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Irony of History Overshadows Prisoners' Return to Robben Island


NELSON MANDELA, at ease in a loose-fitting shirt and sporting a pair of trendy sunglasses, paced slowly across the prison courtyard, down the narrow corridor and into the tiny cell where he spent much of his adult life.

``I had no special belief other than that our cause was just and strong,'' Mr. Mandela said as correspondents thronged around him and asked what had sustained him for all those years.

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``It was a source of great encouragement to know our support was growing inside and outside the country,'' said the man expected to become the country's first black president after an all-race ballot in April.

There can be few instances in history where a prisoner has so completely - and with such dignity - turned the tables on his jailers.

It was a day of epic symbolism as Mandela and five of his colleagues from the famous Rivonia sabotage trial - Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada, and Denis Goldberg - remembered their harsh life in the island jail.

When a group of journalists arrived at the island jail's guest house Friday it was not the prison warden who turned up to meet us - but a smiling Mandela. This time it was the warden's turn to wait on the world's most famous political prisoner.

Mandela, who served 18 years of a 27-year jail sentence on this Alcatraz-style prison six miles from the mainland, was in a reflective mood as he gazed back at scenic Cape Town, seat of the country's legislative capital.

Without a trace of bitterness, he recalled the two schools of prison wardens: Those who wanted to treat the prisoners harshly so they would not challenge the state again; and those who wanted to treat them more humanely lest the prisoners should be in power some day. ``That was very revealing because we realized that even white prison wardens were not a monolithic group,'' Mandela said.

He told of the pain of his mother's death, the death of his eldest son, and the trauma of not being allowed to attend their funerals.

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Whenever there was misfortune in his family he would return from working in the lime quarry to find a newspaper clipping on the desk in his cell. (At that stage prisoners were not allowed to read newspapers.)

``That was very painful and created wounds you cannot see,'' Mandela said. ``I went a very long time without sharing that pain with anyone.''

He told of the shared experiences, endless debates, hardships, and solidarity of an extraordinary band of men who today are known as graduates of ``the University of Robben Island.''

The term captures the analytical and debating skills that the island inmates acquired in their often ingenious attempts to defy official efforts to prevent them from communicating with each other. ``We had to beat the authorities at their own game - and I think we succeeded,'' Mr. Mbeki said.

WHEN the new government is assembled after the April election, Robben Island will be stamped all over it. Apart from Mandela, no less than five of the eight candidates for provincial premierships (state governors) are former prisoners from the island. Mandela was transferred from the island to a mainland prison in 1982 in a move apparently calculated to break his hold on the island prison and separate him from his collegaues.

He gave a blow-by-blow account of how he decided alone from his prison cell in 1985 to begin negotiating with the government.

He knew if he consulted his four closest colleagues (Mr. Sisulu, Mr. Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba and Mr. Mlangeni) before he approached the authorities, they would reject the plan. So he acted first, and consulted later. Three out of four supported him and, after initial hesitation, the leadership in exile also backed him.

The sheer history of the occasion was matched only by the ironies. ``On the right is the maximum-security prison,'' the prison warden announced matter-of-factly, but with a tinge of pride, as he drove the journalists and celebrated prisoners to the colonial-style island guest house.

``It was built from stone which was quarried here in the island,'' announced the young warden.

``Yes, by us,'' interjected Mlangeni, one of Mandela's colleagues from the 1964 intake of prisoners from the Rivonia treason trial, who chipped slate from the stone quarry for several years. The bus erupted in spontaneous waves of laughter.

``You know, we built that prison with our own hands,'' said Mbeki, the oldest of the Rivonia group. ``And the great irony is that we made it maximum security, so we couldn't escape.'' The young warden missed the irony.

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