In prison, Mandela continued to support the resistance movement. In 1985, he refused President P.W. Botha's offer to be released if he denounced protesters who used any form of violence.
Fortunately, the political atmosphere has calmed down today, at least to some extent.
In his autobiography, "Long Walk To Freedom," Mandela expresses the highest respect for Bram Fischer, the prominent Afrikaner lawyer who could have held a very high position in the apartheid government.
Fischer was the main lawyer representing Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other anti-apartheid activists during the Rivonia trial, He saved them from being sentenced to death.
After the trial was over, Fischer himself was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 1966, getting released shortly before he died from cancer in May 1975.
"As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his own heritage and be ostracized by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself," Mandela wrote. "I fought only against injustice, not my own people."
Promoting forgiveness and redemption, Mandela played a remarkable role bringing South Africans together. Three of his former prison guards at Robben Island sat on the stage with him when he was inaugurated president in May 1994.
In June 1995, Mandela enthusiastically supported the Springboks, the national rugby team hosting the World Cup in Johannesburg. Wearing a Springbok jersey, Mandela was cheered by 62,000 fans, most of them white. The Springboks then won the World Cup against New Zealand's heavily favored team.
Visiting South Africa
The most startling part of our visit was driving from the Cape Town Airport to Stellenbosch. We passed huge townships with tens of thousands of homes built from scrap metal by desperately poor South Africans.
I had seen photographs of those townships for years. To actually see them, and to meet people living there, was stunning.
During our trip, I got to do something I fantasized about for years when we visited Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
Mandela and his fellow prisoners routinely faced exhausting work in the island's lime quarries. Mandela was allowed to see just one visitor, and mail just one letter, every six months.
When Sarah and I visited the prison, I walked over to his tiny cell and kissed its metal bars.
Among our souvenirs from that day is a key chain with Mandela wading along a beach with six penguins. Robben Island and the southern Cape are home to a major population of beautiful African penguins -- a species whose future is endangered.
When Mandela left prison, he said, "The destruction caused by apartheid on our sub-continent is incalculable. The fabric of family life of millions of my people has been shattered. Millions are homeless and unemployed. Our economy lies in ruins and our people are embroiled in political strife."
His successors -- Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma -- fail to meet his standards in fighting for justice and reform. Both negotiated questionable government contracts, especially defense deals, and became involved in political corruption.
Economic apartheid still exists. The average white family makes five times the income the average black family does.
Mandela's heroic "Long Walk To Freedom" is far from over. But his courage and integrity will continue to inspire people in South Africa and around the world.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjny...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.