Remembering Nelson Mandela

A 1998 trip to Robben Island proved memorable for this writer.

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President Obama says he has been inspired throughout his adult life by Nelson Mandela, the former anti-apartheid leader who died Thursday at 95. I know why. I was touched by Mandela's story, too, but in a more indirect way.

As White House correspondent for U.S. News, I once visited Robben Island, the prison complex off the coast of Cape Town where Mandela was kept for 18 of his 27 years in prison. As part of the tour, I stood in the cell that Mandela had occupied and looked through the bars as a guide told of the suffering that Mandela had endured during his time there. Mandela was then a black revolutionary leader held by the racist white regime of South Africa.

[READ: Nelson Mandela Dead at 95]

I visited during President Bill Clinton's 1998 tour of South Africa, and it deepened my understanding of Mandela's achievements. It turned out that the officials running the prison site as a museum at the time of Clinton's visit were black. Several had been prisoners in the jail when Mandela was there. And they said that, in a remarkable twist of fate, they had become the superiors in charge of several former guards, whites who helped run Robben Island in the days of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd after speaking at the Colonial Stadium for the World Reconciliation Day Concert on Sept. 8, 2000, in Melbourne, Australia.
Nelson Mandela waves to the crowd after speaking at the Colonial Stadium for the World Reconciliation Day Concert on Sept. 8, 2000, in Melbourne, Australia.

These black former inmates told me how at first they couldn't shake off their deep hatred of whites, and a few said they had been terrorists, aiming to kill as many whites as they could to advance their goal of ending the minority white regime in South Africa. But they said they learned from "Mr. Mandela" to forgive their former oppressors, as Mandela did. They said they saw embodied in Mandela the virtues of charity and tolerance that have since become well known, and they decided to emulate him. I've never forgotten these lessons from the life of this remarkable man.

After his release from prison, Mandela became president of South Africa and a revered figure around the world. President Obama, the first African-American president of the United States, praised Mandela Thursday as "a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice."

Obama called Mandela "one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth. ... We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again – so it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love, to never discount the difference that one person can make, to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice."

[PHOTOS: The Life of Nelson Mandela: 1918-2013]

Obama, who said he has studied Mandela's life and philosophy for many years, visited Mandela's cell on Robben Island during a trip to South Africa last June.

Neville Alexander, a self-described "young revolutionary" who was incarcerated at Robben island with Mandela, told PBS that Mandela and his followers preferred negotiations to violence. Alexander said Mandela "said to us that they don't believe ... in overthrowing the apartheid state. They believe that we've to got compel the apartheid ideologues and strategists to come to the negotiation table. ...

"He recalled the fact that [Ben Bella], the Algerian leader at the time, had told him when he had been in Algeria, that they should not try to overthrow the apartheid state, because they would not be able to do so, that it would be strategically wasteful of lives, time, energy, etc."

This strategy was, in the end, "very successful," Alexander said.

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  • Photos: Obama's Trip to Africa
  • Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House. He can be reached at and followed on Facebook and Twitter.