‘Would you like to go to prison with Nelson Mandela?”
The question from President Mandela’s press aide left me momentarily speechless. It was October 1996, and I was in South Africa reporting on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and working on a book about the country’s tumultuous transformation from apartheid. I had covered a number of Mandela’s public appearances, but this one was different. The president had decided on short notice to pay a visit to the last of the three prisons where he had been incarcerated for 27 years.
This trip was personal. For Mandela, that was the best kind of politics.
The feel-good narrative about Mandela as a peacemaker often obscures how shrewd and hard-nosed he was as political operator. A trip to an apartheid prison promised to show how Mandela could weave images of division and reconciliation into a seamless cloth.
Yes, I replied, I would be glad to go to jail with President Mandela.
VICTOR VERSTER PRISON BIDS YOU WELCOME PRESIDENT MANDELA!
The large sign hanging over the heavily guarded entrance to the sprawling maximum security prison represented just another head-spinning contradiction in the New South Africa. This was, after all, a jail, and Mandela its most famous prisoner. Mandela spent the last two years of his confinement at this prison near Paarl, a bucolic town in South Africa’s wine country.
From the moment Mandela walked out the gates of Victor Verster Prison on Feb. 11, 1990, he took every opportunity to engage in political aikido, harnessing the visceral power of apartheid symbols to his advantage.
Unlike President Obama, who often sidesteps the racism of his adversaries, Mandela relished engaging South Africa’s tortured past. He had tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of South African prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the reviled “architect of apartheid.” Mandela donned the jersey of the captain of the Springboks, the South African national rugby team beloved by whites, instantly deflating the sails of the white right.
White leaders used apartheid to try to break Mandela. In his final act, Mandela used apartheid to break white rule.
Inside Victor Verster Prison, I found Mandela’s “cell” — actually a pretty cottage tucked among trees. A rose bush gave the place a sweet scent. A prison official explained that this house was built for Mandela “as part of reintroducing him to civilized society.”
Mandela stepped through the archway and flashed a broad smile of recognition. His face was a rich yellow-brown framed by a shock of short white hair. He had hearing aids in both ears, and his gait was more a shuffle than a stride.
“Some of the best years of my life were spent here,” he declared in front of the house. It was a curious claim for an ex-prisoner to make.
He explained, “The negotiations with the government intensified here, and this was where I met many of the top ANC leaders for the first time.”
I asked Mandela if he ever considered escaping.
“No, that would not have been consistent with what we were trying to accomplish,” he insisted. He had repeatedly refused the government’s conditional offers of release during his 27 years in jail.
Mandela was a prisoner, but he held his jailers hostage. As long as he was behind bars, the apartheid government was a pariah on the world stage.
A poignant moment came when Mandela asked what had become of Warrant Officer James Swart, the warder who lived with and cooked for him and with whom Mandela had become close. “He’s outside,” replied one of his aides.
The next moment, a tall, thin mustachioed man walked in. Mandela smiled and greeted him warmly. As he often did with guests, Mandela held Swart’s hand as he spoke. “I’ll never forget the kindness you and your wife showed me while I was here,” he said, looking directly into his eyes.
“Thank you very much,” Swart mumbled nervously in response.
Mandela finished his visit by attending a function for the prison staff, who packed a small auditorium. The scene resembled a raucous rock concert, with the former prisoner as the headliner.
Mandela recounted to his former guards how people often asked him how he had avoided being embittered by the time he spent in jail.
This was the essential question, and went to the source of Mandela’s moral authority: how had the former prisoner seized victory from defeat?
“This place contributed to my own approach in this country,” he told his jailers. He said that most of the warders had treated him with dignity here, though “some Afrikaner guards were very crude and cruel. But when an Afrikaner changes, he changes 100 percent and becomes a real friend.”
Mandela, beaming with delight, obliged the euphoric prison staff by posing for photos with their families, holding babies and draping his arms around some of the uniformed guards.
This was the essence of Mandela. He defied and challenged his country’s racist policies, while simultaneously embracing his countrymen. In doing so, he affirmed their common humanity, liberating himself, his former tormentors, and an entire nation.
David Goodman is the author of nine books, including “Fault Lines: Journeys Into the New South Africa.’’