Witness: Searching for Mandela, from Robben Island to release

Thu Dec 5, 2013 5:16pm EST
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By Marius Bosch

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - One summer day in 1979 I broke several apartheid laws as a teenager, searching for a glimpse of Nelson Mandela on South Africa's notorious Robben Island prison.

My businessman father managed to secure an invitation to the island through one of his employees, a rare chance to see the secluded jail where the white minority government imprisoned Mandela and scores of other anti-apartheid leaders for decades.

Aged 15 and coming from a conservative Afrikaans background, I had by then already developed a political conscience and made up my mind that apartheid was unjust.

Maybe for that reason I smuggled my camera onto the island, concealing it in a backpack and constantly worrying that the stern-looking armed prison guards on the ferry from Cape Town would discover it during the 45-minute crossing.

I managed to take several photographs of the rocky, wind-swept island prison, the limestone quarry where Mandela crushed rock during his 18 years there as a prisoner, and one of a group of inmates in the distance.

I imagined to myself that one of those far-off silhouettes could have been Mandela - already a legendary African National Congress figure inside and outside South Africa after his 1964 sentencing to life imprisonment for conspiracy and sabotage.

If I was caught, I would have faced a hefty fine because cameras and taking photographs were strictly forbidden.

Visitors to Robben Island were served extravagant Sunday lunches in the warders' mess. Crayfish and mounds of seafood were piled on the banquet table for warders and their guests.   Continued...

African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela waves a white flag bearing a dove of peace at the crowd outside the ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, in this September 2, 1993 file photo. REUTERS/Patrick de Moirmont/Files