The island prison that forged a compassionate leader
Fellow resistance fighter recalls the harsh conditions on South Africa’s Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned
ROBBEN ISLAND – When the apartheid regime shipped Nelson Mandela to this bleak, windswept island, they thought he and his fellow black resistance leaders would quickly be forgotten.
Eddie Daniels arrived here alone, chained, and terrified to serve 15 years for sabotage.
“Initially, it was very bad,” Daniels said. “It was 24 hours silence. And, all we had in our cells was a mat. One mat. We had three blankets, very thin and dirty. And it was cold, cold, cold. We slept with all our clothes on.
On Eddie Daniels’ third day he had an encounter that changed his life.
“I saw this big man standing in front of me,” he said. “And I looked up and I saw it’s Mr. Mandela. I said, ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Mandela.’ He says, ‘The name is Nelson. Welcome.’ So we became friends.”
For 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison, Nelson Mandela walked down this corridor every day. And at the end of that walk there was no freedom. There was this: an eight-foot-square cell with a mattress on the floor for his bed, and a bucket for a toilet.
Mandela was allowed one visitor a year, for half an hour. Mandela and Daniels were among 30 political prisoners isolated in what was simply called B Block.
Mandela and his fellow inmates worked long days in “the yard.” Sitting on bricks, ordered to only look straight ahead, they smashed slate into gravel with hammers. Black inmates wore short pants in all weather, the apartheid regime’s way of reminding them that all black men were considered “boys,” no matter what their age.”The yard” is now just another stop on the Robben Island tourist route.
But no visitor can imagine what it meant to Eddie Daniels when his jailors allowed the B Block prisoners out in the yard one night after six years of being locked in by sunset.”And I looked up, and there were the stars. Beauty, big and beautiful. I felt I could touch them. It was tremendous, tremendous.”
In 1990, after 27 brutal years of incarceration, Nelson Mandela walked out of jail and called for reconciliation, not revenge, and went on to transform the apartheid regime into what came to be called “the Rainbow Nation.”
And as for the place that will forever be linked with Nelson Mandela: “The symbolic meaning of the island changed — no longer of fear, of pain, but a place symbolizing freedom, symbolizing respect for your fellow human being,” Daniels said. “Today, Robben Island is that symbol.”