The Post's Steven Mufson, author of “Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa,” explains how Nelson Mandela was initially ahead of his time in his politics. (The Washington Post)

During the two years I spent in South Africa during the mid-1980s, when the government declared two separate states of emergency, Nelson Mandela was in Pollsmoor Prison. Yet his absence had a special kind of presence. His image, once banned, was displayed on T-shirts and posters. A group of foreign leaders, the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, came to visit Mandela and urged the government to negotiate.

The government tried to vilify Mandela, calling him a communist — and indeed, the South African Communist Party had overlapping members with Mandela’s African National Congress. But people who knew Mandela in prison described him in very different terms. He was a lawyer, not a revolutionary.

There were clues about what a free Mandela might be like. Many prisoners whose sentences ran out talked about Robben Island prison, where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail, as “Mandela University.” Mandela himself made use of the restricted permission granted to him to write three letters a month to make contact both with supporters and with whites and blacks who belonged to other groups. He wrote a Christmas card to the The Sowetan newspaper editors who were sympathetic to the Pan African Congress, an ANC rival; a note about family matters to the Transkei homeland leader vilified by the ANC; a letter to another ANC rival, Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, about why he wanted to postpone a meeting. Mandela, master of the small gesture, was already working on reconciliation.

At some point, the government started to realize that Mandela’s stature might be an asset. A leading Afrikaner businessman told me in 1987 that he had been trying to convince leaders of the white National Party that if they doubted their ability to hold on to power, they should negotiate an end to apartheid as early as possible, before their position eroded. By that time, the rate of no-shows for military duty was rising. There was a modest but steady stream of capital flight. Millions of blacks disregarded pass laws and residency restrictions and were building self-governing structures and associations in the townships where the government’s control was waning.

Mandela, ever the sensible-sounding lawyer, said he would not negotiate from jail; he said he had to be released unconditionally before any negotiations could take place. He needed to consult his fellow ANC members, among other things. But he couched it with these memorable words: “Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”


Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba, led the struggle to replace South Africa's apartheid regime with a multi-racial democracy. See key moments in his life.


Listen to an excerpt of Mandela's famous speech.