Wednesday 21 February 2018

Emer O'Kelly: The story of one man's long journey to victory

In just four years, Nelson Mandela, forced labourer on Robben Island, had conquered the world stage

Palestinians light candles and hold placards bearing images of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem
Palestinians light candles and hold placards bearing images of former South African President Nelson Mandela outside the Church of Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem

Emer O'Kelly

At 10 o'clock on Thursday evening, a black and white image from the Sixties filled the television screen: ugly, bloated, the eyes too close together, the woman spoke: "They want to live apart; it's right. They make very good servants." The white South African woman had been plucked from archival oblivion because the man who had defeated her and her vilely misguided ilk was dead.

The road to his victory had been as close as a man can come to the biblical Via Dolorosa. Nelson Mandela was 44 years old when in 1962 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. And for the next 27 years, the world knew only one image: that of the vibrant dark-haired lawyer in early middle age.

When he walked free in 1990 he was unrecognisable: stooped, in failing health, and prematurely aged. But his smile was huge: that of an enraptured child. Another man might have wept: Mandela was unable to. With devastating tragic irony his tear ducts had been burned out while working on the salt flats of Robben Island prison.

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