illustration from After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance
by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O"Brien
"1962. Cape Town, South Africa
Robben Island, a wild, rocky outpost seven miles off the coast, was a place of banishment. Nelson Mandela arrived there in the dark belly of a boat, chained to three other men.
'This is the island! Here you will die!' white prison guards yelled at the four men as they stepped off the boat. They commanded them to jog between lines of armed guards to the prison gatehouse. Mandela knew this moment was crucial. The job of the guards was to break their spirit. As the jailers screamed at them, he and the others kept their pace slow.
The guards were astonished. They threatened to kill the men if they did not move faster. Mandela replied, 'You have your duty, and we have ours,' and walked with measured dignity to the gates.
He spent the next 27 years in prison."
"At the prison, the leaders of the anti-apartheid movement - black, Indian and 'coloured,' or mixed race - were housed together in one section. At first they spent their days breaking rocks into gravel. Then for thirteen years they mined limestone from a quarry with picks and shovels. They were fed cold corn porridge. They slept in individual cells, on mats on cement floors, surrounded by thick stone walls. Many of the prisoners had life sentences.
"But Mandela believed he would be freed one day. He knew that his challenge was to survive in both body and spirit, to emerge from prison whole. He and the other leaders began a campaign to improve their conditions. They decided that the most effective way to resist was to adopt completely nonviolent strategies. They organized strikes, refusing to eat or slowing down their work. They treated their guards with respect and when possible befriended them, but they refused to be bullied. At first they demanded long pants instead of the shorts they were given, which only boys wore. Over many years they won better food, more blankets, the chance to have more visitors, to write letters, to study, to receive books.
"Meanwhile, they transformed the prison into a place of learning. Stolen newspapers, read in secret by one person, were copied on tiny scraps of paper and passed around. As one man pushed a rock-filled wheelbarrow in the quarry, another walked beside him, telling him what he knew of science or mathematics or philosophy. When books and studies were finally allowed, everything learned was shared with others. Group debates might go on for 30 or 40 days, working out differences among the men and visions of how the country should be run.
"...The ideas that had been chipped out of the hard prison years became the basis for the government of the new South Africa."
text from After Gandhi: One Hundred Years of Nonviolent Resistance by Anne Sibley O'Brien and Perry Edmond O'Brien
The first president of the new democracy didn't create the miracle of a peaceful transition by himself. He worked with and was supported by a broad group of leaders who had endured the same terrible hardships and who together had practiced the skills that would be needed to build a new country. In Mandela's own words, "The restoration of the nation was being planned by the same men, women and children whose bodies and spirits were being broken daily."
Mandela's accomplishments and his status as one of history's greatest leaders can sometimes make him seem like a saint. It's important to remember that his wisdom, his vision, and his commitment to freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation did not come to him easily as the qualities of someone superhuman, but grew as his chosen response to the dehumanization to which he was subjected.
Mandela offers a model of endurance, personal integrity, dignity and grace, teaching that no matter what comes at us, we are always free to choose our response. On Robben Island, he used the poem "Invictus" to inspire himself and his fellow prisoners to rise above their circumstances.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
from "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley
illustration from Talking Walls by Margy Burns Knight