- - Thursday, December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela, at age 95, lost his battle with a long illness contracted during his years of confinement — with 27 years in a prison cell, 18 years of which were on South Africa’s Robben Island.

His incarceration emboldened thousands of followers, who grew into the millions. Word of mouth and finally media coverage spread globally. Pressure mounted and soon world leaders turned against the apartheid government of South Africa. Time had changed history. Although Mr. Mandela spent his youth in prison, his actions would have lasting effects long after his release in 1990.

As a leader of the African National Congress party, Mr. Mandela accomplished his mission of freeing Africans from the racism of apartheid. He played a pivotal role in steering the racially divided country onto the road of democracy and became South Africa’s first elected black president.

“Madiba,” his tribal name, was chanted by supporters everywhere.

My wife, Marcia, and I first visited South Africa in 1984 to attend a Young Presidents’ Organization conference in Johannesburg. We were stunned by the cryptic signs everywhere separating black Africans from the white minority. Even bathrooms were marked “For whites only” and elderly Africans had to stand next to empty bus seats similarly marked. It would take another 10 years of struggle before Madiba would come to their rescue.

During our visit, we looked up a friend of an acquaintance who was living in Soweto, an urban African enclave in Johannesburg, bordering on a destitute mining district where many of the Africans toiled under poor conditions. Almost 1 million Africans lived in one-bedroom brick and wood houses crowded together in the 40-square-mile area. The taxi driver frowned on our desire to visit Soweto, telling us all sorts of horror stories before dropping us off several blocks away. With the address in hand, and friendly instructions from a passer-by, we soon found the house.

It was amazing that eight people could live in these closet-size shelters. Our gracious hosts offered us a meal. They were, however, disappointed at their treatment as second-class citizens outside of their ghetto. We came away feeling sad — knowing apartheid was wrong — and firmly believing that the archaic white-minority government had to change.

While serving as U.S. ambassador to Mauritius in 2002, I became acquainted with South African Ambassador Louis Mnguni, a close friend of Nelson Mandela‘s. Under apartheid, Mr. Mnguni spent five years in prison on Robben Island with Mr. Mandela and other ANC members. I was surprised he was not bitter over that terrible experience — but he also chose not to talk about that chapter in history.

In October 2007, Marcia and I visited Robben Island, 4 miles off the coast of Cape Town. The oval island is roughly 2 miles long by 1 mile wide — with a mostly flat terrain — no more than 10 feet above sea level at the highest point.

This was a somber moment for both of us, seeing the confined courtyard and small prison cell that Mr. Mandela occupied for 18 years. Photos on exhibit showed the prisoners sitting in the courtyard, breaking up rocks to occupy their time under the watchful eyes of white guards.

Nelson Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, seen around the world as a symbol of peace, justice and reconciliation, can rest in peace knowing that he accomplished his goal — having spent his life in the service of his fellow man.

He will join the other great leaders who have made a difference in the name of equality — such as Martin Luther King Jr., who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership of the American civil rights movement.

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles Islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. He is the author of “When the White House Calls” and regularly writes commentaries on Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

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