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Mandela and Me

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Today South Africa - and the world - mourns, celebrates, dissects and comments on the life of Madiba. Like with Martin Luther King, or the moon landing or the death of Mahatma Gandhi, the question will linger: "Where were you when you got the news and how did you react?"

There was another significant period in the history of South Africa when we look back to what we, as South Africans, were doing and where we were when it happened. That was the announcement of the unbanning of political organisations and release of political leaders.

After decades of struggle, where there streets of the country flowed with the blood of black people seeking freedom from the pernicious system of apartheid, where so many paid the ultimate price, where thousands were still languishing in apartheid jails, the news finally broke that the African National Congress, other freedom movements, and jailed leaders including Nelson Mandela were to be set free.

There was jubilation and celebration - I learned only later - on the streets of South Africa and in the rest of the world.

I did not know what was going on.

I in fact only learned this news a week later. In the 1980s I was a journalist but I was also secretly a member of Mkhonto we Size, the military wing of Mandela's banned ANC.

At the moment of the historic announcement I was also locked up in jail, in isolation from the rest of South Africa. I was charged with acts of terrorism and was about to embark on a 21 year prison sentence on Robben Island, South Africa's notorious political prison. It just so happened that at the time I was being kept in mandatory isolation in a tiny prison cell in Pietermaritzburg, always being watched over by only White prison guards.

The night of the announcement In the huge prison in my tiny, dingy cell, I had a sense that something was happening, but could not fully figure what was going on. I could hear in the distance the sounds of prison bars being banged with prison-issued spoons and voices of prisoners vaguely chanting freedom slogans. But the distance was far off from my isolation and I could not fully make out what was happening. A guard would casually and nervously saunter past my cell, look at me, then, without saying anything, scamper off.

A week continued without access to newspapers, radio or any human contact other than that from the white guards. It was only at the end of that week that my lawyers were granted permission to consult with me and the beaming team leader's - advocate Kessie Naidu - first words to me were: "Great news, hey comrade!" I looked at him perplexed and he turned to the other two attornies with him, Vas Soni and Kiran Desai, and said: "My God! They haven't told him!"

Even though the unbannings and announced releases stood, my trial had to continue and it did so quite swiftly. A full bench of white Supreme Court judges found me guilty and sentenced me to twenty-one years jail time on Robben Island. It was all quite surreal - South Africa balanced on the cusp of freedom - and the processes to jail us perfunctorily continuing.

I arrived at the Robben Island prison on a wintry and cold day and was escorted to my prison cell in B-Section from the admissions section by a fellow comrade and prisoner, Tokyo Sexwale. By then, Nelson Mandela had been removed to Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town in preparation for his release.

I was escorted into B-Section. It was the apartheid authorities who deemed who would be placed in which section on account of their leardership standing in the ANC. For some reason I was assigned to B-Section on the prison Island because they deemed me a leader.

I was led into this little cell with a tiny metal bed that could not contain the full length of my frame, a small wooden cupboard and two changes of the green canvas prison garb with highly polished leather shoes. These, I was told, belonged to the former inmate of that cell.

Other prisoners and comrades beamed at my presence and welcomed me very warmly and it was almost by-the-way that one of the remarked that I was allocated the cell from which someone famous had departed - a Mr Nelson Mandela.

By then, Mandela had been released from prison and was being feted by the people and the world but we were still languishing in the cells and used as bargaining pawns in a process that took another year to unfold.

I lived in that cell until I was released after a delayed amnesty process, a long hunger strike that almost resulted in my death and the intervention of Archbishop Desmond Tutu - who barged into the hospital where I was transferred to from the prison in seriously deteriorating health - and demanded my release.

I was part of the last group of ten prisoners officially released from Robben Island before it was shut down. I was the last occupant of the cell that millions visit each year and listed as Mandela's cell.

I returned to journalism on my release. I had a few interactions with Mandela mainly after he became president. Once Mandela came over to me while I was on assignment at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting being held in New Zealand. He had a twinkle in his eye when he said to me: "Yes Rafiq. Do you remember the good old days? I left you behind to lock-up the prison forever."

I adored Mandela but my relationship with him was never an easy one. I did interviews with him and I wrote critical pieces on him. While I believe he accepted that critical journalism was a cornerstone of our democracy, he did not take to criticism of himself too kindly.

There was the one time when I was the political editor of the Sowetan, the biggest daily newspaper of the time, and it was before the local government election. I wrote an opinion piece about the coloured people of South Africa who were left in limbo after the collapse of apartheid. They felt abandoned by the ANC and clung to the enemy they knew best, F W De Klerk's National Party (wearing the different garb of the New National Party). The Western Cape was the only province the ANC lost and my opinion piece contended that this was so due to the fact that the only time coloureds in far flung working class areas like Mitchells Plain and Atlantis saw the ANC and Mandela was when he came to hug babies there as a PR exercise to garner their vote.

Mandela was furious that I could suggest such a thing - though many to this day agree. My boss at the time, Aggrey Klaaste, was telephoned by Mandela and was given an earful about my assertions and Mandela demanded that I be relieved of my political editor position. Klaaste, who knew a few choice swear words swore me to the high heavens for writing what I did but refused to fire me. Instead a compromise was reached whereby Mandela's sidekick at the time, the brilliant Kader Asmal, would offer a rebuttal to my piece and would be published without comment.

Over the years, Mandela would acknowledge my presence, but rather icily.

It didn't matter to matter to me. He was a great man who achieved so much and, after all, he was an astute politican who did not appear to want to become a saint.

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