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A Prisoner’s Reflections on Nelson Mandela

KHARKIV – Incarceration is said to leave you with a feeling of helplessness and vulnerability. But the truth of life for a political prisoner, even for one on a hunger strike, is the opposite. As a prisoner, I have been forced to focus on what is essential about myself, my political beliefs, and my country. So I can almost feel the presence of the brave women and men, old and young, who have gathered in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities to defend their dreams of a democratic and European future. In prison, your hopes and dreams become your reality.

I am sure that Nelson Mandela would have understood my feelings and agreed. The South African apartheid regime may have locked him away for almost three decades, but in the great Soweto protests and the other demonstrations for freedom and equality, courageous young South Africans invariably looked to his example and felt his presence.

Around the world, most people now rightly celebrate the gentle dignity with which Mandela led South Africa out of the political wilderness. Even here, behind prison bars and 24-hour surveillance of the type that he experienced for so long, I can conjure the warmth of his broad smile, merry eyes, and those colorful Hawaiian-style shirts that he wore with such panache.

And I can admire his unyielding – and, yes, sometimes wily – commitment to reconciliation, which saved his country from the race war that those who refused to accept the end of white-minority rule saw as inevitable. How wrong they were, and how miraculous was Mandela’s achievement in making even his most implacable enemies feel at home in post-apartheid South Africa.