When Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island at dawn on a frigid, rainy morning in July, 1964, it fast became clear to the Afrikaner prison officials that he commanded great respect among the inmates, that he was a natural leader of the men. As a consequence, they singled him out for punishment and humiliation.
Other prisoners would later describe how, a few years into his incarceration, guards ordered him to dig and then climb into a grave-shaped trench in the prison yard. Mr. Mandela must have wondered whether this was the end. Then, as he lay in the dirt, they unzipped their trousers and urinated on him.
Many years later, an aide asked Mr. Mandela to provide a list of people he wished to invite to his inauguration dinner as president of South Africa. The great figures of the liberation struggle would be there, of course, but the sole name on which Mr. Mandela is said to have insisted was that of a former jailer.
Mr. Mandela lived an extraordinary life, from a barefoot boyhood tending cattle to his days as a fiery young lawyer in Johannesburg, then underground as a guerrilla leading the armed wing of the African National Congress and the long, lonely, curiously rich years in prison, capped by the high-stakes years as he led South Africa out of apartheid and into its new role as a continental leader. That life showed him to be a skilled tactician, a ruthless adversary, an able politician, an incisive and catholic thinker about liberation and oppression.
But he will be remembered for one quality above all others: his capacity to forgive, and to turn that forgiveness into a visible reconciliation. He had a phenomenal, almost unbelievable, ability to rise above bitterness and rancour, and clearly had made a conscious decision that this was the best route for the liberation of black Africans.
But as well as being a deeply felt principle, his singular focus on reconciliation was carefully calibrated, part of a canny strategy when South Africa was held together by promises and prayer that is often overlooked in the mythologizing of his later years. Not only did it redouble international fascination with him, partly at his own insistence, all South Africans began to be credited with the same miraculous capacity for forgiveness.
SHAPED IN PRISON
The drive to reconcile was a strategy, but not a new one. In 1962, when he was convicted of plotting the armed overthrow of the state, Mr. Mandela addressed the court with an extraordinary speech, the last words South Africa would have from him for 27 years:
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He, along with close friends Walter Sisulu, who had recruited him to the ANC, and Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada, and others narrowly escaped the death sentence and instead were sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labour.
From the outset, Mr. Mandela treated his time on Robben Island like a project – which Mr. Kathrada said in an interview helped him to survive such lengthy imprisonment with so little bitterness. He began his first protest for equal treatment for black prisoners as soon as he arrived, and was consumed throughout his years there with organizing prisoners into cells and structures, debating points of policy and history, and always, furthering the goals of the ANC. To him, his time in jail was just another aspect of the battle, comparable to being in the exiled ANC headquarters in Lusaka or the military camps in Angola, even if he was fighting to ensure that black prisoners received bread with meals or two teaspoons of sugar in their tea, like everyone else.