Nelson Mandela at age 95, lost his battle with respiratory failure, reportedly, the result of recurring infections contracted during his years of prison confinement. Mr. Mandela had spent almost 27 years in a prison cell, eighteen years of which were on Robben Island. His incarceration emboldened thousands of followers, which grew into the millions. Word of mouth and finally media coverage spread globally. Pressure mounted and soon world leaders turned against the apartheid government of South Africa. Time had changed history, although Mr. Mandela was robbed of his youth, the impact on South Africa would have a lasting effect after his release from prison in 1990.
As leader of the African National Congress (ANC) political party, Mr. Mandela, fondly known by his tribal name Madiba could see his mission being accomplished—that of freeing Africans from slavery under apartheid. Madiba, which people chanted everywhere, played a pivotal role in steering the racially divided country onto the road of democracy—and becoming South Africa’s first elected black president.
Marcia and I first visited South Africa in 1984, attending a Young Presidents’ Organization Conference in Johannesburg. We were stunned by the cryptic signs everywhere separating black Africans from the white minority–basic needs as bathrooms were marked “For whites only”—and elderly Africans had to stand next to empty bus seats similarly marked. It would take another ten years of struggle, before Madiba would come to their rescue.
During our visit we decided to look up a friend of an acquaintance, who was living in Soweto, an urban African enclave in Johannesburg–bordering on a mining district where many of the Africans worked for meager wages, and under destitute conditions. The area encompassed 40 square miles, and at the time almost one million Africans lived there in small closely knitted, one bedroom brick and wood houses. The taxi driver frowned on our desire to visit Soweto, telling us all sorts of horror stories–ultimately dropping us off several blocks away. With the address in hand, and friendly instructions from a passerby we soon found the right house.
It was amazing that eight people could live in these closet size shelters. We found our hosts most gracious, offering us a meal. They were however disappointed at their treatment as second class citizens outside of their ghetto. We came away feeling very sad—knowing apartheid was wrong—and firmly believed that the archaic apartheid government had to change.
While serving as U.S ambassador to Mauritius in 2002, I became acquainted with Louis Mnguni, the high commissioner of South Africa, and a close friend of Nelson Mandela. Under the apartheid government, Mr. Mnguni had spent five years in prison on Robben Island with Mr. Mandela and other ANC members. I was surprised he was not bitter from that terrible experience—but he also chose not to talk about this chapter in history.
In October 2007 Marcia and I visited Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, which lies four miles off the coast. The island is oval shaped, and roughly two miles long by one mile wide—basically a flat terrain–no more ten feet above sea level at the highest point. This was a somber moment for both of us, seeing the confined courtyard and small prison cell which Mr. Mandela occupied for eighteen years. There were photos exhibited of the prisoners sitting in the courtyard breaking up rocks–under the watchful eyes of white guards–to occupy their time.
Nelson Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, seen around the world as a symbol of peace, justice and reconciliation, can now rest in peace knowing that he accomplished his goal—having spent his life in the service of his fellow man. He will join the other great freedom fighters–leaders who have made a difference in the name of equality –such as Martin Luther King, Jr., who also received the Nobel Peace Prize for the furtherance of the civil rights movement.