Mandela: From prison to peacemaker, the long journey of a man who inspired world

As the era of Nelson Mandela draws to a close, three writers reflect on a world leader who overcame inhumanity and showed the power of reconciliation

The Queen meets Nelson Mandela in 2008
The Queen meets Nelson Mandela in 2008



Sign up to our daily newsletter

ONE of the lucky ones was Bill Clinton. He was privileged enough to know Nelson Mandela, the inspirational leader who became a grandfather to the world after being locked up for 27 years – more than 10,000 days in total – in the darkest days of South Africa’s apartheid struggle.

The former US president, a man rarely upstaged himself, was certainly in awe of “Madiba”. After one encounter, he noted: “Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room we all feel a little bigger. We all want to stand up. We all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day.”

They are words that will resonate around the globe.

There will be no more cheers, just a growing tide of tears as time caught up with this 94-year-old totemic symbol of world peace who made reconciliation the cornerstone of his political life once he had been belatedly released from prison in 1990 for his role in South Africa’s bloody fight for racial equality.

Yet it is still difficult to comprehend how this unique individual survived man’s inhumanity to man on Robben Island – South Africa’s equivalent of Alcatraz – before finding the strength of spirit to reach out to his oppressors. That is his legacy, one that must be used to inspire future generations from all walks of life. Today Robben Island is an Unicef world heritage site off the coast of Cape Town. Preserved for posterity, pleasure boats chug 10 miles from the thriving metropolis nestled in the shadow of the picture postcard Table Mountain to the former prison where its one-time inmates were deliberately cut off from the world.

Even though they could see Cape Town on the horizon, on those days when they were let out of their degrading cells – barely big enough for a man of Nelson Mandela’s size to lie down – to toil under the burning midday sun in the island’s lime quarries, they were effectively on another planet.

At a time of white supremacy, this was a regime designed to break militants like Mandela who fought – literally – for social justice and there are stories of countless prisoners who died as a consequence of the brutal repression and ill-treatment that they suffered.

Yet, while today’s visitors know they will be back on the mainland by dusk in time for a thirst-quenching cold beer, Mandela had no such luxury in May 1963.

Without warning, he was driven 1,000 miles in the back of a van – with a makeshift bucket as a toilet – to Cape Town’s harbour and then shackled to the bow of a boat that then set sail, in rough seas, to hell. A return ticket was not provided – white warders shouted in Afrikaans on the arrival of their new prisoner: “This is the island. Here you will die.” Mandela’s infamy had travelled far and wide.

The anecdote came from a humble man who was a former contemporary of Mandela on Robben Island and who now escorts tourists around the prison. His humility was heartfelt as he spoke about about the censorship of mail – and how warders would bend the rules to ensure inmates were denied their entitlement of one visit every six months. And then other injustices, like food barely fit for human consumption.

Many days, the future Nobel Peace Prize winner – who was kept in solitary confinement – would be frogmarched to the quarry where he’d be expected to crush lime into gravel.

In the searing heat, tourists struggled to cope – even with the protection of a baseball cap, sun cream and bottle of water. Imagine what it was like when prisoners were expected to toil without these ‘luxuries’.

As Mandela recounted in his autobiography A Long Walk To Freedom: “Warders with automatic weapons stood on raised platforms watching us. Unarmed warders walked among us, urging us to work harder. ‘Gaan aan! Gaan aan!’ (‘Go on! Go on!’), they would shout, as if we were oxen.

“By the end of the day, our faces and bodies were caked with white dust. We looked like pale ghosts except where rivulets of sweat had washed away the lime. When we returned to our cells, we would scrub ourselves in the cold water, which never seemed to rinse away the dust completely.”

Today, a symbolic pile of stones marks the spot where Nelson Mandela had begun digging. When he returned as president of South Africa in 1995 after the country completed its journey to democracy, he was accompanied with 1,000 political prisoners With silent dignity, he walked, alone, to the spot where he was humiliated and placed a symbolic stone. His comrades did likewise. Today the small pile links the past to the present – a reminder of the primitive conditions that were endured.

There was certainly no comfort in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. His tiny window offered no view. Prisoners slept on cement, just four blankets and a paper-thin mat protected them from the cement that became bone-chillingly cold in the winter. A makeshift bucket was the toilet. No furniture was allowed until the late 1970s and then only a metal bed, bookshelf and lamp.

It makes one wonder what inmates of Britain’s prisons would make of such primitive conditions – Mandela and others did not have the comfort provided by human rights legislation. There were no rights. But the point is this. Robben Island has to be seen to be believed. The worst of Britain’s prisons are five-star hotels in comparison.

The death toll was incalculable. But, in every respect, it was the making of Nelson Mandela who refused to yield despite extreme provocation and long periods in solitary confinement. Tellingly, he soon realised what could be achieved if he could win over his warders. It is why he became immersed in the Springboks rugby team, then the exclusive preserve of whites.

It enabled him to reach out to his jailers and appreciate that peace and reconciliation was the only way forward, as evidenced by the symbolism when he wore the shirt of Springboks skipper Francois Pienaar when South Africa lifted rugby union’s World Cup in 1995.

This one moment embodied the new South Africa. But it would not have been possible if the then ANC leader, a man treated with scepticism and derision by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, had not been prepared to renounce violence – and forgive his torturers – when his country had a chance to begin the journey to peace.

That is the most remarkable aspect of Nelson Mandela’s story; that he was prepared to put the greater good before any thoughts of personal revenge.

Today South Africa finds itself at the crossroads. The fragile peace in the ghastly and endless poverty-stricken townships has only been maintained because Mandela is revered by so many, and in contrast to his successors whose political moral fibre has been so lacking.

The occupants of these 
shanty towns took their lead 
from a figure who had left 
public office before they were born. Their only hope is that 
they now embrace the values 
of reconciliation and dialogue which so guided Nelson Mandela when he was enduring a living hell on Robben Island and contemplating how he could change a country – and also the world – for the better.



HOW will South Africa do without Nelson Mandela?

Wrong question, actually. In practice, South Africa has been doing without him for more than a decade already – but psychologically, it is just now getting to grips with the reality of life without this totemic 94-year-old. For all its many faults and failures, post-apartheid South Africa is a miracle that few expected to happen.

Although Mandela retired from the presidency in 1999, he is still seen as the man who made the magic work, and somehow the guarantor that it will go on working. If only in some vague and formless way, a great many people fear that his death will remove that safety net.

On hearing that Nelson Mandela had been admitted to hospital earlier his month, Andrew Mlangeni, one of his dearest friends and once a fellow-prisoner on Robben Island, said simply: “It’s time to let him go. The family must release him, so that God may have his own way with him...Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow.”

People can argue about whether or not South Africa is doing as well as it should, but they can at least agree that Mandela got the country safely through the most dangerous phase of the transition, and that they can carry on with the job of building a just and democratic society without him.

Except for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, of course. Mugabe has always deeply resented the fact that Nelson Mandela is revered as the father of his nation while he himself is seen as a vicious tyrant who has ruined his country.

So he seized the opportunity of a recent high-profile interview on South African television to accuse Mandela of having failed in his duty to South Africa’s black majority: he had been too soft on the whites.

What would have particularly annoyed Mandela was that the interviewer was Dali Tambo, the son of his oldest and most trusted ally, the late Oliver Tambo. As young lawyers, the two men co-founded South Africa’s first black-run legal office in 1952, and when Tambo became the president-in-exile of the African National Congress he made Mandela’s release from prison its highest priority.

Dali Tambo is another kettle of fish: a flamboyant man who has traded on his family name to forge a career as a TV interviewer. He has his own soft-focus interview show, “People of the South”. and recently he persuaded Robert Mugabe to give him a two-hour interview.

In the course of it, Mugabe dismissed Mandela as “too much of a saint”. “Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of blacks,” the Zimbabwean dictator said. “That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”

Nonsense. What Nelson Mandela and his white negotiating partner, F.W. De Klerk, were trying to avoid in the early 1990s was a South African civil war that would have killed millions and lasted for a very long time. The 20 per cent white minority were heavily armed, and they had nowhere else to go. Their families, for the most part, had been in South Africa for at least a century.

Therefore, a settlement that gave South Africa a peaceful (and hopefully prosperous) democratic future had to be one in which the whites still had a future. So you either make the kind of deal that Mandela and De Klerk made, in which nobody loses too much, or you submit to a future that would make the current civil war in Syria look like a tea party.

And by the way, Mugabe was making his remarks in a country whose economy has been so devastated by his “tougher” approach that fully one-quarter of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, talking about Mandela, said last week: “The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up 
and running: a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered.”

That is still some distance away, but Mandela has laid the foundations.

He was the right man for the job: a saint who also understood realpolitik.



IT is a measure of Nelson Mandela’s magnanimity that he was prepared to hold the hand of his oppressors after he left prison to begin the long walk to freedom that saw him become South Africa’s first democratically-elected president.

From freedom fighter to global statesman, I doubt that I will never again meet such an inspirational leader – a man who promised to support Britain’s ultimately successful Olympic bid when I was Sports Minister because of what Britain had done for him.

He was very frail when I met him in 2004, but he was still very alert mentally. He told me that he was immensely proud of what Tony Blair’s government had done for Africa – and I was very proud of that.

It was also the culmination of my involvement with the anti-apartheid movement that began in the early 1970s.

In 1979, when I was elected to the European Parliament as an MEP, I took Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s great friend, and the exiled president of the African National Congress to the parliament. It was the start of building a European Anti-Apartheid Movement.

Then after I was elected as MP for Sheffield Central in 1983, a group of us put down an Early Day Motion calling for sanctions against South Africa. Margaret Thatcher’s government was completely opposed.

By 1987, Madiba – as his supporters call him – had already been in prison for 23 years and we needed to do something to catch the attention of the world.

It was then that the impresario Tony Hollingsworth came up with the idea of a birthday concert to coincide with Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday on June 11, 1988.

Taking 18 months to organise, 
and broadcast to a global audience of 600 million, it featured the likes of Stevie Wonder, Sting, George Michael, Whitney Houston, Dire Straits, with songs specially written by Jerry Dammers and from Simple Minds. The show launched Tracy Chapman.

Before the concert, 24 Conservative MPs put down a Commons motion, criticising the BBC for giving “publicity to a movement that encourages the African National Congress in its terrorist activities”.

Thankfully, the Corporation did not relent – I believe the concert gave much-needed momentum to the campaign to secure Madiba’s release in 1990 after 27 years behind bars.

After being released, he visited London to see Oliver Tambo and to thank all those who had supported him while he had been in prison. I met him at Oliver Tambo’s house. Tambo was still head of the ANC at that time. It was just a remarkable day. You felt immediately you were in the presence of a great man. Madiba was very humble, a big physical presence. He asked us to organise a second concert which we did in 52 days.

This time, Mandela himself was on stage for 45 minutes – and the first eight minutes was taken up by a standing ovation. He called for sanctions against South Africa to be maintained – and for the world to stand up against apartheid together.

On his first visit to the UK, I had booked the Grand Committee Room at the Commons but there were objections that he shouldn’t be allowed onto the precincts of the Commons – as a terrorist.

When he came down the stairs, a group of young black waitresses who worked in the MPs’ tea room formed a guard of honour.

When he was inaugurated as President of South Africa on May 10 1994, I flew to South Africa with Neil Kinnock and Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone. We all felt very nervous. We were on banned lists in South Africa, the Anti-Apartheid Movement was always facing sabotage. It was hard to believe things had changed so much. There were no objections to Nelson Mandela two or three years later when he returned to Westminster Hall on a state visit as President of South Africa.

I met him for a breakfast at Buckingham Palace. The occasion is etched in my memory. We were all eating bacon and eggs but he had porridge and warm water. He still had the diet of a prisoner in those days. He said he had been up at 4am and walked around London – he was back before the Protection Officers had even woken up. He had a great respect for the Queen, and she for him. She was very, very supportive of him.

All the banquets had to finish by 9.30pm because that was when he went to bed. He was a very very disciplined man, he always kept to his routine.

If he had been well enough, he would have loved to have come to the Olympic Games. He absolutely loved sport. He thought it was such a powerful tool for equality. He loved all sport, but he was a boxer with a boxer’s discipline.

To me, he was a man like few other. Men like Mandela and Gandhi come into the world so infrequently. He was so unafraid to stand up for what he believed in. His like will never be seen again. And his legacy is this. Despite being imprisoned for nearly three decades, he stayed true to his beliefs – and he made the world a better place.