FOR 18 YEARS HE WAS SIMPLY PRISONER 466/64 on Robben Island, South Africa’s windswept version of Alcatraz, in the waters north of Cape Town. Most days he worked breaking rocks in a limestone quarry. Each night he slept alone on a narrow bed in cell 7, a barren 7-by-9-foot cubicle. His diet consisted mainly of corn porridge and a disagreeable drink made of brackish water, yeast and sugar. The taste of humiliation was ever present.
But that was then—both for South Africa and for Nelson Mandela. Returning to Robben Island for a visit on Feb. 11, four years after he was released, Mandela, 75, seemed almost jaunty. Accompanied by five other former prisoners, he toured the prison and reminisced about the camaraderie of those years behind bars. As the odds-on favorite to win the South African presidential election in late April—making him the country’s first black head of state—Mandela and his group, along with reporters, were treated to a tasty meal of chicken and vegetables. Some officials even asked for his autograph. Several times during a picture-taking session in his old cell, photographers admonished Mandela to stop smiling and look more severe. “It’s hard to be an actor,” he said, beaming.
Yet as Mandela made clear, his memories of the place are far from fond. In many ways, the physical ordeal he suffered on Robben Island was nothing compared with the psychological torment. Convicted, in 1964 at the age of 45, of plotting against the government, Mandela described to reporters the “shattering” grief he felt after his mother, Nosekeni, died of a heart attack in 1968. He had earlier felt a premonition of it after she departed the island for what was to be her final visit. “I looked at her as she walked to the harbor,” said Mandela. “I had the feeling that I had seen her for the last lime.”
His lips trembling and his eyes moistening, but with no apparent bitterness, Mandela recalled how prison authorities had refused to allow him to attend his mother’s funeral. The following year, officials also turned down his request to attend the funeral of his eldest son, Thembi, who died in a car accident. “Wounds that cannot be seen are more painful than those that can be treated by a doctor,” Mandela reflected. “I did not share my pain with anyone.”
That steely self-discipline helped him survive. He purposely kepi the walls of his cell unadorned, so that it would never feel like home, and at mail call he resisted rushing forward, just to deny his jailers the satisfaction of knowing how much he missed his family. As part of their torture, prison authorities had often taunted Mandela by putting newspaper clippings in his cell that detailed how his wife Winnie and daughters Zindzi and Zenani were being harassed by security police on the outside. During his tour, a still-fit Mandela even demonstrated some of the exercises he had done each day to stay in shape, in the expectation that one-day he would be freed. Yet, he acknowledged, “there were moments when your spirit was down.”
Now a tourist attraction, Robben Island has become one of the country’s most conspicuous symbols of change. Throughout his tour, Mandela seemed to reflect that reality, using it to banish what otherwise would have been grimmer memories. “Today I know what I’m walking into,” he said, “and I know that I’ll be able to go home at the end of the day.”
SUSAN HACK in Johannesburg