A Personal Reflection on Nelson Mandela

My visit to Robben Island, where Mandela was held prisoner, was a memorable experience.

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The declining physical condition of Nelson Mandela has prompted sadness around the world, mixed with expressions of reverence for the former anti-apartheid leader. And for good reason. Mandela's story is one of the most inspirational of recent times, and his example offers valuable lessons on the importance of personal resistance to evil, and the redemptive power of forgiveness and racial reconciliation.

I have an indirect but personal connection to Mandela's story that has stayed with me for many years. As a White House correspondent for U.S. News, I once visited Robben Island, the notorious prison complex off the coast of Cape Town where Mandela was incarcerated for much of his adult life. Barack Obama, the first African American president of the United States, is scheduled to visit Robben Island Sunday during his current Africa trip, and he is sure to be moved. I certainly found that my visit there was one of the most memorable experiences I've had in more than a quarter-century of covering the White House and traveling with presidents.

[READ: Obama's Trip to Africa Draws Ire]

It was possible at that time to stand in the cell that Mandela had occupied and look through the bars, while considering the deprivations and abuse that Mandela endured for so long. Obama is likely to do exactly that when he visits Robben Island with his wife Michelle.

Mandela, then a black revolutionary leader, was held for 18 years at Robben Island (out of a total of 27 years in jail) by the racist white regime of South Africa. When I visited, during President Bill Clinton's 1998 stay in South Africa, the officials running the facility, converted to a museum, were black. Remarkably, several of them had been prisoners at this same place a generation earlier, and they said they had become the superiors in charge of several white employes who had been guards in the days of apartheid.

I interviewed a number these black officials, and several said that during their earlier years they had been filled with hate toward whites. A few said they had actually been terrorists, aiming to destroy the white racist regime of South Africa.

But they said they learned from "Mr. Mandela" and followed his example, and they forgave their former oppressors as Mandela did.

[ALSO: South Africans Sing, Pray for Mandela]

Not many people are capable of attaining Mandela's level of charity and wisdom. But the story of Robben Island is an amazing testament to the healing power of a man who, as a freedom fighter and later president of his liberated country, was one of the icons of the 20th Century.

In recent years, Mandela, 94, has remained a symbol of democracy and decency throughout Africa and beyond. "So much of the democratic progress that we see across the continent I think can be tied in some way to the inspiration that Nelson Mandela set," Ben Rhodes, an Obama foreign policy adviser, told reporters during Obama's current trip.

Obama offered his own testament while in Senegal Thursday. "He's my personal hero," Obama said. "But I'm not unique in that senseā€¦He's a hero for the world." Obama added: "His legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages."

 

More News:

  • Hospitalized Nelson Mandela in 'Critical' Condition
  • See: Nelson Mandela's Robben Island Prison Cell
  • Nelson Mandela's Condition Unchanged After Signs Death Was Near
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and on Facebook and Twitter.