Mandela goes back to jail to collect more votes: Election duty makes ANC leaders return to South Africa's Alcatraz - but this time they can leave whenever they want

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IT WAS an old boys' reunion, a time to reminisce for Nelson Mandela and five other elderly gentlemen who would never have imagined a few years back that the demands of a modern election campaign would one day bring them all together again on Robben Island.

It was at the island's maximum security prison, South Africa's Alcatraz six nautical miles off the Cape Town coast, that Mr Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Wilton Mkwayi, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada (average age 77) spent 120 years between them.

The trip was choreographed with an eye to satisfying the needs of the media, 40 of whose representatives had been invited to remind the general public that, until exactly four years ago, Mr Mandela was kept in jail because he wanted blacks to have the vote. Now, within 10 weeks, not only will they have it, Mr Mandela himself will be their president.

It being lunchtime when the party landed, the first need was food. A buffet lunch was served by prison guards in the prison guest house under a photograph of possibly the last white president, F W de Klerk.

While consuming a simple chicken and potatoes meal, Mr Kathrada, who arrived on Robben Island with Mr Mandela in 1964, recalled how, en route to the lime quarry, the prisoners would sometimes catch rabbits or pheasants which they would then boil inside a large barrel and eat. 'Once we caught a sealion and Nelson did most of the skinning with a broken bottle.'

The meal over, the president of the African National Congress said he felt naturally reluctant to talk about his own personal memories but had been instructed by his election people to do so.

Accordingly, he admitted that on the day he arrived on the island he had experienced an 'element of concern'. But that had quickly passed and he soon settled down to a life of reading, writing and political discussion 'in the company of great comrades'. One thing, above all, had sustained them. 'Nothing was as encouraging to a prisoner as to know his life was not being wasted.'

But there were some bad times. Watery-eyed, as he has never been seen in public since his release, Mr Mandela said one of the saddest moments of his life in prison had been the death of his mother.

'She was a completely unschooled woman . . . When I practised as a lawyer I tried to support her but then when I came here it was very difficult. She came to see me a couple of times. The last time was in 1968 and when she left I looked at her walk out and I had the feeling I had seen her for the last time. I cried and I sought permission to go to her funeral from the authorities, but they refused. The next year my son died in a car accident and I was very hurt indeed, but again I could not pay my respects.'

Before setting off to the first photo-opportunity at the quarry, the prison warders asked Mr Mandela into an office, where they asked him to sign a bottle of wine. Then they gave him two, with a 'Robben Island Pinotage' label, as a memento. Like civil servants all over South Africa today, they were a picture of accommodating civility before the man they know will be their next employer.

At the quarry, where Mr Mandela engaged in forced labour for 14 years, he became the servant of the television crews and photographers. 'What do you want me to do?' he asked. 'Walk towards the walls of the quarry,' shouted a photographer. He walked. 'Now turn around please, Mr Mandela,' said a television reporter. He turned. He and his comrades, he recalled, had sung songs here as they worked. 'Could you all sing a song for us, please?' Then, outside his cell, 'Could you wave through the bars, please?' He did so, and smiled. 'Could you look serious now?'

Mr Mandela did his duty with cheerful grace. Mr Sisulu, 82, looked on, a little tired, a little bemused. 'It's nice to know,' he said, 'that I'll be going home at the end of the day.'

(Photograph omitted)