The name of the tall man who bore those long years there has since become legend — Nelson Mandela — a model for nearly bloodless revolution, a former president of South Africa whom many of his people call “Tata” (father).
Madiba, his Xhosa clan name, certainly deserves the title of father of modern South African democracy but, as this was written, the 94-year-old hero was on life support.
The time for mourning, and remembering, and celebrating has come.
If you go to Robben Island, and you should if you want to understand the journey of Madiba, you will find a desolate rock, 30 bumpy minutes by jet boat from Capetown.
Your guides will be well informed because they are all former prisoners. They will tell you about the conditions and routines of the prison, and of Mandela’s warning of the cancer of hate.
Work for the prisoners was in the lime pit where the blazing glare damaged Mandela’s eyesight (dark glasses were forbidden). In a wall of the pit a stinking latrine was carved, the only place for open communication because the guards would not go there.
When Mandela was first caged in Cell No. 5, he was allowed no books, writing paper or newspaper, and was granted one visitor and one letter per month.
In 1967, he was visited by a feisty member of Parliament, Helen Suzman, who became a dear friend of mine. Conditions improved after her visit; books and writing paper became available.
Helen is a story in herself.
For 13 years she was the only minority member of Parliament, a tiny, 5-foot-1 figure in a sea of green benches, a burning splinter in the conscience of the National Party, which was systematically dismantling civil liberties for black citizens.
I first met her in 1977 on the veranda of the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Capetown. When I was introduced, I interrupted the justice minister who, with heavy humor, was kidding Helen about a speech she was to make the next day as shadow justice minister for her minority party.
Her answer was to execute a sharp left turn and kick the hulking Afrikaner minister in the shin.
She was exacting revenge for years of being shadowed by government security forces and phone taps. Her defense against phone taps was to blow a whistle into the receiver.
At the time I did not know that it was she who mounted a hectoring campaign so relentless that the harried justice minister allowed her to make the significant 1967 visit to Mandela.
It was she who introduced South Africans and the world to Mandela and made it possible for him to speak to the world through his autobiography.
Why was it Mandela and not some other black South African who was chosen to lead? He was born into royalty, the grandson of a king, which with his height created a confident bearing.
Through hard work, the democratic leveling of boarding school and an insatiable appetite for knowledge, he was a natural leader. That, combined with a proud rebelliousness and stubborn sense of fairness, formed a personality people wanted to follow as president of the African National Congress (ANC).
Unknown to me at the time, I had dinner with a bitter royal rival to Mandela in Durban during the 1977 trip. Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, chief of the warrior Zulu tribe, was believed by some in Washington to be a future ruler of South Africa through his Inkhatha Party.
A slight, unimpressive man in Western dress, we had a pleasant dinner until I asked a critical question and got a chilling answer. I asked what was the Zulu tradition for the protection of minorities. “Oh,” said the Zulu chief, “minorities are under the protection of the chief.” Not reassuring.
In time, as ANC sabotage campaigns mounted and Zulu warriors made armed attacks on the ANC, a climate of violence reached intolerable levels, leading a realistic Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk to the conclusion that only Mandela could restore order.
Mandela’s joyous release came in 1990, followed by a three-way conference among Mandela, de Klerk and Buthelezi, which brought peace and free elections.
For all of his worldwide admirers the time approaches to mourn the death of a very great man, and for Madiba to quietly lay down his burdens and accept the reward promised him by his Methodist faith.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.