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Anti-Apartheid Activist Shares Stories

From Robben Island to a Free Life

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Student Nonaliti (Nali) Wa Ngugi, who grew up in South Africa, was glad to meet Eddie Daniels, South African freedom fighter who had been imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.

By Sandra Seitz

One moment said it all, when Eddie Daniels came off the dais and hugged student Nonaliti (Nali) Wa Ngugi, who grew up in South Africa.

“It’s nice to meet a legend,” said Wa Ngugi, sophomore English major. The two, old freedom fighter and young scholar, short and tall, saw eye to eye on all the important things: love of South Africa, grave disappointment with its current government and a deep reverence for Nelson Mandela.

Family lore has it that Wa Ngugi met Mandela “when I was one year old and slobbered on his cheek,” she says, when her family returned from the United States to vote in South Africa’s first democratic election.

Daniels met Mandela under quite different circumstances, as a fellow political prisoner on the infamous Robben Island.

As a young man, Daniels had often been in trouble, even ostracized in the community, for speaking out against the government. He joined the Liberal Party, because it was the only one open to all races (though it was soon banned by the government for that reason).

“We were the first to begin using violence against economic targets – rail lines and utilities,” he says. “For hundreds of years, we [people] had never used violence. We marched and prayed and marched, but we were under the heel of the jackboot, as Apartheid became more vicious and more cruel.”

Given up by a captured member of the group, Daniels was tried and convicted of sabotage, to be sent to Robben Island.

“When I was shackled and taken to a small boat for the journey, I was very frightened,” says Daniels, who had taken affidavits from previously released prisoners. “They had suffered terribly from exposure to the elements, bad food and water, little clothing and brutal dogs. They looked terrible after six months at Robben and I was going for 15 years. I thought I would never survive.”

Conditions were just as he had feared, and much worse for the “Class D Politicals” than for common law prisoners. The politicals ate food that stank, spent 23 hours each day isolated in tiny cells and had two half-hour periods of “exercise” – breaking rocks into gravel at a quarry.

“But my life changed at Robben Island,” says Daniels. “I met Nelson Mandela, a man of great dignity and courage. I had no comrades and no political leverage, but Mr. Mandela was the first to befriend me. He came out of his way to comfort me when I was sick and carried my [waste] bucket away with his own.”

Daniels says, “Mr. Mandela was already a great man, the leader of his party [the African National Congress], educated, respected. He could have told anyone to help me. He could have looked the other way, so easy, but he looked at me.

“People all around the world love Mr. Mandela,” he says. “But I love him more.”

Daniels was offered the opportunity to leave several times during his prison term. All he had to do was sign a promise not to speak or act against the government, but “I couldn’t lie,” he says. “My own self-respect is very important to me. I only fought for justice and dignity. I was not brave, but I felt it was the right thing to do.”

Finally, he walked out as a free man.

Now in his 80s, Daniels is the author of “There & Back: Robben Island, 1964–1979.” His talk was presented by the UMass Lowell Peace and Conflict Studies Institute, Senior Vice President of UMass for Academic and Student Affairs and International Relations Marcellette Williams and the UMass Lowell Center for Arts and Ideas, with support from the Greeley Scholar for Peace Endowment.

For a video of Daniels' talk, see Campus Voices.