'I could see Robben Island from my kitchen window, a grey mass across choppy waters. By that time – the late 1980s – South Africa was well into a State of Emergency and Nelson Mandela had been transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, 20 minutes drive from where I was living.
Rumours circulated constantly about the famous inmate: he was allowed out from time to time; he was unfamiliar, they said, with the new fangled cars; he was ill; or he was about to be released. The South African security forces were increasingly brutal in their attempts to put down spontaneous riots in the townships, especially at funerals, of which there were many.
I visited Pollsmoor regularly, arriving just after dawn with all the other women, huddling in the wind by the gates, hoping that the guards would that day be less capricious in letting us in. Inside, unlike many British prisons, there were long dark corridors and eerie silence.
At that time I also spent weeks travelling with a group from Soweto, trying to determine the incidence of poverty and malnutrition in the so-called homelands, or Bantustans. The revelations were truly shocking – aged grandmothers with meagre pensions taking care of six or seven very young children whose parents were living and working in distant townships. Some villages were less remote and less fractured than others; some were in far away and freezing uplands, where entire families of grandmothers and tiny children stayed in bed all day simply to keep warm. Others, who had been forcibly removed and dumped in near desert close to the Botswana border when Cape Town had been cleared in the 1970s, carved out some sort of existence with the help of tireless missionaries. Malnutrition in children was in some cases almost as severe as that I had recorded a few years earlier during the Ethiopian famine of 1984.
I met those recently released from detention – young girls who could have been our daughters and who had survived terrible ordeals without “breaking”, as they said. But the toll on their physical and mental states lasted much, much longer. One young girl told me that her courage in confronting her Afrikaner interrogators only arrived when her anger outstripped her fear. “The worst you can do is kill me”, she told she had said to them, “and you probably will”.
Every day during those times of emergency, helicopters hovered low and threateningly over the lush suburbs of Cape Town, escorting vans carrying political prisoners to and from the courts. I sat in the public galleries of courts and watched prisoners, some of whom could barely walk due to having been so relentlessly tortured, come before the judges.
This was in 1987: 24 years after Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned following the Rivonia trials; three years before he was fully released on 11 February 1990.
In 1994 I, with millions of others, wept at the sight of queues forming before dawn and snaking for miles to vote in that country’s first free, fair and democratic election. It was for this that Nelson Mandela sacrificed the greater part of his adult life.
Today we pay tribute to his leadership, exerted by means of moral force rather than by politics. The loss of Nelson Mandela is not merely the loss of a great man who achieved great things but of a standard of morality and courage that this world desperately needs. We must all strive to keep that standard alive.'
Image: House of Lords 2013/Photography by Roger Harris