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Witness: Searching for Mandela, from Robben Island to release

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - One summer day in 1979 I broke several apartheid laws as a teenager, searching for a glimpse of Nelson Mandela on South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison.
/ Source: Reuters

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - One summer day in 1979 I broke several apartheid laws as a teenager, searching for a glimpse of Nelson Mandela on South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison.

My businessman father managed to secure an invitation to the island through one of his employees, a rare chance to see the secluded jail where the white minority government imprisoned Mandela and scores of other anti-apartheid leaders for decades.

Aged 15 and coming from a conservative Afrikaans background, I had by then already developed a political conscience and made up my mind that apartheid was unjust.

Maybe for that reason I smuggled my camera onto the island, concealing it in a backpack and constantly worrying that the stern-looking armed prison guards on the ferry from Cape Town would discover it during the 45-minute crossing.

I managed to take several photographs of the rocky, wind-swept island prison, the limestone quarry where Mandela crushed rock during his 18 years there as a prisoner, and one of a group of inmates in the distance.

I imagined to myself that one of those far-off silhouettes could have been Mandela - already a legendary African National Congress figure inside and outside South Africa after his 1964 sentencing to life imprisonment for conspiracy and sabotage.

If I was caught, I would have faced a hefty fine because cameras and taking photographs were strictly forbidden.

Visitors to Robben Island were served extravagant Sunday lunches in the warders' mess. Crayfish and mounds of seafood were piled on the banquet table for warders and their guests.

Only a few hundred meters away, Mandela and other political prisoners' Sunday lunch consisted of more humble fare - bread, a little meat and a few vegetables.

In apartheid South Africa, even the political prisoners' diet was segregated along racial lines, with blacks not receiving the same amount of bread and sugar as those of mixed-race and Indian descent.

In his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom", Mandela said this only changed in 1979, the year I visited the island, when prison authorities relented and allowed black prisoners the same diet as other inmates.


More than a decade later, I finally found Nelson Mandela on the day he was released from a prison farm near Paarl in South Africa's wine-producing region.

As a reporter on Cape Times newspaper, I was outside the prison on February 11, 1990, and watched as he walked out a free man, thrusting his fist in the air as he left the jail grounds accompanied by his then-wife Winnie.

In the next five years, I broke countless traffic laws chasing after his speeding convoy during his campaigning for of South Africa's historic first all-race elections in 1994.

I saw him vote for the first time and witnessed his extraordinary efforts at reconciling white and black to forge a new "Rainbow Nation" from the ashes of apartheid.

Mandela voted in a school in Inanda in volatile KwaZulu-Natal province, then the powerbase of the ANC's fierce rival, the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party.

Inanda was a flashpoint in an ANC/Inkatha conflict in which at least 10,000 people were killed in a decade.

But Mandela seemed to set the bloodshed behind him as he smiled broadly and dropped his voting slip in the ballot box.

More than anything else, Mandela's charm, presence, humor and genuine concern for his fellow South Africans made each assignment involving him something out of the ordinary.

At the end of his first news conference as a free man, Mandela was spontaneously applauded by the scores of journalists present. At briefings for foreign correspondents, Mandela would charm us to such an extent that we often complained afterwards of being too much in awe to ask probing questions.


It would have been unthinkable for anybody but Mandela to host a lunch for the wives of politicians across the apartheid divide as he did in 1995.

Among those present were Nontsikelelo Biko, whose husband Steve Biko died while in police detention in 1977, and Tienie Vorster, wife of former prime minister John Vorster who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1966 to 1978.

At the lunch Mrs Vorster stood up to offer her seat to Mrs Biko, prompting Mandela to say: "Mrs Vorster, please sit down. Or I will be as authoritarian as your husband!"

The full impact of his drive to reconcile South Africans of all races after more than 300 years of white domination was perhaps only really recognized after he retired in 1999.

But during his presidency, his reconciliation efforts drove his bodyguards to distraction.

His security was a major worry. Threats came from the white right-wing and in one case, shots were fired near him and his helicopter was stoned by Inkatha supporters.

But on the road, Mandela would often tell his driver to stop, then he would get out and speak to ordinary South Africans - contrary to all security protocol.

In 1994, only days before the elections, Mandela went on a walkabout in KawZulu-Natal's Umlazi township looking relaxed and ignoring his security guards, he was mobbed by hundreds of supporters:

"Whenever I am amongst you, I feel like a young man of 20," he said to raucous cheers.

He also went out of his way to greet journalists, exchanging small talk and usually warding off tough questions through his charm.

And what won me and other journalists over when asking questions during press conferences is Mandela would recognize a reporter's name and say: "Ah yes, I've read your stories".

In late 1992, when I returned to South Africa after a three-month trip abroad, I had to cover a news conference at ANC headquarters and Mandela and his bodyguards walked past.

He came over, shook my hand and said: "How are you, my boy?"

It was good to be back home.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Janet McBride)