When Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island at dawn on a frigid, rainy morning in July, 1964, it fast became clear to the Afrikaner prison officials that he commanded great respect among the inmates, that he was a natural leader of the men. As a consequence, they singled him out for punishment and humiliation.

Other prisoners would later describe how, a few years into his incarceration, guards ordered him to dig and then climb into a grave-shaped trench in the prison yard. Mr. Mandela must have wondered whether this was the end. Then, as he lay in the dirt, they unzipped their trousers and urinated on him.

Many years later, an aide asked Mr. Mandela to provide a list of people he wished to invite to his inauguration dinner as president of South Africa. The great figures of the liberation struggle would be there, of course, but the sole name on which Mr. Mandela is said to have insisted was that of a former jailer.

Mr. Mandela lived an extraordinary life, from a barefoot boyhood tending cattle to his days as a fiery young lawyer in Johannesburg, then underground as a guerrilla leading the armed wing of the African National Congress and the long, lonely, curiously rich years in prison, capped by the high-stakes years as he led South Africa out of apartheid and into its new role as a continental leader. That life showed him to be a skilled tactician, a ruthless adversary, an able politician, an incisive and catholic thinker about liberation and oppression.

But he will be remembered for one quality above all others: his capacity to forgive, and to turn that forgiveness into a visible reconciliation. He had a phenomenal, almost unbelievable, ability to rise above bitterness and rancour, and clearly had made a conscious decision that this was the best route for the liberation of black Africans.

But as well as being a deeply felt principle, his singular focus on reconciliation was carefully calibrated, part of a canny strategy when South Africa was held together by promises and prayer that is often overlooked in the mythologizing of his later years. Not only did it redouble international fascination with him, partly at his own insistence, all South Africans began to be credited with the same miraculous capacity for forgiveness.


The drive to reconcile was a strategy, but not a new one. In 1962, when he was convicted of plotting the armed overthrow of the state, Mr. Mandela addressed the court with an extraordinary speech, the last words South Africa would have from him for 27 years:

“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He, along with close friends Walter Sisulu, who had recruited him to the ANC, and Ahmed (Kathy) Kathrada, and others narrowly escaped the death sentence and instead were sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labour.

From the outset, Mr. Mandela treated his time on Robben Island like a project – which Mr. Kathrada said in an interview helped him to survive such lengthy imprisonment with so little bitterness. He began his first protest for equal treatment for black prisoners as soon as he arrived, and was consumed throughout his years there with organizing prisoners into cells and structures, debating points of policy and history, and always, furthering the goals of the ANC. To him, his time in jail was just another aspect of the battle, comparable to being in the exiled ANC headquarters in Lusaka or the military camps in Angola, even if he was fighting to ensure that black prisoners received bread with meals or two teaspoons of sugar in their tea, like everyone else.

Finally, when a mass uprising of South Africans rendered the country ungovernable in the mid-1980s, the government secretly opened talks with him. In 1987, it demanded to know how an ANC government would protect the interests of a white minority.

“I said there was no organization in the history of South Africa to compare with the ANC in terms of trying to unite all the people and races,” Mr. Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “I told them that whites were Africans as well and that, in any future dispensation, the majority would need the minority. ‘We do not want to drive you into the sea,’ I said.”

It was an argument the government couldn’t accept, but three years later, it felt it had no choice, and Mr. Mandela walked free. Within months, the newly legitimate ANC held its first conference, in Durban, uniting those who had been in exile with those who had been fighting, those who had worked in anti-apartheid organizations and those who had been in prison. There, Mr. Kathrada recalled, the organization instantly renewed its commitment to non-racial democracy and explicitly emphasized the importance of reconciliation.

“People have got the idea that we prisoners sat in prison and one day we said, ‘From now on, it’s reconciliation, forgiveness, no revenge’ – but that was just flowing from the policy of non-racialism; it was policy.” And, he said, all ANC members had to embrace it, whether they had learned about it in the secret education cells on Robben Island or in the military camps in Angola.

Mr. Mandela seemed possessed of an uncanny understanding of what it would take to maintain peace. In the first days of his presidency, he took pains to stress that there would be a continuation of negotiations, that the power of the massive majority he suddenly controlled would be used rarely, if at all. He promised that non-black South Africans would retain their jobs in government, that apartheid-era agents would be pardoned, that F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid leader, would have an active role in the cabinet, that white militants who carried out a bombing campaign in an effort to derail the election would be invited to the negotiating table.

According to another close friend, George Bizos, his lawyer through his prison years, even “the concession that there should be an interim government [involving the old regime]– that was a Nelson Mandela-inspired decision.”

The mechanics of apartheid meant that, although there had been friction between racial groups, fostered and even funded by the apartheid state, the biggest gulf was between blacks and whites. And so it was the whites – the invaders, colonizers and rulers – whom Mr. Mandela emphasized. They were the group most in line for forgiveness, and whom he most needed to persuade that the words of the Freedom Charter – the statement of purpose the ANC adopted in 1955 – were not mere propaganda: They, too, had a future in a democratic (and thus black-ruled) South Africa.


Few whites believed him, while many black South Africans chafed at the suggestion that there would not be immediate and dramatic changes. But Mr. Mandela insisted that there could be a happy medium, where black South Africans would almost immediately see their lives improve but whites, whose skills and capital were desperately needed, could be dissuaded from fleeing in what was inelegantly labelled the “chicken run.”

“We were practical,” Mr. Kathrada said. “You are not going to drive three million whites into the sea, you can’t do it. … You accepted that they are here to stay, this is their country. You are dealing here with practicalities.”

He remembered vividly his first day in government, as a minister in the president’s office, presented with an empty desk. “Who do I turn to? I turn to the white civil servant and say, ‘I want a pen, I want paper, I want a computer, I want this, that or the other.’

“The army, the police, industry, agriculture, the civil service, everything is in white hands. We don’t even know how to run a little village, we’ve never had the vote – so, from a practical point of view, in addition to policy, we just had to go out with a policy of reconciliation, forgiveness.”

And yet he and Mr. Bizos both emphasized that much of what Mr. Mandela did was a question of his personal style. Any other ANC leader who became president would have had non-racialism and reconciliation as policy, but the difference lay in how Mr. Mandela lived it. He went to see Betsie Verwoerd, widow of apartheid designer Hendrik Verwoerd, sitting down to tea with her in the whites-only community the hard-liners had carved out for themselves. He donned a green jersey to support South Africa’s rugby team in this whitest of sports as they played in the first World Cup after sanctions were lifted. He cheered vociferously and embraced the brawny white players when they improbably won the world title. He kept on Mr. de Klerk’s fractious personal assistant as his own, always speaking to her in Afrikaans, which he had learned from his jailers. He sought gestures rich in symbolism, determined to live the policy.

In the five years of his presidency, there was no slaughtering of whites in their beds, none of the black uprising that Mr. de Klerk had so long evoked as the only possible outcome of giving blacks the vote. Nervous foreign investors were soothed, and then flooded into the country as the economy grew. The guerrilla force Mr. Mandela had founded was folded into the white army, and South Africans told their stories, often stark, before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Suffering can embitter and it can ennoble,” explained Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who presided over the commission at Mr. Mandela’s request, “and we were very fortunate that, in Madiba, it did the latter. … Because you have forgotten, Madiba went into jail an angry, militant young man, quite rightly upset at the travesty of justice that he had experienced with his comrades, and the 27 years were quite crucial in helping him mellow …

“Almost all of these great figures we revere are people who have had a very considerable experience of suffering of some sort or another, which has helped to deepen their compassion, their magnanimity and in, the case of Madiba, it had the added benefit of endowing him with a credibility that nothing else would have been able to give.”

Indeed, so inextricably was the idea tied up with Mr. Mandela that many asked, after he passed the presidency to Thabo Mbeki – a man with no gift for the public theatre of forgiveness, who often made plain his resentment of whites – whether he should have stayed for a second term, whether he left a country too uncertain, full of people who did not yet know or trust each other.

Another question is whether friends like Mr. Kathrada are correct in feeling that Mr. Mandela truly harboured no bitterness – or whether he had simply taken the self-control inculcated in him as a Xhosa youth and hardened it in prison, to such an extreme that no one was ever permitted to glimpse the anger. He kept that answer secret all his life.

“Although he was … a proud Xhosa and staunch Africanist,” Mr. Bizos mused, “it was in the modified definition – that anyone who lives in South Africa, living through its joys and sorrows, is an African.”

Now based in Rio de Janeiro, Stephanie Nolen was The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in Johannesburg from 2003 to 2008.

Johannesburg — The Globe and Mail
Published Thursday, Dec. 05 2013, 5:41 PM EST
Last updated Saturday, Dec. 07 2013, 11:39 AM EST