler ways. Mr. Mandela remembered that sometimes he would return to his cell to find a clipping telling of a banning order or some other trouble that had befallen his wife, Winnie, or another member of his family.

"That caused very powerful wounds which cannot be seen," he said yesterday.

Mr. Mandela described himself as "a product of collective leadership." He began most of his reminiscences with the word "we." He clearly found it difficult to talk about himself.

But he did recall clearly a visit by his mother in 1968. "When she walked away, I remember feeling that I was seeing her for the last time."

She died shortly afterward. Mr. Mandela's fellow inmates remember it as one of the few times they saw him show emotion. When he got the news, he went to his cell and pulled the covers up over his head. Even yesterday, tears welled up in his eyes as he spoke of his mother's final visit. He was not allowed to attend her funeral.

"But of course we also had our lovely moments," Mr. Mandela was quick to add. He and his fellow Robben Island colleagues told of writing extensive manuscripts on various aspects of political policy, smuggling them back and forth among one another.

At one point, Mr. Mandela managed to write an entire autobiography. A copy of it was smuggled off the island. The original was wrapped in plastic and buried in the prison garden.

It was discovered during the construction of a new wall, and Mr. Mandela and two inmates who helped him edit it lost access to books, paper and pencils for three years.

At times, Mr. Mandela seemed almost nostalgic about his time in prison, its ordered simplicity contrasting with the hectic pace of his campaign for South Africa's presidency.

"In prison, you were able to stand away from yourself, to assess your contribution to the struggle and understand the mistakes you made," he said. "It gave you time to think and reflect.

"We don't have time to sit down and think about our problems TC now. That is one of the greatest weaknesses in our work."

The 2.5-mile-long, mile-wide island was apparently visited by the earliest European explorers of these southern African waters, men who landed on its rocky shore and hunted its penguins almost to extinction.

The small jackass penguins returned only a decade ago and now stand by the score in their formal poses among the rocks before gracefully --ing into the cold Atlantic waters.

Not long after Jan van Riebeeck brought the first European settlers to Cape Town in 1651, he recognized the advantages of Robben Island's natural isolation and began using it as a prison.

Robben Island is still a prison, a medium-security facility for just over 700 men. There has been talk of transforming the place into a nature preserve after those prisoners are transferred to the mainland.

More likely, some sort of museum will eventually be placed on the island, making it an ecological and political tourist attraction.

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