Consider that prison life taught him how institutions shape human behavior. As a banished group that formed a parallel community on Robben Island, he and his fellow prisoners demonstrated the virtues of caring, collaboration and cooperation. As captives, they fell into a remarkable social experiment with different people from different political persuasions and religions. While Robben Island was reserved for non-white political prisoners, the apartheid government treated the prisoners as they were treated in the larger society. The fabricated distinctions of Bantu, Asian/Indian and Colored mattered. Foods were rationed or denied, clothing stipulations and other privileges were handed out on the basis of racial “hierarchy.” Black prisoners stood to lose the most, and treated as “boys” — they wore shorts, were denied bread and meat, and given smaller quantities of other provisions. The hope was that these delineations would keep self-interest and competition between them alive, and alliances at bay.
The reality proved contrary. The prisoners learned to share with those who had less. Ahmed Kathrada, one of the co-defendants in the Rivonia trial, told me how much Mandela cared for fellow prisoners, how committed he was to educating young men in prison, and how he worked tirelessly for the release of elderly prisoners. Mandela even encouraged the prison staff to further their education, convinced that education was key to a deeper awareness of self and others. Ignorance, he knew, was the worst form of imprisonment. This explained the circulation of Shakespeare, and other classics, wrapped in Hindu greeting cards in prison.
Mandela’s intimacies with whites as friends and warders also helped him see fundamental aspects of human goodness and impoverishment — a privilege most blacks and whites were deprived of under apartheid.
Yet Mandela was flexible. He understood that societies and causes are metamorphic because of human caprice and dynamism. Life in prison enabled him to reflect on white fears and anxieties, particularly those of the Afrikaaners who were engaged in a covenant with their God to build an outpost for civilization in Southern Africa. He understood their perceived threat for survival as settlers and worked hard to assuage their fears. Mandela assured them — and all white South Africans — that the heart that practiced ubuntu was a capacious space.