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Former Robben Island Inmate Recalls Mandela's Discipline, Courage


Returning to our top story today, the death of South African President Nelson Mandela now. Mandela was 95 years old. He was, of course, the man who led South Africa out of apartheid. But before he rose to become president, he was a political prisoner held on Robben Island for 27 years. We turn now to someone who knew Mandela during that time. Saki Macozoma served time there as a teenager in the 1970s. And Mr. Macozoma, what do you remember of Nelson Mandela from your time in that island prison?

SAKI MACOZOMA: I first met Nelson Mandela in 1977. And I was - I just turned 18. I was 18 at the time. For me, he came across more as a teacher and as a parent than anything else. And I also noticed that he had a very strict regime of gym, of study time, of nap time, of games, whatever the prison routine was. He did it, and he made sure that he followed that - that regime.

SIEGEL: You're saying he was a man of enormous discipline?

MACOZOMA: Absolutely, absolutely. (Unintelligible) Really, really striking for, you know, for people like that because we were very angry young people at the time. One of the things we couldn't understand is how could they have allowed the system last for that long? And then sharing with them their experience and where - how far they had gone in the struggle was quite an education for me. And that's why I remember him more as a teacher.

And of course, in the later years, I worked with him in the movement as actually his spokesman and speechwriter for many years. And I got to understand, in traveling with him and hear the other stories - for instance, one was these writings, these biographs - which actually is now a movie that has been made - to hear those stories as he was writing, as he was recalling his youth.

SIEGEL: I wonder, how did you understand the source of this enormous discipline? After all, this is a man who was given offers to leave prison and refused to do so until the others did as well. Where did it come from? Where did this moral strength come from?

MACOZOMA: I think that it came from the kind of upbringing that he came. I mean, he came from a part of the Eastern Cape that had almost a hundred years of wars of resistance. And as he eludes to later, he grew up in a household where the stories of the great wars of resistance were told and the heat of the previous injury. So in a sense, I think he had a sense of mission that arose from that upbringing.

SIEGEL: You were there at the prison when Nelson Mandela was released. Tell us about that day.

MACOZOMA: So one day, this was on the Saturday before the Sunday. And I spent the whole day with him there talking about what kind of release he wanted, what kind of rally would he have, talking about what should go into his speech. There was some discussion as to whether he should be flown straight to Johannesburg, here to Soweto. This is what the government wanted. And this is what Winnie Mandela wanted.

And he didn't want it. He said, I've spent almost 30 years in Cape Town. And the people of Cape Town have been my community. I will not leave here without talking to them. He also said, I don't want any vessel to come and take me out of this prison. I want to walk with my own two feet.

SIEGEL: Well, Mr. Macozoma, thank you very much for sharing your memories of Nelson Mandela with us today.

MACOZOMA: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: That's Saki Macozoma, who served time on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.