Rafael Capurro
Research Associate
Department of Information Science
African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE)
University of Pretoria, South Africa


A Reader on Information Ethics
Edited by Coetzee Bester, Johannes Britz, Rafael Capurro & Rachel Fischer
International Centre for Information Ethics (ICIE), 2021, 284 pages

Preface: Nelson Madela as information ethicist: a dialogue - Prof. Rafael Capurro
In conversation with Nelson Mandela on effective reading of newspapers - Dr. Coetzee Bester
Let there be justice for all, let there be peace for all and let freedom reign: A reflection on President Mandela's inaugural address from a social justice perspective - Prof. Johannes Britz
Information and knowledge access for social justice: Perspectives from Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom - Prof. Dennis Ngong Ocholla
Info-cultures: Automated emancipation or bondage? Facing the ethical challenge - Dr. Juliet Lodge
Information justice in Africa: Insights on information ethics connected to Nelson Mandela's thinking - Maria Pawelec, Kerstin Schopp and PD Dr. Jessica Heesen
Mandela and critical information literacy - Prof. Marco Schneider and Prof. Pablo Nabarrete Bastos
Nelson Mandela and pan-Africanism: A nexus of identity, voice, and resistance - Prof. Maha Bashri
'How precious words are': Mandela as an infomoral exemplar and silence as a virtue - Prof. Tim Gorichanaz
Towards an internet ombudsman institution - Adv. Dan Shefet
South Africa in the times of Mandela's political rise: A correspondence - Prof. Julian Kinderlerer and Christopher Coenen
The long talk to freedom: Censorship in a culture of isolation - Irin Klazar and Rachel Fischer

Mandela Reader

See also: Homage to Nelson Mandela.

See published version:
Preface: Nelson Madela as information ethicist: a dialogue


The idea to write this essay on Nelson Mandela arose during the International Policy Dialogue on IFAP (Information for all Programme, UNESCO) Priority Areas focused on BRICS organized by UNESCO and the Department of Information Science, African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE) at the University of Pretoria in collaboration with UNESCO and representatives of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) held in Cape Town on July 4-6, 2018 (Capurro 2020). During the meeting a speech by Frederik Willem de Klerk as well as a visit to Robben Island took place. In the aftermath both events made evident to me that particularly Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom as well as his letters and speeches (Mandela 2003, 2010) deal with IFAP topics such as information for development, information literacy, information preservation, information accessibility, and multilingualism. Mandela's life and his reflection upon particularly in his autobiography is an example of how freedom of information that is at the core of a free society can take place in heterotopian spaces (Wikipedia: Heterotopia). A jail is such a heterotopian space, but also a whole country ruled by Apartheid.

Mandela spent 27 years in jail, 18 of them in Robben Island (1964-1982), prisoner number 466/64, in a cell measuring 8 feet (2.4 m) by 7 feet (2.1 m). A heterotopian space within another one. He imagined his country as a place in which the rule of law, freedom of speech, and social justice are the common basis for all South Africans. Mandela describes his experience in Robben Island in a letter to Winnie Mandela dated 16 November 1970 as follows: 

You looked much better than I expected, but far from what you were when we last met in Dec. '68. The cumulative effect of a thousand and one strains was clearly visible. As I walked back to the jail after the interview, I was preoccupied with the fear that now that you have to live alone for 12 hours in the night, loneliness and anxiety might worsen your condition. This fear still haunts me.

Incidentally, on my way down to the visiting rooms on Nov. 7, I managed to see the boat on which you came as it steamed gracefully to harbour, beautiful in its bright colours. Even at a distance it looked a real prisoners' friend, and I became more anxious as it approached. You know why! I saw it again as it sailed back to the mainland. This time the picture was altogether different. Though it still retained its brightness, the beauty I had seen only a few hours before was gone. Now it looked grotesque and quite unfriendly. As it drifted slowly away with you, I felt all alone in the world and the books that fill my cell, which have kept me company all these years, seemed mute and unresponsive. Have I seen my darling for the last time, it is a question that kept recurring. (Mandela 2010, 187; Dixon 2013)

Every word of this letter is worth being meditated. The incoming boat bringing Winnie back after two years of separation looks like "a real prisoners' friend" while the boat leaving Robben Island "looked grotesque and quite unfriendly." The difference between the incoming and the leaving boat corresponds to the difference between the heterotopian space in which Mandela is living and the 'normal' Apartheid world in which she lives. The separation from Winnie lets him feel "alone in the world" disconnected from any social experience where not even the surrogate of social life that books can be what they are, i.e. a written expression of human conversation. They "seemed  mute and unresponsive." Books cannot speak or give an answer to a question if they are not seen as belonging implicitly or explicitly to social life. This experience of meeting and separating from each other is a limit experience concerning all what is excluded in a jail, within another heterotopian space, the Apartheid state.

In a letter to Winnie dated 1 February 1975 Mandela writes that the cell as the place where he feels as "alone in the world" can be experienced as a place where the human self can perceive himself as sharing a common world. How is this change of perspective possible? It is possible because, as Aristotle puts it, "the psyche is in a way all beings" (he psyche ta onta pos esti panta) (Aristotle 1974, De Anima III 431b21). Mandela writes:

Incidentally, you may find that the cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as one's social position, influence and popularity, wealth and standard of education. There are, of course, important in measuring one's success in material matters and it is perfectly understandable if many people exert themselves mainly to achieve all these. But internal factors may be even more crucial in assessing one's development as a human being. Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – qualities which are within easy reach of every soul – are the foundation of one's spiritual life. Development in matters of this nature is inconceivable without serious introspection, without knowing yourself, your weaknesses and mistakes. At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity  to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards. Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying. (Mandela 2010, 211-212)

Mandela's cell becomes "incidentally" the place where his soul has the opportunity to reflect about being "in a way all beings" (Aristotle). In a letter dated 25 February 1987, five years after leaving Robben Island, he writes to Frieda Matthews, married to Professor Zachariah Keodirelang (Z K) Matthews (1901-1968), academic, politician and anti-apartheid activist, member of the ANC:

A visit to a prisoner always has significance difficult to put into words. Routine is the supreme law of a prison in almost every country of the world, and every day is for all practical purposes like the day before: the same surroundings, same faces, same dialogue, same odour, walls rising to the skies, and the ever-present feeling that outside the prison gates there is an exciting world to which you have no access. A visit from your beloved ones, from friends and even from strangers is always an unforgettable occasion, when that frustrating monotony is broken and the entire world is literally ushered into the cell. (Mandela 2010, 150)

The world that "literally ushered into the cell" was brought by each visitor, their souls being "in a way all beings" (Aristotle). The visitors made manifest to him the difference between the heterotopian space of the jail and the "exiting world to which you have no access." This difference was the source for Mandela's becoming a freedom fighter. In an unpublished autobiographical manuscript written in prison he states:

I am also aware that massive efforts have been made here and abroad for my release and that of other political prisoners, a campaign which has given us much inspiration and shown us that we have hundreds of thousands of friends. Next to my wife's affection and that of the family as a whole, few things have inspired me more that the knowledge that in spite of all that the enemy is doing to isolate and discredit us people everywhere never forget us. But we know the enemy very well – they would like to release us from a position of strength and not of weakness and this is an opportunity they have missed forever. However inspiring it is to know that our friends are insisting on our release, a realistic approach clearly shows that we must rule out completely the possibility that such a demand will succeed. But I am highly optimistic, even behind prison walls I can see the heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon, that however wrong our calculations have been and whatever difficulties we still must face, that in my lifetime I shall step out into the sunshine, walk with firm feet because that event will be brought by the strength of my organisation and the sheer determination of our people. (Mandela 2010, 243-244)

Mandela can see the common world "even behind prison walls" as an open natural and human world of "heavy clouds and the blue sky over the horizon" that he shares, despite living in prison, with all his friends, his family, his organisation and his people. Being a prisoner but knowing that he is a free man aiming at living in a free society is the ethical foundation of Mandela's life and work as a "freedom fighter." It enables him not only to fight for freedom and to reflect upon it becoming a fighter committed to live according to his maxims and to render himself accountability about his deeds and aspirations.

A freedom fighter has a strong soul and a strong body. Gavin Evans, lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, had the privilege to interview Mandela. Here are some of his findings concerning Mandela's physical exercises.

February 15, 1990: Nelson Mandela wakes as always at 5am and begins his hour-long exercise routine. The difference this time is that instead of a prison cell, his gym is the front room of his “matchbox” house – so-called for its small size – at 8115 Vilakazi Street, Soweto. And soon he’ll be besieged by journalists, well-wishers, diplomats and family members.
I get to interview him a few hours later to ask about his plans.
His answers are clear and concise and I’m too nervous to probe deeper. But towards the end I toss in a question about boxing, and his stern demeanour changes. He beams with delight and begins to chat about his favourite fighters and how he followed the sport in prison.
Mandela started boxing as a student at Fort Hare University, and then trained more seriously when studying, working and struggling in Johannesburg during the 1940s and 50s, although he didn’t fight competitively and was modest about his prowess. “I was never an outstanding boxer,” he said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
“I was in the heavyweight division, and I had neither enough power to compensate for my lack of speed nor enough speed to make up for my lack of power.”
What he relished about it was the rigour of training, a routine periodically broken by arrest and the demands of the “struggle”, but not often. He wrote:

I unleashed my anger and frustration on a punch bag rather than taking it out on a comrade or even a policeman.
Refuge in exercise
Mandela believed this routine was the key to both physical health and peace of mind. Exercise dissipates tension, and tension is the enemy of serenity.
I found that I worked better and thought more clearly when I was in good physical condition, and so training became one of the inflexible disciplines of my life.
Four mornings a week he’d set off for a run and three evenings a week he’d work out in a Soweto boxing gym – his way of losing himself “in something that was not the struggle”. He said he’d wake up the next morning feeling refreshed – “mentally and physically lighter” and “ready to take up the fight again”.

Life behind bars
When Mandela arrived, a prison warder sneered: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.”
Part of the challenge was getting used to monotony. As he put it:

Prison life is about routine: each day like the one before; each week like the one before it, so that the months and years blend into each other.
The daily routine of Prisoner 46664 consisted of gruelling manual labour – working in a quarry to dig out limestone and using heavy hammers to smash rocks into gravel.
This was draining but he decided not to use it as an excuse to abandon his exercise regime. From then on it started at 5am and was carried out in a damp 2.1m squared cell rather than a sweat-soaked Soweto boxing gym. “I attempted to follow my old boxing routine of doing roadwork and muscle-building,” he said.
He’d begin with running on the spot for 45 minutes, followed by 100 fingertip push-ups, 200 sit-ups, 50 deep knee-bends and calisthenic exercises learnt from his gym training (in those days, and even today, this would include star jumps and ‘burpees’ – where you start upright, move down into a squat position, kick your feet back, return to squat and stand up).
Mandela would do this Mondays to Thursdays, and then rest for three days.
This continued even during his several spells in solitary confinement.
[...] Mandela believed a lifetime’s habit of exercise helped him to survive prison, ready for the challenges that lay ahead. “In prison, having an outlet for my frustrations was absolutely essential,” he said – words that might be taken to heart by those facing months of coronavirus-prompted lockdowns in cramped conditions. (Evans 2020)

In a conversation with Richard Stengel, American editor of Time magazine who collaborated on the autobiography, Mandela explains what it means to be in solitary confinement at Pretoria Local Prison while awaiting trial in 1962:

To be alone in prison is a difficulty. You must never try it. So what they did was to isolate me without actually, you know, punishing me in the sense of depriving me of meals. But they made sure that I did not see a face of a prisoner. I saw a warder all the time; even my food was brought in by a warder. [chuckles] And they would let me out for thirty minutes in the morning and thirty minutes in the afternoon, and when the other prisoners were locked up. (Mandela 2010, 148-149)

Reading Mandela's autobiography rises the question about the leitmotif of his live and thinking. I call this leitmotiv his struggle against all kinds of information segregation particularly with regard to race, religion, or social status, leading to humiliation and dehumanization treating others as "mere means", that is to say, instrumentalizing them and ignoring their dignity, to put it in Kantian terms. Information segregation goes beyond not only of the context of Apartheid in South Africa but also of Mandela's lifetime as he himself is aware of. Reflecting upon the historical situation of Apartheid in South Africa opens a universal perspective to Mandela himself as well as to his unique historical situation and cultural tradition. This enables him and his counterpart, Frederik Willem de Klerk, to open a humane foundation for South Africa. What binds these two leaders is their will to reconciliation. This made possible to lay the ground for the creation of a free society in South Africa, where information can be shared by everybody on the basis of mutual respect and equality before the law. Mandela's life and work show the dark side of a society in which sharing information is subject to oppression and exclusion that turns to be morally and politically not only unsustainable but untenable. What is morally evil is the will to achieve something that implies lastly the annihilation of this will.

In the following I let Mandela speak mainly through large excerpts of his autobiography and make comments thereupon from an information ethics perspective.


1. Long Walk to Freedom

"Habent sua fata libelli." This dictum from Terentianus Maurus (2nd century AD) does not apply only to "little books" such as essays and pamphlets as having a "destinies" independently of the author's intention, but means also that the understanding of a message depends on the reader's pre-understanding ("pro captu lectoris") as the first part of the dictum states (Beck 1992, 123). This is not obvious in the case of Mandela's autobiography that was supposed to be destroyed. In the Acknowledgements Mandela tells the story about the "destiny" of the book.

As readers will discover, this book has a long history. I began writing it clandestinely in 1974 during my imprisonment on Robben Island. Without the tireless labor of my old comrades Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada for reviving my memories, it is doubtful the manuscript would have been completed. The copy of the manuscript which I kept with me was discovered by the authorities and confiscated. However, in addition to their unique calligraphic skills, my co-prisoners Mac Maharaj and Isu Chiba had ensured that the original manuscript safely reached its destination. I resumed work on it after my release from prison in 1990. Since my release, my schedule has been crowded with numerous duties and responsibilities, which have left me little free time for writing. Fortunately, I have had the assistance of dedicated colleagues, friends, and professionals who have helped me complete my work at last, and to whom I would like to express my appreciation.

I am deeply grateful to Richard Stengel who collaborated with me in the creation of this book, providing invaluable assistance in editing and revising the first parts and in the writing of the latter parts. I recall with fondness our early morning walks in the Transkei and the many hours of interviews at Shell House in Johannesburg and my home in Houghton. A special tribute is owed to Mary Pfaff who assisted Richard in his work. I have also benefited from the advice and support of Fatima Meer, Peter Magubane, Nadine Gordimer, and Ezekiel Mphahlele.

I want to thank especially my comrade Ahmed Kathrada for the long hours spent revising, correcting, and giving accuracy to the story. Many thanks to my ANC office staff, who patiently dealt with the logistics of the making of this book, but in particular to Barbara Masekela for her efficient coordination. Likewise, Iqbal Meer has devoted many hours to watching over the business aspects of the book. I am grateful to my editor, William Phillips of Little, Brown, who has guided this project from early 1990 on, and edited the text, and to his colleagues Jordan Pavlin, Steve Schneider, Mike Mattil, and Donna Peterson. I would also like to thank Professor Gail Gerhart for her factual review of the manuscript. (Mandela 2013, 9)

What is an autobiography? Mandela gives the following self-critical answer in a letter to Fatima Meer (1918-2010), writer, academic, anti-apartheid and women's rights activist, dated 1 March 1971:

I shall stick to our vow: never, never under any circumstances, to say anything unbecoming of the other... The trouble, of course, is that most successful men are prone to some form of vanity. There comes a stage in their lives when they consider it permissible to be egoistic and to brag to the public at large about their unique achievements. What s sweet euphemism for self-praise the English language has evolved! Autobiography, they choose to call it, where the shortcomings of others are frequently exploited to highlight the praiseworthy accomplishments of the author. I am doubtful I will ever sit down to sketch my background. I have neither the achievements of which I could boast nor the skill to do it. [...] I'm one of those who possess scraps of superficial information on a variety of subjects, but who lacks depth and expert knowledge on the one thing in which I ought to have specialised, namely the history of my country and people. (Mandela 2013, 7)

Seven years later, in 1978, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, Mandela tells how this autobiography was created. It is an outstanding example on how the principles of freedom of information and the right to communicate are seen as an ethical challenge in a heteropic situation. He writes:

One day, Kathy, Walter, and myself were talking in the courtyard when they suggested that I ought to write my memoirs. Kathy noted that the perfect time for such a book to be published would be on my sixtieth birthday. Walter said that such a story, if told truly and fairly, would serve to remind people of what we had fought and were still fighting for. He added that it could become a source of inspiration for young freedom fighters.

The idea appealed to me, and during a subsequent discussion, I agreed to go ahead. When I decide to do something, I like to start immediately, and I threw myself into this new project. I adopted a rather unorthodox work schedule: I would write most of the night and sleep during the day. During the first week or two, I would take a nap after dinner, awake at ten o’clock, and then write until it was time for breakfast. After working at the quarry, I would then sleep until dinner, and the process would begin again. After a few weeks of this, I notified the authorities that I was not feeling well and would not be going to the quarry. They did not seem to care, and from then on I was able to sleep most of the day.

We created an assembly line to process the manuscript. Each day I passed what I wrote to Kathy, who reviewed the manuscript, and then read it to Walter. Kathy then wrote their comments in the margins. Walter and Kathy have never hesitated to criticize me, and I took their suggestions to heart, often incorporating their changes. This marked-up manuscript was then given to Laloo Chiba, who spent the next night transferring my writing to his own almost microscopic shorthand, reducing ten pages of foolscap to a single small piece of paper. It would be Mac’s job to smuggle the manuscript to the outside world. The warders grew suspicious. They went to Mac and said, “What is Mandela up to? Why is he sitting up late at night?” But Mac merely shrugged his shoulders and said he had no idea. I wrote rapidly, completing a draft in four months. I did not hesitate over choosing a word or phrase. I covered the period from my birth through the Rivonia Trial, and ended with some notes about Robben Island.

I relived my experiences as I wrote about them. Those nights, as I wrote in silence, I could once again experience the sights and sounds of my youth in Qunu and Mqhekezweni; the excitement and fear of coming to Johannesburg; the tempests of the Youth League; the endless delays of the Treason Trial; the drama of Rivonia. It was like a waking dream and I attempted to transfer it to paper as simply and truthfully as I could.

Mac ingeniously hid the transcribed version of the manuscript inside the binding of a number of notebooks he used for his studies. In this way, he was able to safeguard the entire text from the authorities and smuggle it out when he was released in 1976. The arrangement was that Mac would secretly communicate when the manuscript was safely out of the country; only then would we destroy the original. In the meantime, we still had to dispose of a five-hundred-page manuscript. We did the only thing we could do: we buried it in the garden in the courtyard. Surveillance in the courtyard had become careless and sporadic. The warders usually sat in an office at the northern end talking among themselves. From that office, they could not see the southern end next to the isolation area where there was a small garden. I had casually inspected this area on my early morning walks, and it was there that I decided to bury the manuscript.

In order not to have to dig a great hole, we decided to bury the manuscript in three separate places. We divided it into two smaller segments and one larger one, wrapped each in plastic, and placed them inside empty cocoa containers. The work would have to be done quickly, and I asked Jeff Masemola to fashion some digging tools. Within a few days I was equipped with several sharp iron stakes.

One morning, after breakfast, Kathy, Walter, Eddie Daniels, and I drifted over to the garden at the southern end of the courtyard where we appeared to be having a political discussion. We were each hiding portions of the manuscript in our shirts. At a signal from me, we dropped down and began digging. I dug in the center, near a manhole cover that led to a drainpipe. When I reached the pipe, I carved out a space beneath it, and it was there that I placed the largest of the three containers. The others dug two shallower holes for their portions.

We finished just in time to line up for our march to the quarry. As I walked that morning, I felt a sense of relief that the manuscript was safely hidden. I then thought no more about it. A few weeks later, just after our wake-up call, I heard a sound in the courtyard that made me uneasy: it was the thud of picks and shovels on the ground. When we were allowed out of our cells for wash-up, I walked to the front of the corridor and managed to peer out the door and around the corner. There, at the south end of the courtyard, was a work crew from the general section. To my alarm, they were digging in the area where the manuscript was buried.

The authorities had decided to build a wall in front of the isolation section because they had discovered that the prisoners in isolation were able to communicate with us in the courtyard. The work crew was digging a shallow trench for the concrete foundation of the wall.

While washing up I managed to inform Walter and Kathy about the digging outside. Kathy thought that the main part of the manuscript, which was buried under the pipe, would probably be safe, but that the other two were vulnerable. When the drums of breakfast porridge were wheeled into the courtyard, the warders commanding the work crew ordered the men out of the yard. This was done to prevent any fraternization with the political prisoners.

With our bowls of porridge in hand, I led Walter and Kathy over to the south end of the courtyard as though I wanted to confer with them privately. The beginnings of the trench were already perilously close to the two smaller containers. At the same time, we were joined by Eddie Daniels, who immediately recognized the problem. There was only one thing to do: as inconspicuously as possible, the four of us began digging in the area where the two smaller pieces of manuscript would be. We managed to unearth the two containers rather quickly, and covered the area again with soil. To rescue the chunk of manuscript under the pipe would require more time, but we were confident that they would not find the manuscript because they would not dislodge the pipe in order to build the wall.

We hid the manuscript in our shirts as we walked back to our cells. Eddie was not going to the quarry that day, and we gave the containers to him, instructing him to destroy them as soon as possible. At great personal risk, Eddie agreed to do so. I breathed easier knowing that we had salvaged the two containers, and tried not to dwell on the remaining piece of manuscript as I worked that day.

When we returned from the quarry that afternoon, instead of washing up, which I normally did, I strolled over to the far end of the courtyard. I attempted to appear as casual as possible, but I was alarmed by what I saw. The prisoners had dug a trench that ran parallel to the wall of the isolation section and had actually removed the pipe altogether. They could not help but have uncovered the manuscript.

I must have flinched or reacted in some way that was noticeable. Unknown to me, I was being watched by a number of warders, who later said that my reaction confirmed that I knew a manuscript had been there. I returned to the corridor to wash up and told Walter and Kathy that I suspected the manuscript had been discovered. Eddie had meanwhile successfully disposed of the other two pieces.

Early the next morning, I was summoned to the office to see the commanding officer. Next to him stood a high prison official who had just arrived from Pretoria. Without any greeting whatsoever, the commanding officer announced: “Mandela, we have found your manuscript.”

I did not reply. The commanding officer then reached behind his desk and produced a sheaf of papers.

“This is your handwriting, is it not?” he demanded. Again, I remained silent.

“Mandela,” the commander said in some exasperation. “We know this is your work.”

“Well,” I replied, “you must produce some proof of that.” They scoffed at this, and said they knew the notations in the margin were made by Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada. Again, I said that they must furnish evidence if they were going to impose any penalties.

“We do not need evidence,” the commander said. “We have the evidence.”

Although he did not impose a penalty that day, a short while later, Walter, Kathy, and I were called before General Rue, the deputy commissioner of prisons, who told us that we had abused our study privileges in order to illegally write the manuscript. For that offense, our study privileges were being suspended indefinitely. As it turned out, we lost study privileges for four years. After Mac was released in December, he sent the notebooks overseas to England. He spent the next six months under house arrest in South Africa before slipping out of the country and going first to Lusaka to see Oliver, and then to London. He stayed there for six months; with a typist he reconstructed the manuscript and put together a typescript. He then returned to Lusaka and presented Oliver with a copy.

From there, the trail grows cold. I heard nothing from Lusaka about the manuscript and still do not know precisely what Oliver did with it. Although it was not published while I was in prison, it forms the spine of this memoir. (Mandela 2013, 567-572)

"Long Walk to Freedom was fundamentally, and very deliberately, the work of a collective." (Harris 2010). Satyandranath Maharaj (Mac) (1935-) —an academic, politician, political and anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner and MP, sentenced to twelve years' imprisonment which he served in Robben Island—, helped to secretly transcribe Mandela's autobiography and to smuggle it out of prison when he was released in 1976 (Mandela 2010, 430). This is his testimony on the issue that Mandela's autobiography was the result of collective writing under his (Mandela's) leadership:

So, coming back to this leadership factor. Yes, Mandela had already carved a space in which, even in the treason trial, those qualities in him were being noticed. And I’ve asked Walter Sisulu what made him spot in Mandela a leader? And I said to him, what made you see the potential? And he said, what I saw in Mandela was not only a young man who was determined to fight for freedom, but I saw the determination with which he applied himself. If you go to the Mandela Foundation and look at his notes, you will see how he thinks and rethinks issues, and I’ve had the privilege of working on his autobiography and engaging in close discussions on the contents and his formulations. Security considerations did not allow for Mandela to keep with him what he had already written. Night after night he had to move on writing the next 10-15 pages. (Maharaj 2020)

Freedom of information understood as the right to communicate and disseminate freely through different media our thoughts is a fundamental human right and the foundation of a free society. Fighting for freedom of information underlies Mandela's life and his autobiography as a message addressed to the people of South Africa, particularly to those excluded from such freedom.


2. The Birth of a Freedom of Information Fighter

Mandela's autobiography begins with his youth. The reader who takes the perspective of information ethics will find in this story the roots of Mandela's becoming what I call a freedom of information fighter in the tribal meetings to which all members of the Thembu people who settled in what became the province of KwaZulu-Natal, could participate. Mandela writes:

My later notions of leadership were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. I watched and learned from the tribal meetings that were regularly held at the Great Place. These were not scheduled, but were called as needed, and were held to discuss national matters such as a drought, the culling of cattle, policies ordered by the magistrate, or new laws decreed by the government. All Thembus were free to come — and a great many did, on horseback or by foot.

On these occasions, the regent was surrounded by his amaphakathi, a group of councillors of high rank who functioned as the regent’s parliament and judiciary. They were wise men who retained the knowledge of tribal history and custom in their heads and whose opinions carried great weight.

Letters advising these chiefs and headmen of a meeting were dispatched from the regent, and soon the Great Place became alive with important visitors and travellers from all over Thembuland. The guests would gather in the courtyard in front of the regent’s house and he would open the meeting by thanking everyone for coming and explaining why he had summoned them. From that point on, he would not utter another word until the meeting was nearing its end.

Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard, chief and subject, warrior and medicine man, shopkeeper and farmer, landowner and labourer. People spoke without interruption and the meetings lasted for many hours. The foundation of self-government was that all men were free to voice their opinions and equal in their value as citizens. (Women, I am afraid, were deemed second-class citizens.) A great banquet was served during the day, and I often gave myself a bellyache by eating too much while listening to speaker after speaker. I noticed how some speakers rambled and never seemed to get to the point. I grasped how others came to the matter at hand directly, and who made a set of arguments succinctly and cogently. I observed how some speakers used emotion and dramatic language, and tried to move the audience with such techniques, while other speakers were sober and even, and shunned emotion.

At first, I was astonished by the vehemence — and candour — with which people criticized the regent. He was not above criticism — in fact, he was often the principal target of it. But no matter how flagrant the charge, the regent simply listened, not defending himself, showing no emotion at all.

The meetings would continue until some kind of consensus was reached. They ended in unanimity or not at all. Unanimity, however, might be an agreement to disagree, to wait for a more propitious time to propose a solution. Democracy meant all men were to be heard, and a decision was taken together as a people. Majority rule was a foreign notion. A minority was not to be crushed by a majority.

Only at the end of the meeting, as the sun was setting, would the regent speak. His purpose was to sum up what had been said and form some consensus among the diverse opinions. But no conclusion was forced on people who disagreed. If no agreement could be reached, another meeting would be held. At the very end of the council, a praise-singer or poet would deliver a panegyric to the ancient kings, and a mixture of compliments to and satire on the present chiefs, and the audience, led by the regent, would roar with laughter.

As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place. I have always endeavored to listen to what each and every person in a discussion had to say before venturing my own opinion. Oftentimes, my own opinion will simply represent a consensus of what I heard in the discussion. I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind. (Mandela 2013, 24-26)

In a conversation with Richard Stengel, Mandela stresses the importance of indigenous languages and cultures in conjunction with Western traditions in his youth:

Most men, you know, are influenced by their background. I grew up in a country village until I was twenty-three, when I then left the village for Johannesburg. I was of course... going to school for the greater part of the year, come back during the June and December holidays – June was just a month and December about two months. And so all throughout the year I was at school ... And then in [19]41 when I was twenty-three, I came to Johannesburg and learned ... to absorb Western standards of living and so on. But... my opinions were already formed from the countryside and ... you'll therefore appreciate my enormous respect for my own culture – indigenous culture... Of course Western culture is something we cannot live without, so I have got these two strands of cultural influence. But I think it would be unfair to say this is particular to me because many of our men are influenced by that ... I am now more comfortable in English because of the many years I spent here and I've spent in jail and I lost contact, you know, with Xhosa literature. One of the things which I am looking forward to when I retire is to be able to read literature as I want, [including] African literature. I can read both Xhosa and Sotho literature and I like doing that, but the political activities have interfered ... I just can't read anything now and it's one of the things I regret very much. (Mandela 2010, 8-9)

Freedom of information in a multiethnic and multilingual society is a key issue for Mandela all along his life as a freedom fighter. He writes:

At the beginning of 1942, in order to save money and be closer to downtown Johannesburg, I moved from the room at the back of the Xhomas’ to the WNLA compound. I was assisted by Mr. Festile, the induna at the Chamber of Mines, who was once again playing a fateful role in my life. On his own initiative he had decided to offer me free accommodation in the mining compound.

The WNLA compound was a multiethnic, polyglot community of modern, urban South AfricaThere were Sothos, Tswanas, Vendas, Zulus, Pedis, Shangaans, Namibians, Mozambicans, Swazis, and Xhosas. Few spoke English, and the lingua franca was an amalgam of many tongues known as Fanagalo. There, I saw not only flare-ups of ethnic animosity, but the comity that was also possible among men of different backgrounds. Yet I was a fish out of water there. Instead of spending my days underground, I was studying or working in a law office where the only physical activity was running errands or putting files in a cabinet.

Because the WNLA was a way station for visiting chiefs, I had the privilege of meeting tribal leaders from all over southern Africa. I recall on one occasion meeting the queen regent of Basutoland, or what is now Lesotho, Mantsebo Moshweshwe. She was accompanied by two chiefs, both of whom knew Sabata’s father, Jongilizwe. I asked them about Jongilizwe, and for an hour I seemed to be back in Thembuland as they told colourful tales about his early years.

The queen took special notice of me and at one point addressed me directly, but she spoke in Sesotho, a language in which I knew few words. Sesotho is the language of the Sotho people as well as the Tswana, a large number of whom live in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. She looked at me with incredulity, and then said in English, “What kind of lawyer and leader will you be who cannot speak the language of your own people?” I had no response. The question embarrassed and sobered me; it made me realize my parochialism and just how unprepared I was for the task of serving my people. I had unconsciously succumbed to the ethnic divisions fostered by the white government and I did not know how to speak to my own kith and kin. Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them; one cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry, or savour their songs. I again realized that we were not different people with separate languages; we were one people, with different tongues. (Mandela 2013, 96-97)


3. Prisoner 466/64

Part Eight of Mandela's autobiography bears the title "Robben Island: The Dark Years." The following excerpt is an example on how Mandela fought for freedom of information within the heterotopian space of the jail on Robben Island during the "dark years" between 1964 and 1969. He writes:

One morning, several days after my meeting with Bram and Joel, we were taken to the head office. The head office was only about a quarter of a mile away and was a simple stone structure that resembled our own section. Once there, we were lined up to have our fingerprints taken, which was routine prison service business. But while waiting, I noticed a warder with a camera. After our fingerprints had been taken, the chief warder ordered us to line up for photographs. I motioned to my colleagues not to move, and I addressed the warder: “I would like you to produce the document from the commissioner of prisons authorizing our pictures to be taken.” Photographs of prisoners required such authorization.

It was always valuable to be familiar with regulations, because the warders themselves were often ignorant of them and could be intimidated by one’s superior knowledge. The warder was taken aback by my request and was unable to offer any explanation or produce anything in writing from the commissioner of prisons. He threatened to charge us if we did not consent to have our photographs taken, but I said that if there was no authorization, there would be no pictures, and that is where the matter remained.

As a rule, we objected to having our pictures taken in prison on the grounds that it is generally demeaning to be seen as a prisoner. But there was one photograph I did consent to, the only one I ever agreed to while on Robben Island.

One morning, a few weeks later, the chief warder, instead of handing us hammers for our work in the courtyard, gave us each needles and thread and a pile of worn prison jerseys. We were instructed to repair the garments, but we discovered that most of these jerseys were frayed beyond repair. This struck us as a curious task, and we wondered what had provoked the change. Later that morning, at about eleven o’clock, the front gate swung open, revealing the commanding officer with two men in suits. The commanding officer announced that the two visitors were a reporter and photographer from the Daily Telegraph in LondonHe related this as if visiting members of the international press were a regular diversion for us.

Although these men were our first official visitors, we regarded them sceptically. Firstly, they were brought in under the auspices of the government, and second, we were aware that the Telegraph was a conservative newspaper unlikely to be sympathetic to our cause. We well knew that there was great concern in the outside world about our situation and that it was in the government’s interest to show that we were not being mistreated.

The two journalists walked slowly around the courtyard, surveying us. We kept our heads down concentrating on our work. After they had made one circuit, one of the guards plucked me by the shoulder and said, “Mandela, come, you will talk now.” In those early days, I often spoke on behalf of my fellow prisoners. The prison service regulations were explicit that each prisoner was permitted to speak only for himself. This was done to negate the power of organization and to neutralize our collective strength. We objected to this role, but made little headway. We were not even permitted to use the word we when we made complaints. But during the first few years, when the authorities needed one prisoner to speak on behalf of others, that individual would be me.

I talked to the reporter, whose name was Mr. Newman, for about twenty minutes, and was candid about both prison and the Rivonia Trial. He was an agreeable fellow, and at the end of our talk, he said he would like the photographer to take my picture. I was reluctant, but in this case relented because I knew the photograph would only be published overseas, and might serve to help our cause if the article was even the least bit friendly. I told him I would agree provided Mr. Sisulu could join me. The image shows the two of us talking in the courtyard about some matter that I can no longer remember. I never saw the article or heard anything about it. The reporters were barely out of sight when the warders removed the jerseys and gave us back our hammers.

The men from the Telegraph were the first of a small stream of visitors during those early months. While the Rivonia Trial still resonated in people’s minds, the government was eager to show the international community that we were being treated properly. There were stories in the press about the inhuman conditions on the island, about how we were being assaulted and tortured. These allegations embarrassed the government, and to combat them they brought in a string of outsiders meant to rebut these critical stories.

We were briefly visited by a British lawyer who had argued for Namibian independence before the World Court, after which we were informed that a Mr. Hynning, a representative of the American Bar Association, would be coming to see us. Americans were then a novelty in South Africa, and I was curious to meet a representative of so august a legal organization.

On the day of Mr. Hynning’s visit we were called into the courtyard. The American arrived in the company of General Steyn, the commissioner of prisons, who rarely made appearances on the island. General Steyn was that unusual thing in the prison service, a polished and sophisticated man.

His suits were always of a fine quality and a fashionable cut. He was courtly, and referred to us as “gentlemen,” even doffing his hat to us, something no one else in the prison service ever did. Yet General Steyn oppressed us by omission rather than commission. He basically turned a blind eye to what was happening on the island. His habitual absence emboldened the more brutal prison officials and gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. In his most gracious manner, the general introduced our guest and said, “Gentlemen, please select your spokesman.” A number of the prisoners called out my name. General Steyn nodded in my direction, and I stood up. In contrast to General Steyn, Mr. Hynning was a heavyset, unkempt man. I thanked him for visiting us and said we were honored by his presence. I then summarized our complaints, beginning with the central and most important one, that we were political prisoners, not criminals, and that we should be treated as such. I enumerated our grievances about the food, our living conditions, and the work detail. But as I was speaking, Mr. Hynning kept interrupting me. When I made a point about the long hours doing mindless work, he declared that as prisoners we had to work and were probably lazy to boot.

When I started to detail the problems with our cells, he interjected that the conditions in backward American prisons were far worse than Robben Island, which was a paradise by comparison. He added that we had been justly convicted and were lucky not to have received the death penalty, which we probably deserved.

Mr. Hynning perspired a great deal and there were those among us who thought he was not altogether sober. He spoke in what I assumed was a southern American accent, and had a curious habit of spitting when he talked, something none of us had ever seen before.

Finally, I had heard enough, and I interrupted him, “No, sir, you misunderstand the points that I am making.” Hynning took offence that I was now contradicting him, while General Steyn watched and listened without comment. Under the circumstances, it was difficult to keep tempers down. The men were angered by Mr. Hynning’s remarks and annoyed that he had been permitted to see us at all. Normally, a visit of any kind lifted our spirits but the visit of Mr. Hynning was demoralizing. Perhaps that is what the authorities wanted. To meet someone with so impressive an affiliation and so little understanding was depressing. Hynning finally just turned and walked away without so much as a good-bye. We were not sorry to see him go. We discussed Mr. Hynning for years afterward and many of the men imitated the way he spoke to comic effect. We never heard about him again, and he certainly did not win any friends on Robben Island for the American Bar Association. (Mandela 2013, 469-472)

When it comes to take photographs of the prisoners Mandela refuses also in the name of the other prisoners on the basis of legal regulations: "As a rule, we objected to having our pictures taken in prison on the grounds that it is generally demeaning to be seen as a prisoner." His argument is legal and ethical as well based on the respect of human dignity. The visit from a reporter and a photographer from the Daily Telegraph "our first official visitors" is an example of the ambivalence of communication with the 'normal' world in a heterotopian environment. Mandela and his mates were well aware that this was a conservative newspaper. Mandela is allowed to speak "on behalf of my fellow prisoners" something the prison service regulations wanted to avoid "in order to neutralize our collective strength." Mandela stresses this linguistic regulation with the remark: "We were not even permitted to use the word we when we made complaints." And he adds immediately a sentence that acknowledges his leadership as recognized by the prison authorities: "But during the first few years, when the authorities needed one prisoner to speak on behalf of others, that individual would be me." What was the result of this meeting with the journalists? "I never saw the article or heard anything about it. The reporters were barely out of sight when the warders removed the jerseys and gave us back our hammers." Prison jerseys instead of hammers and then back to hammers. This was the kind of denigrating play to take place when communicating with the 'free press' of the 'normal society' outside Robben Island.
This kind of deceit is repeated in the case of the visit of "a British lawyer" and of  "Mr. Hynning, a representative of the American Bar Association" who arrived in the company of General Steyn, the commissioner of prisons "a polished and sophisticated man". Mandela remarks: "He was courtly, and referred to us as 'gentlemen', even doffing his hat to us, something no one else in the prison service ever did." But then, Mandela speaks out the truth: "Yet General Steyn oppressed us by omission rather than commission. He basically turned a blind eye to what was happening on the island." General Steyn spoke as a representative of the 'normal world' of Apartheid when visiting the heterotopia of Robben Island. The outcome was that "[H]is habitual absence emboldened the more brutal prison officials and gave them carte blanche to do whatever they wanted." Mandela told Mr Hynning about the "living conditions" and "the problems with our cells." Mr Hynning remark was cynical telling him "that the conditions in backward American prisons were far worse than on Robben Island, which was a paradise by comparison". Mandela interrupts him: "'No, sir, you misunderstand the points that I am making'". Mr Hynning is not amused. Mandela's conclusion: "To meet someone with so impressive an affiliation and so little understanding was depressing. Hynning finally just turned and walked away without so much as a good-bye, We were not sorry to see him go."

This is an example of Mandela's capacity of having a conversation that turns into a non-conversation, defending his dignity and the one of his "fellow prisoners." Mandela's reflection many years later is full of humour and without 'rancune':  "We discussed Mr Hynning for years afterwards and many of the men imitated the way he spoke to comic effect."


4. Beginning to Hope: Engaging in Conversations

Part Nine of Mandela's autobiography bears the title "Beginning to Hope: Engaging in Conversations" for the time between 1969  and 1980. This title shows, once more, the importance Mandela gave to free talk in a heterotopian place. Hope is rooted in engaging in conversations. Mandela's long walk to freedom is intrinsically a walk to freedom of speech. What makes his fight for freedom unique is his capacity of reflecting on what is happening when engaging in conversations. Mandela's political commitment an ethical one. It grounds in his conviction that a human world is a world in which people can talk freely to each other presupposing that each one recognizes the other as equal. We, humans, share a common world and are able to address each other beyond all differences that are relative in both senses of the word: they are not considered as excluding us from each other or even believing to be higher in a hierarchical sense. Mandela's engaging in conversations with the warders is an example about how difficult is that such basic human commonality can take place heterotopian situations. Trust und mistrust are survival strategies. He writes:

Some of the warders began to engage us in conversation. I never initiated conversations with warders, but if they addressed a question to me, I tried to answer. It is easier to educate a man when he wants to learn. Usually, these questions were posed with a kind of exasperation: “All right, Mandela, what is it you really want?” Or, “Look, you have a roof over your head and enough food, why are you causing so much trouble?” I would then calmly explain our policies to the warders. I wanted to demystify the ANC for them, to peel away their prejudices.

In 1969 a young warder arrived who seemed particularly eager to get to know me. I had heard rumours that our people on the outside were organizing an escape for me, and had infiltrated a warder onto the island who would assist me. Gradually, this fellow communicated to me that he was planning my escape. In bits and pieces he explained the plan: one night, he would drug the warders on duty at the lighthouse to allow for the landing of a boat on the beach. He would furnish me with a key to get out of our section so that I could meet the boat. On the boat I was to be equipped with underwater diving gear, which I would use to swim into the harbour at Cape Town. From Cape Town, I would be taken to a local airport and flown out of the country. I listened to the plan in its entirety and did not communicate to him how far-fetched and unreliable it sounded. I consulted with Walter, and we agreed that this fellow was not to be trusted. I never told him that I would not do it, but I never took any of the actions required to implement the plan.

He must have gotten the message, for he was soon transferred off the island. As it turned out, my mistrust was justified, for we later learned that the warder was an agent of the Bureau of State Security (BOSS), South Africa’s secret intelligence agency. The plot was that I was to be successfully taken off the island, but killed in a dramatic shootout with security forces at the airport as I tried to leave the country. The entire plan had been dreamed up by BOSS, even the rumors that reached me about the ANC’s planning an escape. It was not the last time they would try to eliminate me.

The term of a commanding officer was usually no more than three years, and we had been through several by 1970. That year, Robben Island’s commanding officer was Colonel Van Aarde, a rather amiable, harmless fellow who allowed us free rein. But at the end of the year, the authorities concluded that they wanted a different atmosphere on the island, and Colonel Piet Badenhorst was named the new C.O. of Robben Island. This was an ominous development. Badenhorst was reputed to be one of the most brutal and authoritarian officers in the entire prison service. His appointment indicated one thing: the government believed that discipline on the island was too lax, and that a strong hand was needed to keep us in line. Badenhorst would supposedly make us yearn for the days of Suitcase.

Whenever a new commanding officer was appointed, I requested a meeting with him. I did this in order to impress upon him the seriousness of our cause and also to evaluate his character. I requested a meeting with Colonel Badenhorst and was turned down. He was the first commanding officer to spurn such a meeting.

We felt the effects of his regime before we ever saw him. A number of the newer regulations regarding study and free time were immediately rescinded. It was obvious that he intended to roll back every privilege we had won over the years. Our old warders were transferred off the island and replaced by Badenhorst’s handpicked guards. They were younger, coarser men who enforced every niggling regulation, whose job was to harass and demoralize us. Within days of Badenhorst’s appointment, our cells were raided and searched; books and papers were confiscated; meals were suspended without warning; and men were jostled on the way to the quarry.

Badenhorst attempted to turn back the clock to the way the island was in the early 1960s. The answer to every question was always no. Prisoners who requested to see their lawyers were given solitary confinement instead. Complaints were completely ignored. Visits were cancelled without explanation. The food deteriorated. Censorship increased. About a week after Badenhorst arrived, we were working at the quarry one morning when, without introduction or fanfare, Badenhorst and his driver pulled up in the commander’s car. He got out and surveyed us from a distance. We paused to look at our new commander. Badenhorst returned my glance and called out, “Mandela, Jy moet jou vinger uit jou gat trek” (You must pull your finger out of your arse). I did not care for this expression at all, and without thinking, I started advancing toward Badenhorst. He was still a distance away, and before I got close he had returned to his car and driven away.

From his car, Badenhorst radioed a command to his staff, and within minutes a truck had arrived to transport us back to Section B. We were commanded to be silent in the truck, and when we arrived at the courtyard, we were ordered to stand at attention. Badenhorst appeared in front of us, pacing back and forth. He seemed incapable of uttering a sentence without including an oath or swearword. “Jou ma se moer,” was his favourite expression. “Your mother is a moer” — moer being a vulgar term for an intimate part of a woman’s anatomy.

In his guttural voice, he told us he was disgusted to have observed our laziness at the quarry. As a result, he said, he was arbitrarily dropping all of our classifications by one notch. Though we despised the classification system, most of the men had by that time risen to at least C level, where they were permitted to study. D level prisoners were not allowed to study. The authorities rued the fact that they had allowed us study privileges, and Badenhorst was determined to rectify that mistake.

Later, after my anger abated, I realized that Badenhorst’s crude remark to me at the quarry was a calculated one. He had been brought to Robben Island to restore order, and he had singled out the individual he assumed was the source of the disorder. Like a teacher who takes over a rowdy class, he sought to discipline the student he regarded as the principal troublemaker. (Mandela 2013, 542-545)

In the heteropian space of the jail there were spaces of hope. Mandela writes:

In the struggle, Robben Island was known as “the University”. This is not only because of what we learned from books, or because prisoners studied English, Afrikaans, art, geography, and mathematics, or because so many of our men, such as Billy Nair, Ahmed Kathrada, Mike Dingake, and Eddie Daniels, earned multiple degrees. Robben Island was known as “the University” because of what we learned from each other. We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses. We made a distinction between academic studies, which were official, and political studies, which were not.

Our university grew up partly out of necessity. As young men came to the island, we realized that they knew very little about the history of the ANC. Walter, perhaps the greatest living historian of the ANC, began to tell them about the genesis of the organization and its early days. His teaching was wise and full of understanding. Gradually, this informal history grew into a course of study, constructed by the High Organ, which became known as Syllabus A, involving two years of lectures on the ANC and the liberation struggle. Syllabus A included a course taught by Kathy, “A History of the Indian Struggle.” Another comrade added a history of the Coloured people. Mac, who had studied in the German Democratic Republic, taught a course on Marxism.

Teaching conditions were not ideal. Study groups would work together on the quarry and station themselves in a circle around the leader of the seminar. The style of teaching was Socratic in nature; ideas and theories were elucidated through the leaders asking and answering questions.

It was Walter’s course that was at the heart of all the education on the island. Many of the young ANC members who came to the island had no idea that the organization had even been in existence in the 1920s and 1930s. Walter guided them from the founding of the ANC in 1912 through to the present day. For many of these young men, it was the only political education they had ever received.

As these courses became known in the general section, we began to get queries from our men on the other side. This started what became a kind of correspondence course with the prisoners in the general section. The teachers would smuggle lectures over to them and they would respond with questions and comments.

This was beneficial for us as well as for them. These men had little formal education, but a great knowledge of the hardships of the world. Their concerns tended to be practical rather than philosophical. If one of the lectures stated that a tenet of socialism is 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need', we might receive a question back that said, “Yes, but what does that mean in practice? If I have land and no money, and my friend has money but no land, which of us has a greater need?” Such questions were immensely valuable and forced one to think hard about one’s views.

For a number of years, I taught a course in political economy. In it, I attempted to trace the evolution of economic man from the earliest times up to the present, sketching out the path from ancient communal societies to feudalism to capitalism and socialism. I am by no means a scholar and not much of a teacher, and I would generally prefer to answer questions than to lecture. My approach was not ideological, but it was biased in favour of socialism, which I saw as the most advanced stage of economic life then evolved by man.

In addition to my informal studies, my legal work continued. I sometimes considered hanging a name-plate outside my cell, because I was spending many hours a week preparing judicial appeals for other prisoners, though this was forbidden under prison service regulations. Prisoners from all different political stripes sought my help. South African law does not guarantee a defendant the right to legal representation, and thousands upon thousands of indigent men and women went to prison every year for lack of such representation. Few Africans could afford a lawyer, and most had no choice but to accept whatever verdict the court handed down. Many men in the general section had been sentenced without benefit of counsel, and a number of them sought me out to make an appeal. For most of these men, it was the first time they had ever dealt with an attorney.

I would receive a smuggled note from a prisoner in F or G asking for help. I would then request the particulars of the case, the charge, the evidence, and the testimony. Because of the clandestine nature of these exchanges, information would come slowly in bits and pieces. A consultation that would last no more than half an hour in my old Mandela and Tambo office might take a year or more on the island. I advised my 'clients' to write a letter to the registrar of the Supreme Court asking for a record of their case. I told the prisoner to inform the registrar that he had limited funds and would like the record at no charge. Sometimes the registrars were kind enough to supply that material gratis.

Once I had the record of the case, I could put together an appeal, usually based on some judicial irregularity such as bias, incorrect procedure, or insufficient evidence. I drafted a letter to the judge or magistrate in my own handwriting, and then sent it to the other side. Because it was a violation of regulations for me to prepare a man’s case, I would instruct the prisoner to copy the document in his own hand. If he could not write, and many prisoners could not, I told him to find someone who could.

I enjoyed keeping my legal skills sharp, and in a few cases verdicts were overturned and sentences reduced. These were gratifying victories; prison is contrived to make one feel powerless, and this was one of the few ways to move the system. Often I never met the men I worked for, and sometimes, out of the blue, a man who was serving us pap for lunch would whisper a thank you to me for the work I had done on his behalf.  (Mandela 2013, 556-558)

In Part Ten of the autobiography "Talking with the Enemy" (1980-1982) Mandela tells the story about how the 'normal world' began to change and how this change was perceived by him as an ambivalent sign of hope, based on "secret talks". He writes:

The meetings had a positive effect: I was told in the winter of 1988 that President Botha was planning to see me before the end of August. The country was still in turmoil. The government had reimposed a State of Emergency in both 1987 and 1988. International pressure mounted. More companies left South Africa. The American Congress had passed a sweeping sanctions bill.

In 1987, the ANC celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary and held a conference at the end of the year in Tanzania attended by delegates from more than fifty nations. Oliver declared that the armed struggle would intensify until the government was prepared to negotiate the abolition of apartheid. Two years before, at the ANC’s Kabwe conference in Zambia marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Freedom Charter, members of other races were elected to the National Executive Committee for the first time, and the NEC pledged that no discussions with the government could be held until all ANC leaders were released from prison.

Although violence was still pervasive, the National Party had never been stronger. In the white general election of May 1987, the Nationalists won an overwhelming majority. Worse still, the liberal Progressive Federal Party had been replaced as the official opposition by the Conservative Party, which was to the right of the Nationalists and campaigned on the theme that the government was too lenient with the black opposition.

Despite my optimism about the secret talks, it was a difficult time. I had recently had a visit from Winnie and I learned that 8115 Orlando West, the house in which we had been married and which I considered home, had been burned down by arsonists. We had lost invaluable family records, photographs, and keepsakes — even the slice of wedding cake Winnie was saving for my release. I had always thought that someday when I left prison I would be able to recapture the past when looking over those pictures and letters, and now they were gone. Prison had robbed me of my freedom but not my memories, and now I felt some enemies of the struggle had tried to rob me of even those.

I was also suffering from a bad cough that I could not seem to shake, and I often felt too weak to exercise. I had continued to complain about the dampness of my cell, but nothing had been done about it. One day, during a meeting in the visiting area with my attorney, Ismail Ayob, I felt ill and vomited. I was taken back to my cell, examined by a doctor, and I soon recovered. A few days later, however, I was in my cell after dinner when a number of warders and a doctor arrived. The physician gave me a cursory examination, and then one of the warders told me to get dressed. “We are taking you to hospital in Cape Town,” I was told. Security was tight; I went in a convoy of cars and military vehicles accompanied by at least a dozen warders. (Mandela 2013, 644-645)

Mandela regrets the loss of family records and writes: "Prison had robbed me of my freedom but not my memories, and now I felt some enemies of the struggle had tried to rob me of even those."

5. Freedom

These are the last words of Mandela's autobiography. They speak by themselves. 

In life, every man has twin obligations — obligations to his family to his parents, to his wife and children; and he has an obligation to his people, his community, his country. In a civil and humane society, each man is able to fulfil those obligations according to his own inclinations and abilities. But in a country like South Africa, it was almost impossible for a man of my birth and colour to fulfil both of those obligations. In South Africa, a man of colour who attempted to live as a human being was punished and isolated. In South Africa, a man who tried to fulfil his duty to his people was  inevitably ripped from his family and his home and was forced to live a life apart, a twilight existence of secrecy and rebellion. I did not in the beginning choose to place my people above my family, but in attempting to serve my people, I found that I was prevented from fulfilling my obligations as a son, a brother, a father, and a husband.

In that way, my commitment to my people, to the millions of South Africans I would never know or meet, was at the expense of the people I knew best and loved most. It was as simple and yet as incomprehensible as the moment a small child asks her father, “Why can you not be with us?” And the father must utter the terrible words: “There are other children like you, a great many of them . . .” and then one’s voice trails off. I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free — free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.

It was only when I began to learn that my boyhood freedom was an illusion, when I discovered as a young man that my freedom had already been taken from me, that I began to hunger for it. At first, as a student, I wanted freedom only for myself, the transitory freedoms of being able to stay out at night, read what I pleased, and go where I chose. Later, as a young man in Johannesburg, I yearned for the basic and honourable freedoms of achieving my potential, of earning my keep, of marrying and having a family — the freedom not to be obstructed in a lawful life.

But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was this desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk. I am no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man, but I found that I could not even enjoy the poor and limited freedoms I was allowed when I knew my people were not free. Freedom is indivisible; the chains on any one of my people were the chains on all of them, the chains on all of my people were the chains on me.

It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed.

We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista    that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. (Mandela 2013, 749-751)

Conclusion: "The Long Walk Continues"

After leaving the heterotope in 1990, Mandela's long walk continues:

Nelson Mandela walked out of the prison gates on 11 February 1990 into a country desperately in need of a solution to its age-old problems – problems that had caused incalculable harm. He had an idea of the world into which he was being released, but it was an incomplete picture gleaned from censored news reports and smuggled confidences towards the end of his incarceration.

Once outside, the abstract became concrete and tangible; the dust and the noise and the blood became real. Every day, during the process of the negotiations, he rubbed shoulders with men and women, some of whom were sponsors of the carnage. They smiled at him, deferring to age and something unquantifiable in a man who had emerged from incarceration unbowed and in whose eyes they saw reflected the enormity of their deeds. In the eyes of his own people, he saw the pain of trying to make sense of it all. [...]

Mandela was seventy-five years old when he became the first president of a democratic South Africa. His mentor, Walter Sisulu, whom he affectionately honoured by his clan name of Xhamela, was eighty-one; his other old friend and confidant, Oliver Sampo, who had returned from exile after three decades, had died a year earlier. Many of the time-tested comrades, some of whom had been on Robben Island with him, had also aged and it was clear that, even though they had survived prison, the clock was ticking.

He might have been bereft of the counsel of some of his oldest comrades, but he was bolstered by the knowledge that the millions of South Africans who had voted for the first time on 26 and 27 April 1994 were behind him. The resounding mandate given to the ANC emboldened him to seer the ship of state with confidence.

He wanted to resolve as many of South Africa's problems as possible in the little time he had. It was part of the reason he kept up such a punishing schedule over the course of his presidency. But he also recognised that prison had made him resilient and had taught him that since he could not control time, he needed to embrace it and let it work for him.

Prison, a place of punishment, instead became a place where he was able to find himself. A place where he could think, indulging in the one thing that gave him a sense of self. And it was, of course, in prison that his vision for rebuilding South Africa into a new democratic nation was born. (Mandela and Langa 2017, 287-288)

In times of coronavirus it is worth to remember Mandela's words at the Youth Forum on HIV/AIDS at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in September 22, 2003:

As important as medicine and treatment are, people living with HIV/AIDS need even more importantly love, support and compassion.
HIV/AIDS seriously threatens our future.
But I want to leave you with a message of hope and positiveness. The fight against HIV/AIDS offers us the opportunity to once more reach deeply into that pool of humane caring and human compassion that characterised us as a people in our struggle against Apartheid. Once more, our people from all backgrounds, genders or age groups shall rally to a call to come together to save our nation from destruction.
And you, the youth, shall give the lead!
(Mandela 2003)

"'The long walk continues!'" is the last sentence of Mandela's speech at the final sitting of the first democratically elected parliament, Houses of Parliament, Cape Town, 26 March 1999. (Mandela and Langa 2017,  293)



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Last update: January 10, 2022


Copyright © 2020 by Rafael Capurro, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. and international copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the author is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.

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