In an editorial, The Guardian says: When Helen Suzman went to see Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in 1967, the first prisoner she encountered was a man called Eddie Daniels, who told her: “Yes, we know who you are. Don’t waste time talking to us. Go and talk to Mandela at the end of the row. He’s our leader.” Daniels’s absolute certainty struck Suzman very forcibly. Although Daniels did not spell it out, she learned later that the prison administration had tried to arrange her tour so that she would not reach Mandela’s cell before her limited time on Robben ran out.
She took the advice, made her way to Mandela’s cell, and found there a quietly eloquent and direct man of imposing physique and great natural authority. Eddie Daniels was of course right: Mandela was indeed the leader, not only of the detainees in the island prison, but of the South African liberation movement as a whole. He had mentors and partners, some in detention with him, some in exile, and some enduring a harassed and persecuted life in South Africa itself, and he had rivals inside and outside the African National Congress.
But he was indubitably the man who came, above all others, to symbolise the struggle of the ANC, from the time when it seemed to have collapsed under the assaults of the apartheid state, to the time of its final successes, when that same state found itself pleading with the ANC to enter a new era in which the structures of oppression would be liquidated.
Yet this leadership, even if we define it as moral rather than practical, remains ultimately something of a mystery. Mandela was not able, during 27 years in prison, to exercise sustained operational control or to take a regular part in ANC decision-making, except toward the very end, when he negotiated with FW de Klerk.
Before he went to jail, his record was of brave failure rather than of significant victory. His attempts, during his early years, to wage, along with others, a legal and non-violent campaign for black rights were stymied by a government which was not only unresponsive but positively preferred to push the ANC into clandestine activity so that it could fragment and criminalise the movement. His reluctant conversion to the military path ended abruptly when he was arrested within days of returning to South Africa to pursue the armed struggle. As a civil rights leader, he was ineffective. As a short-lived guerrilla leader, he was an amateur. And when, released from prison, he became the first president of the new South Africa, he was often inattentive, he discarded his once radical views on the economy, and, arguably, he endorsed the wrong man as his successor. To set against that, he insisted on respect for the judgments of the South African Constitutional Court even when they upset the ANC’s plans, and he refused to support the death penalty.
Mandela was far from alone among 20th-century liberation leaders in achieving stature in prison. [Continue reading…]