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Anti-Apartheid Heroes Return in Triumph : South Africa: Mandela, 1,200 other ex-prisoners reunited on bleak island where they plotted their freedom.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They arrived the first time chained hand to foot, branded as terrorists and banished to this bleak Atlantic island by a ruthless regime determined to crush dissent and uphold white supremacy.

They returned in triumph Friday in an emotional reunion of about 1,200 former political prisoners, free men all in a free South Africa now largely led by the alumni of this infamous penitentiary.

A few struggled in wheelchairs, hobbled on crutches or were bent with age. Some wore frayed shirts and tattered pants. Others came in suits as doctors, lawyers, provincial premiers, members of Parliament and Cabinet ministers.

Then there was the most famous inmate of all, President Nelson Mandela.

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“We have come to say these are the men and women who have liberated South Africa,” Mandela said after leading a march to the lime quarry where he did hard labor for 13 of his 18 years here. His eyes were permanently damaged by the quarry’s stinging grit and blinding white glare.

“We have also come to celebrate the human spirit which enabled us to face some of the most brutal abuses of human rights,” Mandela added. “I only regret that there are so many who brought about this day but did not live to see the new South Africa.”

Mandela was freed five years ago today from Victor Verster Prison, after being incarcerated 27 years in all. His release was the beginning of the end of the oppressive apartheid regime. The death knell came in the country’s first all-race elections last April.

Mandela trudged across the quarry Friday under a blazing sun and blue sky.

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He lifted a four-pound hammer and--slowly at first, then faster as a lost skill returned--pounded a steel chisel into a huge boulder of soft lime.

When he finished, other former prisoners rushed forward with pickaxes. Singing a baritone call-and-response spiritual to mark time, they attacked a dozen other lumps of lime.

The haunting music and the metronome chink of metal on rock echoed in the pit as they gathered the shards for a series of memorial cairns.

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The occasion was the start of a three-day conference to determine the future of Robben Island, which still houses 760 convicted criminals.

Many former inmates said they hope a museum, or a peace center, can be built here to spotlight the crimes of apartheid and celebrate the battle against it.

But the future was forgotten on a day that commemorated the pain of the struggle. A few wept, but most laughed and hugged one another. Not one sounded bitter.

“We brought light to a dark place,” said Walter Sisulu, 83, Mandela’s best friend and fellow inmate. “We were united as prisoners. And we were determined to unite South Africa. That sustained us.”

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Set in churning seas eight miles off Cape Town, Robben Island was first used as a Dutch prison in the 17th Century, and later became a dumping ground for so-called lunatics and lepers. Only a handful ever escaped.

The National Party’s white regime started shipping political foes here in 1960, hoping to silence them forever.

About 3,000 anti-apartheid activists eventually were sentenced to the kidney-shaped purgatory of rock and sand.

Many of the first political prisoners, faceless and forgotten until now, were recognized only when they returned Friday.

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“I was so sick, and the warders beat us all the time,” recalled James Comani, 74, one of the earliest inmates. His spirit and body broken by his nine years here, he never found a job after his release in 1971.

“I never believed this day would come,” he whispered as he shuffled down the rocky beach, collecting souvenir seashells.

Apartheid ruled behind the prison’s thick gray walls. None of the guards were black; none of the prisoners were white.

Ahmed Kathrada, classified under the racial laws as an Indian, arrived in June, 1964, with Mandela and six other black leaders of the African National Congress. All were convicted in the famed Rivonia treason trial and were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

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“I was the youngest, and the only non-African,” said Kathrada, now an adviser to Mandela. “But I was given better clothing and better food. I was given long pants and shoes, but they only had shorts and sandals. It was winter, bitter cold, yet there was this discrimination.”

Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” grimly described the group’s single cells in Section B, his home for nearly two decades.

“I could walk the length of my cell in three paces,” he wrote. “When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side.”

On Friday, the former prisoners crowded into Mandela’s cell--emptied for the afternoon of its current inmate--and lined up to pose for pictures by the thick iron bars. Others stared silently at their own cells.

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“My father died while I was here,” said Anthony Xaba, 62, who served 25 years here and is now a local ANC official. “My mother died while I was here. They didn’t let me go to the funeral. They didn’t even give me the letter with the news.”

Punishment was harsh for even minor infractions.

Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, then a rebel leader in what is now independent Namibia, was severely beaten and put in solitary confinement for 16 months for refusing a warder’s order.

“They let me out half an hour each day to exercise, bathe and wash my clothes,” he recalled. “During the day, all I could do was walk back and forth. The cell was too cold and wet to sit.”

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A few recalled the good times. Tokyo Sexwale, now premier of the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, met and married his wife, then a visiting legal aide, during his 13 years’ incarceration.

“The system wanted to dehumanize us,” he said. “But I fell in love. I showed them I was human. They could not take that away.”

In many ways, Robben Island was crucial to the anti-apartheid battle. Led by Mandela and Sisulu, the prison turned into a center of learning. Study groups flourished, and inmates taught one another everything from the ABCs to advanced economic theory in what became known as Mandela University.

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“This was the training school for the new government,” said Ngcola Hempe, now a union negotiator.

Moreover, political groups banned in South Africa operated openly here.

Mandela’s ANC recruited steadily as inmates flooded in from the Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement and other rival groups, especially after black townships were convulsed with violence after the Soweto riots of 1976.

“Most of the things I know, most of the ideas I have, I learned here,” explained Saki Macozomoa, a Black Consciousness stalwart who is now an ANC member of Parliament. “You had to defend your politics in the courtyard each morning. It was very intense intellectually.”

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By late afternoon, the excitement had given way to weariness for many of the former prisoners. Soon they boarded a navy supply ship to head home as the gray gates of Robben Island clanged shut again.

Sexwale peered out over the sea. “We have left a substantial part of our lives here, especially our youth,” he said. “We have left part of our souls here.”


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