My Uncle Was Nelson Mandela's Neighbor in Jail

And their relationship helped me understand how South Africa’s founding father continually won over his rivals.

Nelson Mandela, then-president of the African National Congress (ANC), visits the prison cell he occupied on Robben Island for much of his 27-year incarceration. (Patrick De Noirmont/Reuters)

I am too young to remember February 11, 1990, the day when Nelson Mandela left Victor Verster Prison after spending a total of 27 years behind bars.

Before that, the anti-apartheid activist, who died on Thursday at age 95, had spent most of the 1980s at Pollsmoor Prison in a Cape Town suburb, and the 18 years prior incarcerated on Robben Island, South Africa’s answer to Alcatraz, just a 30-minute ferry ride from Cape Town’s Victoria & Albert Waterfront.

A year before the apartheid government rushed Mandela from Robben Island to Pollsmoor out of fear that he was being radicalized, the cell opposite his became temporarily vacant. After a five-year stint on Robben Island following his arrest in 1974 and conviction under the Terrorism Act, Strinivasa “Strini” Moodley walked free.

Strini was a co-founder of the Black Consciousness Movement alongside Steve Biko, which led to the formation of the South African Students’ Organization and the Black People’s Convention.

He was also my uncle—and he was one of the firebrands who, beginning in the 1960s, promoted a strand of black liberation that differed markedly from the one promoted by Mandela and fellow members of the African National Congress, now South Africa’s governing party. Defining itself in opposition to the ANC’s “non-racialism,” the youthful movement asked for white support—but not membership in—the organisation. And it urged followers to focus on black self-respect and identity rather than just political power.

While I only met my uncle a few times before his death in 2006, I primarily understand Mandela through him.

Mandela’s strength came from his belief in unity, whether between the ANC and members of the Black Consciousness Movement or between whites and blacks. While he had his disagreements with Strini, Mandela had deep respect for the young radicals and a strong desire to unite the disparate elements struggling against South Africa’s apartheid government without making competing groups compromise their beliefs.

In this way, Mandela’s relationship with Black Consciousness disciples differed from the generational differences that split the civil rights movement in America a decade earlier. The initially limited support of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for the Freedom Rides in 1961 led many members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to deride King and his cohorts for their lack of fight. King was mockingly called “De Lawd.”

James Forman, who was active in SNCC and later the Black Panthers, reflected on the differences he had with the SCLC in his 1985 memoir The Making Of Black Revolutionaries. Discussing the early days of the Birmingham protests in May 1963, Forman recalled his anger at King and SCLC leaders for sitting back while they sent children into the streets.

“I felt thoroughly disgusted,” he wrote. “I could not understand any leadership that would send down an order for young people to face the barricades while the leadership was busy on the telephone, eating steak, and not yet dressed for the day.”

Mandela had a rebellious streak himself, forged during the time he spent combating apartheid as a founding member of the ANC Youth League, which helped him readily bridge the divide between the moderate and more radical factions of his movement.

In an interview with PBS Frontline, Strini described how he was inspired by Mandela’s early years:

From the pronouncements and actions of the Youth League under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, there was a shift away from [working within the system] towards a more radical approach that this system is corrupted. There's everything wrong with it, and it's got to be completely overthrown and replaced with an entirely new system. Which fell in with our way of thinking as members of the Black Consciousness Movement.

In Long Walk To Freedom, Mandela wrote that he was aware that his years in prison had cut him off from emerging elements in the struggle against apartheid. He reacted neither with jealousy nor fear, but rather a desire to listen:

After so many years of being branded a radical revolutionary, to be perceived as a moderate was a novel and not altogether pleasant feeling. I knew that I could react in one of two ways: I could scold them for their impertinence or I could listen to what they were saying. I chose the latter.

When several ANC members were beaten up after a clash with Black Consciousness members on Robben Island, the prison authorities brought charges against the individuals affiliated with the ANC, alleging that they provoked the brawl. The accused members asked Mandela to serve as a character witness in their defense. Fearing a rift with the Black Consciousness movement, however, Mandela declined. While this angered his ANC counterparts, his younger comrades in jail developed trust in him and  began to moderate. “It was more important to show the young Black Consciousness men that the struggle was indivisible and that we all had the same enemy,” Mandela recalled in his autobiography.

Mandela asked Strini to give lectures to the older prisoners on Robben Island about the Black Consciousness movement, Anthony Sampson noted in his biography of Mandela. “He was careful not to respond to the young lions with aggression, which would make them fight back,” Sampson wrote. “Instead he relied on a softer approach of gradual persuasion.” The author continued:

Constantly up against other prisoners, he (Mandela) became more sensitive to other people’s insecurities and resentments…He seemed much less arrogant: no longer the chiefly autocrat, but the flexible democrat who could listen and take note of the majority view. He was insistent on loyalty to the ANC: the only grounds for leaving it … would be the abandonment of the struggle against apartheid.

These compromises did not mean that Mandela renounced his core beliefs; he refused, for instance, to win his freedom by rejecting violence as a political instrument, telling South African President P.W. Botha in 1985 that he could not and “will not give any undertaking at a time when you, the people, are not free.” But prison did mellow Mandela and make him an individual President F.W. de Klerk could do business with, paving the way for a peaceful transition of power and the emergence of a democratic nation.

The product of Mandela’s delicate but determined conciliation is plain to see: an ANC that, buoyed by his iconic leadership and moral standing, has governed South Africa ever since 1994. In order to prevent white flight that could drain the country of wealth and skills, he negotiated with and accommodated apartheid politicians. He expected blacks to gradually be integrated into the power base of the economy—an aspiration that has still proven elusive.

Two years ago, at a beachfront cafe in Durban, Nirvanen Moodley, Strini’s son, described South Africa’s Mandela-ANC dilemma to me. While the Black Consciousness movement wanted blacks to focus on their self-identity, far too many South Africans see their identity and history wedded to the fortunes of the ANC. If you don’t stick with the ANC—regardless of the party’s woeful record of addressing lingering inequalities in the country and providing for the poor—you are not being faithful to South Africa or, worse, to Mandela himself. Perhaps, with his passing, this dynamic will begin to change.

Anthony Sampson tells the story of a time in 1979 when Mandela, who was “dismissive of minor ailments,” was suffering from a virus around his eye. Soon after seeing a specialist, the virus quickly disappeared.

Mandela told Winnie, his wife at the time, “The poor creature had no idea of just how strong in me is the will to live.”

Neither did we.