Nelson Mandela’s Captive Audience: Freedom’s Dominoes

I was in Mikuyu Prison in Malawi when Nelson Mandela was released. Hearing the news, whispered to me by a daring prison guard, I instantly thought back to the day, a year earlier, when the same guard had told me the rumor that President F. W. de Klerk of South Africa was holding secret talks with Mr. Mandela. Rumors played a critical, if therapeutic, role for us; they were more reliable than the clippings from local newspapers that were smuggled into prison.

In Mikuyu, we had adopted Mr. Mandela as our hero. We had dubbed a fellow prisoner, Martin Machipisa Munthali, the Nelson Mandela of Malawi for his fortitude. The longest-serving political prisoner under President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s regime, Mr. Munthali had begun his imprisonment a year after Mr. Mandela. Mr. Mandela’s resilience, dignity, integrity and sense of purpose had inspired us to endure even the humiliating daily strip searches.

So when President de Klerk released Nelson Mandela, I joined the choir in the prison yard to thank God. We had no doubt that the release of Mr. Mandela would shame President Banda, a staunch supporter of the apartheid government.

Almost immediately afterward, our food improved, the strip searches happened weekly rather than daily, and political prisoners who had been in isolation were allowed to join us in the general population. The following January, Malawian political prisoners began to be released. (My freedom came on May 10, 1991.) By the end of 1992, there were no more political inmates at Mikuyu, and multiparty elections were in the works. Nelson Mandela’s release changed permanently the politics of Malawi and other countries in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, and perhaps it changed the world.

Jack Mapanje, a visiting fellow at Newcastle University Center for Literary Arts in Britain and the author of a forthcoming memoir about his time in prison in Malawi.