Mandela - teacher to his jailmates, "father" to his jailers

Thu Dec 5, 2013 5:08pm EST
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By Wendell Roelf

ROBBEN ISLAND, South Africa (Reuters) - Apartheid-era South Africa's most feared prison, Robben Island, remains inextricably linked with Nelson Mandela, its most famous inmate who spent decades of hard labor educating his comrades and charming even his granite-hearted jailers.

Now a museum and popular tourist attraction, the windswept lump of rock in shark-infested waters off Cape Town kept black agitators in isolation for three decades until president F.W. de Klerk began dismantling white-minority rule in 1990.

Mandela, who died on December 5 aged 95, was first sent to Robben Island for a brief period in 1962 for minor political offences, then returned two years later for a life sentence after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.

Aged 46 when he began his term, Mandela was sentenced with other leading members of the African National Congress to years of hard labor, breaking rocks in a limestone quarry.

Chained in rows of four, prisoners worked eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week. The harsh glare of the sun on the white rocks, combined with the dust, caused permanent damage to Mandela's eyes.

Despite the hardship, Mandela did not direct his frustrations at his immediate captors.

"He was always friendly, polite and helpful," Christo Brand, a prison warder who was with Mandela from 1978 until his release in 1990, told Reuters during a recent visit to the island.

"He became like a father to me. If I needed some help and assistance with something, he was always there for me," said Brand, who now helps at the Robben Island museum.   Continued...

Former South African President Nelson Mandela holds a symbolic millennium candle through the bars of the prison cell in which he was incarcerated on Robben Island, in this December 31, 1999 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/Files