Nelson Mandela Foundation

Robben Island Flickr

Nearly thirty years after the release of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela it is easy to fall into the trap of glamourising his twenty-seven-and-a-half years in prison. After all, he was so positive and calm, energetic and forgiving in his years afterwards.

We were all simply swept up in his magic and chose to look ahead, rather than backwards. Particularly in the first ten years, prison was brutal for Madiba and his Rivonia Trial colleagues. He, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were taken to the notorious Robben Island within hours of being sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. They arrived on the Island off the coast of Cape Town on the bitterly cold winter’s day of 13 June. Their comrade, Denis Goldberg was kept in Pretoria because he was classified as a white person under apartheid regulations and, therefore, forbidden from being held with the others.

One of the very few lights towards which the prisoners could look were the visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The first visit in 1967 and for a few years thereafter, Madiba found the representative “not a progressive fellow by any means”. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote: “In later years the International Red Cross sent more liberal men who wholeheartedly fought for improvements.”

Naturally, Dr Jacques Moreillon’s work Moments with Madiba concentrates on the visits of these “more liberal men”, himself included. His own visits to Madiba took place between 1973 and 1975 when the men were still engaged in hard labour wielding pick-axes and shovels at the Island’s lime quarry. Moreillon had six conversations with Madiba on the Island and another eight after his release. The book focuses on these fourteen conversations.

To us, in the Research and Archive Section of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the prison conversations are the most valuable. Through Dr Moreillon’s portrait of life on the Island emerges a list of vital facts and figures interspersed with his own personal observations. Not only are we given the exact dimensions of the prison cells in B Section – the single cell part of jail, where the Rivonia Trialists and others were confined; he includes the measurements and contents of the recreation and dining halls and even what he calls the “toilet room”. The book chronicles the unnecessarily torturous pace of change which came in tiny increments, each one bringing much needed relief to Madiba and his comrades. To a researcher on the life and times of Nelson Mandela, this manuscript is a valuable tool which picks up on the minutiae other works have glossed over. It goes a long way to fill in important gaps in this crucial part of our history.