Sakumzi “ Saki” Macozoma was 20 when he was sent to Robben Island. It was November 1977, and he had been arrested in Port Elizabeth the previous year after protesting the inferior education of Black South Africans. “As a student leader, I was considered a radical instigator,” he says. That eventually got him confined to Robben’s isolation cells for most of his five-year sentence. There were no recreational facilities in isolation, so Macozoma and other inmates kept there were allowed to exercise in the section of the prison where Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and other senior prisoners were housed. It was referred to as the “oldies” section. Macozoma and some others from isolation became “young oldies.”

“They adopted us,” Macozoma remembers. The young inmates provided the older men with valuable news of the outside. Mandela, Sisulu and Mbeki were from the same district as Macozoma’s grandparents. “There was so much they all wanted to know about what was happening in the country,” he says, “particularly, what caused the 1976 explosion [Soweto] when all indications were that the apartheid regime had succeeded [in erasing] the history of resistance from the consciousness of the people.”
“My fondest memory of that time is when they celebrated my 21st birthday,” recalls Macozoma. “[And how] we used to watch movies together every weekend.” He also remembers how he often had to whisper explanations of what was going on in the movies to Mandela or Sisulu because they had been in prison for so long and missed out on so much—not just because they were locked up but also because they had very little contact with the outside world and their mail was censored.  

Inside, they played tennis, soccer, Scrabble, draughts and chess. “Madiba [Mandela’s Xhosa clan name] and the older leaders did not play but supported their sides passionately,” says Macozoma. “Only [Andimba Herman] Toivo ya Toivo, the founder of SWAPO [South West Africa People’s Organization] of Namibia, insisted on playing soccer and often kicked both the ball and the man when he managed to connect.”

Macozoma’s relationship with Mandela blossomed during those prison years and continued after Macozoma was released in 1982. In 1983, he was offered a scholarship to study at Boston University but was reluctant to go because he did not like President Ronald Reagan’s administrative policy toward South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement [Reagan opposed economic sanctions against the country]. Macozoma did not want to leave the trenches of the struggle at such a critical time, so he sought Mandela’s counsel. “He said that I should go to the United States for two reasons, Macozoma recounts. “The first one, he said, is that ‘if you want to educate a capitalist, send him to the Soviet Union; but if you want to educate a socialist, send him to the States. Neither system works.’ The second reason, he said, is that ‘we are going to win against apartheid and we need leaders to run our country, not generals.’ So I went to Boston.”

Macozoma stood with Mandela when the elder statesman was released from prison and spoke at Cape Town City Hall in 1990. He helped with the speech and worked for him and for the African National Congress as head of media, a speechwriter and a member of Mandela’s traveling team between 1990 and 1992. Reflecting on that time, Macozoma says that witnessing Mandela’s patience was one of those odd blessings of being imprisoned. “Prison is a great place for reading and reflecting on strategy and tactics of a revolution,” says Macozoma. “It was no exception for Madiba. I think that he learned his great patience in this time.”

     Macozoma believes Mandela is a “distillation” of a long tradition of politics. Its essence was that they fought the evil of apartheid and not against the White people who invented and profited from it. “I am convinced, though, that if Mandela had not spent so much time in prison, there would have evolved a different personality,” he says. “It would not have been less heroic and reconciliatory, but it would be different.”

Ambassador Charles Stith, former U.S. envoy to Tanzania during the Clinton administration, shares that view of the significance of Mandela’s prison years. “From prison, Mandela galvanized a nation to overcome a dark past of division and to seek a brighter future as a multiracial democracy,” he says. “Having first visited South Africa in 1982, I know firsthand how wide the divide was among its people and what they had to overcome. Mandela was the personification of the determination to have a better tomorrow.”

Sylvester Monroe is a senior editor at Marketplace, the L.A.-based public radio show. He covered Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 for Time magazine.