South African freedom fighter Eddie Daniels considers Nelson Mandela “one of the greatest persons to walk the face of the Earth.”
Daniels spoke not as historian but as a prison mate of the man who later was elected the country’s first black president in 1994.
After apartheid was abolished beginning in 1990 with Mandela’s release from prison, Daniels said, Mandela was a calming figure and rejected calls for revenge against those responsible for the oppression of blacks.
“He could have smited them, instead he embraced them,” Daniels said Friday at Union College.
Daniels is light-skinned but was classified “coloured” under the apartheid system due to his mixed ancestry. He grew up in poverty in District Six, which was a diverse area of Cape Town, South Africa. Races and cultures lived together freely there, angering the apartheid government, which ordered the entire district bulldozed.
Growing up, he saw skin color made a difference.
“If you are a white person in South Africa during apartheid, you are one of the most privileged citizens in all the world,” he said. They had access to the best schools and their choice of jobs.
Blacks were not allowed freedom of movement and were subject to torment by whites, according to Daniels, who became politically active and protested to change segregation policies.
“I was ostracized as a teenager because I spoke up at political parties against the apartheid government,” he said.
He joined the Liberal Party’s African Resistance Movement. “There I meet people of integrity, of dignity, of courage,” he said.
However, the group wasn’t making much progress with its demonstrations.
“We were kicked out, arrested, beaten up and we were getting nowhere fast,” he said.
The group shifted to violence and made bombs to blow up signal cables for railways and the electric grid for factories. This continued on for three years until, as Daniels puts it, “Lady Luck” ran out and he and his colleagues were arrested.
Despite being tortured, he refused to give up names of others in the movement. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison at Robben Island, which he called “a place of pain and fear, anger and terror” with its harsh living conditions.
“I was frightened, very frightened. I was all alone. I had no one to share my feelings with,” he said.
However, prison turned out to be blessing. While incarcerated, Daniels earned two bachelor’s degrees and met “the most beautiful people” including Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress.
Daniels recalled one time when he was feeling ill and couldn’t leave his cell. Mandela asked: “Where’s Danny?”
He came to visit Daniels, which struck him. There was Mandela, a renowned national figure, coming to see him.
“He came down to help me in more ways than one,” he said.
Daniels ended his talk with the poem “Invictus,” with its concluding lines “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
He said nations such as the United States put pressure on South Africa to end apartheid. He encouraged the students in attendance to control their destiny and put their education to good use.
“You can make the world a better place. The world is sick; the world is suffering.”
Students enjoyed Daniels’ talk, which was part of Union College’s Presidential Forum on Diversity series.
“It’s important for people to stop for a moment and realize why certain changes have happened and who’s responsible,” said senior Andrew Vinales of the Bronx.