A rapt audience of students and faculty listened in the Education Building Oct. 18 as Eddie Daniels, South African freedom fighter and former prison mate of Nelson Mandela, described growing up in racially segregated South Africa and his harrowing experiences in the notorious Robben Island prison, where he was held for 15 years.
“How many years did the Holocaust last?” he asked. “Apartheid was a Holocaust that went on for over 300 years.”
“For 300 years, the black child was inferior and the white child was superior,” he said. The son of a white father inherited his father’s wealth and property. “But the black farm worker’s child, what does he inherit? He inherits ignorance and poverty. Part of his father’s salary was paid in liquor, and we’re still under that legacy of alcoholism.”
Despite the monumental sacrifices made by Daniels and his fellow anti-apartheid activists, the 78-year-old champion of the oppressed, simply dressed in slacks and a zippered track jacket, told the students, “Robben Island is but a symbol, and we were just ordinary people who fought against apartheid.”
Downplaying their contributions, he said, “We were weak compared with the apartheid machine, but the world assisted us. Without the world’s help, we would have fought a war of attrition that would have dragged on and on, and we would have ended up in the same deep, dark place.”
He thanked the students, whose parents and grandparents were part of the generation that helped end the inhuman treatment of black Africans and helped launch South Africa into being the “economic engine of Africa.”
Robben Island, once the symbol of tyranny and oppression, “is now a symbol of reconciliation and the triumph of the spirit over brutality.”
A new era
“Yesterday, Africa was considered a hopeless state—no longer,” he said. Things are looking up in southern Africa, he added. Whereas Namibia, South Africa and Angola had all been at war—“no longer,” he said, noting that the Democratic Republic of Congo, a vast country of tremendous wealth, recently held elections following the end of a long civil war backed by other nations seeking to exploit the conflict for their own gain.
“Hopefully, it will become stable and the hundreds of thousands of refugees will go home, which will take tremendous pressure off the infrastructure of South Africa.”
South Africa now needs skills and investments to help it achieve its potential, he said, encouraging the BGSU students to continue with their educations so they can play a part in the future of their own country.
The fight begins
“I was born in a highly impoverished area,” he said, “where for a child to attain adulthood was considered lucky. I survived.” Since childhood, he had realized that the suffering of decent people at the hands of thugs was a result of the social conditions brought about by apartheid.
Though fair-skinned enough to pass for a “colored” person, which would have meant an entirely different set of circumstances for him, Daniels said he recalled his slave ancestors and “I’ve always claimed this identity.”
He worked against apartheid by attending every march and demonstration but refused to join any group that pitted one race against another. He finally found the Liberal Party of South Africa. “They were nonracial and anti-government, and there I met people of character and integrity.”
The group tried to oppose the system by invading white-only beaches, shops and urban areas, where blacks were not even allowed to live. He related how black South Africans had to come to urban areas to find work but had to live in the surrounding forests. Their wives and babies followed, living outdoors, but were in peril of discovery with each baby’s cry that could draw the attention of the police.
The Liberal Party members “finally realized we had to take firmer measures against the government,” he said. From area gold mines, they procured explosives that, in an attempt to destabilize the economy, they used to blow up the heavy cables carrying electricity to factories and the signal cables for the railways.
“Eventually, the long arm of the law caught up with us and we were arrested,” he said. He had no illusions about what awaited him, having taken affidavits from many people who had survived prison.
Recalling his boat ride to Robben Island, alone in the gloom of the stinking hold, “I was frightened,” he said. “Possibly that was my worst moment of many worst moments.”
There followed many years of privation, isolation, back-breaking work sledge hammering blocks of slate into gravel, mental torture and witnessing the even worse treatment of his fellow prisoner Mlambo, a black intellectual who endured unspeakable torments by his captor but who retained his dignity with great courage.
One day as he was working, he looked up to see a large man approaching, whom he knew well as the leader of the most important anti-apartheid group. “I said, ‘Hello, Mr. Mandela,’ and he said, ‘The name is Nelson. Welcome.’ And we shook hands.”
Another day, Daniels said, he was very ill and lying on the floor of his cell when Mandela, after asking the other prisoners, “Where’s Danny?” came in to comfort him and carried Daniels’ bucket outside with his own. “He was the most powerful leader of the national group, yet he came down to my level to comfort me. That’s the kind of person he is,” Daniels said.
While he had refused since childhood to speak Afrikaans, seeing it as the language of the oppressor, Mandela was studying it. “He said to me, ‘Danny, we must learn to speak the language of the oppressors. When we come into our own one day, we need to be able to speak to them without translators.’”
The years dragged on, the prisoners one another’s only consolation. Daniels recalled an evening when the prison’s boilers broke down and the electricity went out. “I went out into the prison yard and there I saw the stars for the first time in 10 years—beautiful stars, glorious stars.”
When he finally got out, amazed by even the colors of the world (“We saw gray in there”), he continued his fight for equal rights for blacks. He still had three banning orders against him and was not allowed to meet with others except if a doctor came to his home. Again he defied the rules by marrying his wife, who was white, and whom he said insisted on coming to him despite his warnings to preserve her own safety.
“We were always on the run from the police,” he said. “When we decided to marry, I said, ‘This is my country and I’m getting married here.’” Seven years later, when apartheid laws were expunged from the books, the couple married again, this time legally.
The end of apartheid
But when those laws changed on April 27, 1994, and black South Africans received their enfranchisement, “that’s all they received,” he said. Daniels still works for equality in a country where segregation had become part of the social fabric.
He credits Mandela with providing the vision for reconciliation instead of retribution, which many called for. “He could justifiably have said ‘I want revenge,’ but he did not take the easy way out. And when he had his enemies at his feet, he could have smited them. Instead, he embraced them.
“Because of his stance, he saved South Africa.”
Dr. Patty Kubow, educational foundations and inquiry, who met Daniels during her recent sabbatical in South Africa and arranged his visit to BGSU, said he inspired many students to think about how they could actually make a difference in the world. “You could see, through their questions and comments later, the light bulbs going on.”