Nelson Mandela is greatest public figure of his generation

In March 1981, our family arrived in the Kingdom of Swaziland, next door to South Africa, to spend the next five years serving on staff with the Peace Corps. The then-king of Swaziland called his nation "the lamb in the lion's mouth." Apartheid was the law of the land in South Africa.

Nelson Madiba Mandela had been on Robben Island since June 1964. His books and photos were banned. Mandela was on the United States terror watch list. Sen. Jesse Helms was the most popular U.S. senator in South Africa.

A Peace Corps volunteer passing through South Africa from Botswana to Swaziland was detained by the South African police for three days because they found Mandela's writings in his backpack.

On our first trip to Cape Town, we stood on the top of Table Mountain, and I looked through a coin-operated viewer to see Robben Island. It sits in the cold, rough Atlantic Ocean. Not far to the east is the blue, warm Indian Ocean. The contrast was clear. Years later, I stood quietly outside Mandela's tiny, 2-by-2.5 meter cell in awe.

Mandela was the heart of the South African people, even if he was not in the hearts of all South Africans.


Madiba was a brother to many and was the greatest public figure of my lifetime. He has now returned to be with his best friend, Walter Sisulu.

Edward Rowley


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