Editor’s note: Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and a global symbol of triumph over oppression after the defeat of apartheid, was hospitalized with a recurring lung infection on Saturday.
I first fully came to appreciate the impact anti-apartheid revolutionary and former South Africa President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has had on the world when I visited Robben Island in 2008. We arrived just after Mandela had celebrated his 90th birthday. My wife and I and two friends made the trek by boat to Robbin Island from Cape Town, to see the place where political prisoners were held.
Upon our arrival, we were greeted with a flock of seagulls along the piers of Robben Island just seven miles off the African coast. Robben Island is now a World Heritage site, and the guides to the prison there are the former prisoners and guards on the island.
We learned a lot that day. The white South African government had kept Mandela a prisoner for 27 years. I knew about apartheid — white, minority rule — but I had no real idea why Mandela was so revered by both white and black South Africans.
That lesson came on Robben Island.
We had visited the rock quarry where Mandela had worked breaking rocks and saw the rock pile that he and his fellow prisoners built one rock at a time the day he left the quarry on his way to freedom. We were given examples of his will and nonviolent protests to better prisoner lives. We learned that the South African government’s attempt to turn political criminals into hardened criminals by infiltrating hardened criminals into their midst failed. Instead hardened criminals became political prisoners.
All of these things are true, but it was our guide that first made me aware of why Mandela was so revered. We were led into a small room, similar to an Army barracks with open bay bunks just a few feet down the hall from his cell. This was where most of the white prisoners slept. There was a small rug that we all walked on to sit on the benches as our guide began his talk.
We had just seen Mandela’s cell, a tiny spot, 8 feet by 7 feet with a bucket and a blanket on the floor. As the guide began his talk, his voice increased in volume. “Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela slept on that rug,” he barked out in a sharp tone. Then he went on to explain how he was denied visits by family members, kept in the cold, fed less food than white prisoners, yet never gave up hope. On one visit from the Red Cross, he was able to smuggle out one of the two copies of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that he wrote secretly in prison.
When we left that room, nobody stepped on that rug.
To Mandela’s credit, he worked with then-President Frederik Willem de Klerk to provide a peaceful transition from apartheid and no doubt avoid civil war. Both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
There’s no question most of us would be bitter if we were locked up for so long. Yet this man found a way to bring peace to his people and allow all South Africans to choose their own elected leader in free elections. I would say he was a mix of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. He possessed the wisdom not to negotiate with the South African government until he was no longer a prisoner.
In South Africa there is still a wide divide between the haves and the people who have nothing. We do not put quarters in our telephone poles for electricity. Before Mandela, there was no electricity in the slums of Cape Town or other major cities.
As we visited a local elementary school surrounded by barbed wire, 10-foot high cement walls and an armed guard on the outskirts of Cape Town, we found kids with bare feet singing.
Long after he is gone, Mandela will be known as “the father of the nation.” Perhaps he should be known as the father of world peace in the free world.
Doug Curtis Jr. is a financial advisor in Rockland and a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve.