Editor's Note: This is the final part of the series "Five Stages of Leadership"
The scrubby, pock-faced island once was an asylum for the insane. In another era, lepers tried to hack out survival on the gritty land 12 miles off Cape Town's coast. Then Robben Island became a prison, the "Alcatraz" of South Africa some would call it.
Nelson Mandela may not have used that label, though he spent 18 of his 27-year incarceration there.
Robben Island is no longer a prison, and the boats that once hauled despairing convicts out to its docks now carry tourists. I was once among a group who spent half a day exploring the barren islet. We were taken through the prison, and into rooms where Mandela and others had been housed bleakly, beaten severely, and fed meagerly.
At one point we came to a large dormitory, where we sat on hard benches while a guide told us about the prison. The man, clean-cut, articulate, professional, revealed he had been an inmate at Robben Island, and was now employed to tell its story to visitors.
He pointed to the hard concrete floor where he and his fellow prisoners had slept on thin mats. Sometimes, he said, the inmates awoke to sudden attacks from ferocious dogs unleashed by guards as part of the torturous routine of Robben Island.
The guide told us that one day months after his release he was walking on a lonely path along the Cape when he encountered a former guard who had brutalized him. As the two approached, the retired officer recognized the man, and froze. He still remembered the beatings he had dished out. Grimly, he tensed, expecting revenge, as the former inmate approached him.
Suddenly the ex-prisoner lunged at the old man. But rather than attacking the former guard, the man embraced him. "I forgive you!" he shouted. During his imprisonment, Nelson Mandela had modeled a forgiving attitude that inspired other convicts, like our guide.
Just four years after his release from prison, Mandela was elected as South Africa's president. When Mandela took the podium for his inaugural speech on May 14, 1994, people around the world held their breath, but none as intensely as South Africans.
Apartheid, a fanatically constructed matrix of racial separation and inequality, had been laid on the nation in 1948. Apartheid was spiked into South Africa's legislative system through policies like the Population Registration Act, which classified racial background on skin color, facial features, and other criteria. The Group Areas Act forbad black South Africans from living in white areas, restricting the blacks to "homelands" that made up a mere 13 percent of South Africa's total land.
So, when Mandela and his African National Congress (ANC) came to power in 1994, many braced for a bloodbath, certain the majority blacks would avenge the four decades of their oppression by the Nationalists.
But Mandela had something else in mind that day as he took the oath of office. "From the moment the results were in… I saw my mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence," he would say later.
David Aikman, in his chapter on Mandela in Great Souls, recounts headlines that captured the spiritual significance of Mandela's election and attitude: "History has thrown up an authentic miracle" (Time magazine); "Faith had role in Apartheid's end" (Boston Globe); "How God stepped in to save South Africa" (Durban Daily News).
Nelson Mandela became a leader who brought bright prospects to a troubled nation because he had been through the rigorous process that nurtures leaders who inspire people to genuine hope.
As a young revolutionary acclaimed globally, Mandela had tasted hubris. Later in life he would feel the snow of tickertape as he rode in a Wall Street parade with New York's Mayor. He addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress, and was admired by the world's most powerful people.
Humiliation often followed hubris in Mandela's life. His divorce-headed marriage to Winnie Madikisela at times became embarrassing as they came "to differ profoundly on issues of faith and human decency," as Aikman puts it. This led to periods of searing honesty when Mandela had to assess his own ideas and strategies.
"I came out (of prison) mature," Mandela would write years later. Through the challenges of imprisonment, Mandela was honed. His intellect, endurance, and leadership skills were sharpened through daily cruelties, humiliations, and deprivations.
On a wall near Mandela's cell at Robben Island I saw a gallery of art created by inmates. Some were shocking in their anger and bitterness. Clearly, some of Mandela's co-prisoners sunk deeper into hostility and cynicism. Mandela chose the model of Christ and His call to forgive "seventy times seven."
One of his best friends was James Gregory, a white guard who was with Mandela from his first days at Robben Island until his release in 1990. "Good morning, welcome to Robben Island," Mandela had said to Gregory on his first day of duty. Gregory, says David Aikman, "was quickly won over by Mandela's courtesy, dignity, and extraordinary lack of bitterness."
Mandela passed through every stage of the leadership development process, and out came a man who could bring hope to an entire nation, and to many around the world.
Some people are put off by what they deem Mandela's leftist politics, though Mandela himself had renounced Communist totalitarianism and endorsed Western constitutional and parliamentary systems. Political labels should not diminish the hope Nelson Mandela brought to South Africa.
He introduced the possibility of forgiveness, a truly radical idea, infused with hope.