'Faceless and imprisoned yet we all knew his name'
South African native Mike Van Niekerk recalls the struggle to release a man, known only from a grainy black and white photo.
For so many years, he was a presence without a face. We didn't know what he looked like, in the era before the World Wide Web, because his face was banned from reproduction.
Perhaps that added, in a way that the apartheid state hadn't intended, to his mystique. The National Party government had done its best to obliterate a generation of opposition politics from the 50s and 60s, imprisoning scores, sending hundreds into exile, censoring any mention of the political struggle and its players.
The legions of anti-apartheid campaigners gone before were unknown to me as a white kid growing up in a middle-class suburb of 1970s Cape Town, in a world cocooned from the hard realities of race politics. Only the name Nelson Mandela continued to resonate. He was faceless and he was voiceless yet everyone was deeply aware of him, imprisoned on that island just off the coast from Cape Town.
Later, in the politically active 1980s, when I took overseas visitors on hikes up the mountain which towers over the city, we'd look down on Robben Island, tucked in a curve of the coast that stretched up to the African horizon and it was if his presence there dominated the landscape.
As a student activist I first saw the face of a young, confident Mandela on poorly printed underground posters calling for his release. We pasted them around the city under cover of darkness. The authorities ripped them down within hours.
More thrillingly I later got to see the famous black and white ITN interview recorded in 1961 in the lounge room of my future father-in-law, while he was on the run before the Rivonia Treason Trial that sent him to jail. Again, his brilliantly reasoned intellect was combined with a rangy, youthful physique.
For those who knew him only from the iconic young face of underground samizdat it was something of a shock then to see the older man who emerged live on television on February 11, 1990, hand in hand with his then wife Winnie. For perhaps 90 per cent of the South African population, it was the first time they had any idea of what he looked like.
There was a hair-raising sense of unfolding historical destiny as he walked out of those prison gates. The fact that an hysterically excited nation was waiting to greet him said so much about how the promise of his leadership, held in check for so long, had communicated itself beyond the walls of his prison to a people who had never seen him or heard him speak.
How right we all were about the promise. Looking back on what Mandela achieved in the next 10 years, it seems a miracle. South Africa is today basically a stable and peaceful nation. It could have just so easily have been mired in catastrophic violence and economic collapse. That is his greatest legacy.
*Footnote: My father-in-law, Ted Gillfillan, born four years after Mandela a few kilometers away from his village in the remote Eastern Cape region, died 10 minutes after him, in Johannesburg.