tribute helen sasman

I first met Nelson Mandela in 1967 on Robben Island, where he had been a prisoner for three years of the life sentence that he had been given at the Rivonia Trial. I had read alarming reports about the harsh treatment political prisoners were receiving on the Island. I used my clout as an MP to get permission from Piet Pelser, the Minister of Justice and Prisons, to visit the prison.

When I met Mandela in the single cell section, which was reserved for political prisoners, he greeted me cordially. We shook hands and he told me of the hardships they were experiencing, particularly as the warder in charge had a swastika tattooed on the back of his hand. "This man is very tough on us when we're in the quarry breaking stones," said Mandela. Their clothes were very inadequate during the cold winters on the Island. They slept on floor mats. The letters they were allowed to receive were inadequate, as were the visits from relatives. The next visit I was allowed to Robben Island was seven years later and conditions had improved. Thereafter, I was permitted to visit Mandela when he was moved to prisons in Cape Town. Throughout these years I made speeches in Parliament asking for the release of him and his fellow political prisoners. I was convinced that this was the man who would be the key player if there was to be racial reconciliation in South Africa. Finally, President PW Botha stated in Parliament that he would release Mandela if the ANC renounced violence. Mandela refused the offer, as it did not include his fellow prisoners, and his daughter Zindzi read out this message to a large crowd in Soweto.

Mandela and the other political prisoners were finally released in 1990 when FW de Klerk had replaced Botha as Prime Minister and announced that he was going to reform South Africa into a democracy. A few days later Mandela phoned me to invite me to visit him at his Soweto home. It gave me much emotional pleasure to be fondly greeted by him. Indeed, my impression from that first visit has been more than justified. Mandela had become the most sought after leader in the world.