Mandela lays the ghosts of Robben Island

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The wizened, former inmate whispered under his breath as he passed along the line of white prison officers: "Shut your mouth. If you don't, you won't get anything to eat today."

His muttered Afrikaans echoed the taunts he and thousands of others had suffered on this small strip of scrubland in Cape Town's Table Bay, home to South Africa's most notorious maximum security prison

More than 3,000 political prisoners passed through Robben Island in the years of apartheid; half went back yesterday, including the most celebrated of all. Nelson Mandela visited his former cell for the first time since he became President of South Africa last April. "He [the current inmate] keeps his cell very tidy," he said. "It's the same size, the same lockers. But I'm surprised it's so small."

The Robben Island alumni included wheeler-dealers, parliamentarians, state company directors. They also included people so poor they had holes in their clothes. For all, it was a chance to meet old comrades and exorcise old ghosts.

The reunion - to mark today's fifth anniversary of Mr Mandela's release from prison - was partly sponsored by white businessmen. They had paid nearly £5,000 each to network with the new elite. "I'll get my secretary to call your secretary," a white entrepreneur said to a black minister as they tramped after the President through soft, ankle-deep dust.

In the lime quarry - his eyes shielded by dark glasses from the blinding light that damaged his sight here a quarter-century ago - Mr Mandela hammered off a chip of limestone. This may become the first of thousands of souvenirs to raise money for a group called Peace Visions, which hopes to turn the island into a peace institute.

One former prisoner had beaten Mr Mandela to his chisel and chipped away slowly by himself, talking to no one. Perhaps he was going over the wasted years, the meagre portions of maize porridge fed to prisoners year in, year out, or the sentences so lengthy that a five-year stint was known simply as "a long weekend".

There were bitter memories but, for the most part, the day was dominated by signs of South Africa's extraordinary spirit of reconciliation.A white cook and a former black prisoner kitchen assistant embraced as long-lost brothers. "We have come here to say that these men and women liberated South Africa,'' Mr Mandela said. "We have come to celebrate the human spirit."