One sunny afternoon while visiting Cape Town, I took the ferry to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years incarcerated for activism against apartheid.
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When the bus disgorged us at the prison’s entry gate, razor wire still topped the high fence, and I felt a chill despite the day’s hot sun. Our guide pointed out the different cell blocks, as he led us to the one where Mandela was kept. His was the building with single cells instead of the group ones for 40 men—the desire to keep such an influential leader away from others was strong.
As we filed down the narrow corridor painted the aqua green of my childhood elementary school, I peered into the small cells, trying to imagine living there. Soon our group bunched up in a knot: Mandela’s cell was just ahead. A hushed silence fell among us, broken only by the intermittent camera click. It was an eerie feeling, looking at the modest rectangular spaces where Mandela and so many others spent years of their lives.
When my turn came to look through the bars, I noticed a small black and white photo of the cell as it had been when Mandela lived there. In the photo, the bed was against the wall at one end, with a small bookcase beside it. On the bookcase was an 8×10 photo of, I could just make out, a naked woman.
From behind me, I heard a man explaining that Mandela had kept a nude picture of his wife, Winnie, in his cell. The news struck me. It seemed at odds with how I thought about Mandela, how I’d always heard him portrayed. But then I thought that he’d been a young man when he was sent there—who was I to judge?
Days later, I traveled to Johannesburg and while there, toured Constitution Hill, the old Johannesburg Fort with its medieval prisons used to incarcerate South Africans who resisted apartheid. Mandela was among the many held there, and a large room was dedicated to his story. Our tour group didn’t have much time to peruse the exhibit, so I did a quick pass, until something caught my eye.
In a plexiglas case toward the back, there was a copy of the photograph I’d seen in the picture of Mandela’s Robben Island cell. I leaned in for a closer look. The beautiful young woman, running naked down a beach, looked at ease and completely unaware of the photographer. And then I noticed next to it a copy of a typewritten letter.
The letter was to Mandela from a friend who’d been imprisoned with him on Robben Island. The letter told of the day Mandela had first seen the photo in a National Geographic Magazine while on the Island, and how he’d been struck by how perfectly the woman epitomized freedom. For his birthday, his friend cut the picture out of the magazine and carved a frame from part of a tomato box. This was the picture Mandela kept by his bedside.
I wondered how the story of a naked Winnie got started—was it someone’s mistaken assumption, or more sinister, the intentional lie meant to discredit a growing international icon? But what stumped me even more was how this myth persists after all this time, especially when the National Geographic picture makes so much more sense.
It seems a little thing, but the false story of the picture is more insidious than it appears. This is because it erodes, ever so slightly, the person Mandela seems to be: someone who knew that his every act was scrutinized in the world press; someone who cared less for his own well-being than for his country’s; someone for whom incarceration—27 years of it—was preferable to selling out his cause and compatriots.
How fortunate I felt that I happened across the truth of the matter, and how the picture, properly identified, added to Mandela’s already mighty stature.
This piece is the fifth in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I, part II, part III, part IV