One day in February 1994, a ferry arrived at the island carrying its most famous former prisoner, Nelson Mandela. He was 75 years old and had spent 27 of those years in prison. Five of his old prison mates and a crowd of journalists accompanied him.
When Mandela first traveled to Robben Island in 1963, he sat below deck, chained hand and foot. This time, however, he was treated as a dignitary: a presidential candidate campaigning to lead a new South Africa.
For more than 300 years, a white minority had controlled South Africa. And for much of the 20th century, they had ruled under apartheid, a system that treated nonwhites as aliens in their own land.
All of this was about to change, not through a bloody revolution but through an election. I was covering this miracle for The New York Times. It was a compelling storya democracy struggling to be born. And at its center was one of the world's most charismatic figures.
Back in his old cell, Mandela posed for pictures. With tears in his eyes, he spoke of the helplessness he and his compatriots had felt in prison knowing that their families were being harassed, expelled from jobs and schools, or imprisoned.
But Mandela and his comrades also talked with nostalgia about their days on Robben Island. They had read, studied, and honed their tactics for dealing with white authority. Robben Island was their university. They graduated ready to change the world. And now they were about to finish their work.
EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT OF SOUTH AFRICA began in 1652, when Dutch traders landed near the southern tip of Africa. The arrival of white settlers was catastrophic for the black natives. Colonists seized their farmland and cattle, and brought with them smallpox and other deadly diseases.
As they expanded their territory, the Dutch settlers began calling themselves Afrikaners. In their minds, they were the first real Africans, the ones entitled to rule.
In 1795, the British, who had become the dominant world power, took control of Cape Town, and pushed into both African and Afrikaner territories.
The British and the Afrikaners fought not only with blacks but with each other, especially when South Africa's gold and diamond mines were at stake. They fought two wars, known as the Boer Wars, in the late 19th century, with the British finally triumphing in 1902.
In 1910, British and Afrikaner territories merged into the Union of South Africa, with whites holding virtually all power. Two years later, a group of black lawyers formed the African National Congress (A.N.C.) to promote racial equality, initially posing little threat to white rule.
ROLIHLAHLA MANDELA was born in 1918 in the village of Mvezo. His father was a tribal chief. In Xhosa, the language of Mandela's people, rolihlahla means "tree shaker." Later in life, Mandela enjoyed pointing out that the word is also used to mean "troublemaker." (A teacher in the Christian mission school he attended gave him the name Nelson.)
In 1941, Mandela fled to Soweto, a vast black slum near Johannesburg, to avoid an arranged marriage. He worked as a night watchman in the gold mines until Walter Sisulu, the local A.N.C. leader, arranged for him to clerk at a law firm and study for a law degree.
In 1948, after the Afrikaner-led National Party won elections on a platform of strict separation of the races, the government created the system of apartheid ("apartness") to keep the black majority under control, assure a pool of cheap labor, and prevent the mixing of the races. Under apartheid, all South Africans were officially classified as white, black, Indian, or "colored" (mixed race), with interracial marriage prohibited.
When the government designated separate residential areas for each racial group, some 3.5 million people were uprooted from their homes. Blacks whose labor was needed in white cities were crowded into squalid townships and required to carry passes when traveling to white areas.
Mandela, Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo (Mandela's law partner) took control of the A.N.C. in 1949. The organization issued a declaration of principles in 1956 called the Freedom Charter, which advocated racial equality; free education and medical care; and public ownership of mines, banks, and big industry.
The government contended that the charter amounted to a conspiracy to overthrow the state. Mandela and scores of others were arrested. The charge was high treason; the penalty was death.
The accused were acquitted, but the trial put Mandela at the top of the government's enemies list. He went underground, living in hideouts and using disguises.
In 1961, he became commander of the A.N.C.'s new rebel army and was arrested the next year. Accused of a conspiracy to overthrow the state, he and eight others were found guilty in 1964 and sentenced to life in prison.
BY THE 1970s, APARTHEID WAS BEING CHALLENGED with protests, strikes, and acts of sabotage. A student uprising that began in Soweto in June 1976 spread across South Africa. The white government began to feel the heat, as unrest made the country difficult to govern. And as condemnation of apartheid from the rest of the world grew (accompanied by threats of economic sanctions), Mandela became an international symbol of South African oppression.
In 1982, the government reached out to Mandela to negotiate. At first, he was reluctant, fearing the government would use him to calm the unrest without ending apartheid. But in 1985 he wrote to the Minister of Justice proposing that they meet.
The two men met in secret talks for the next four years, and on Feb. 2, 1990, President F. W. de Klerk decreed the beginning of a new order: All political prisoners would be released, and antiapartheid organizations like the A.N.C., outlawed since 1960, would be "un-banned." A week later, with the world watching, 71-year-old Nelson Mandela walked free.
THE MEN WHO FREED Mandela knew they had to give up some power or lose it all. And Mandela had to nudge along not only the white government, but also some of his antiapartheid comradesincluding his wife, Winnie, who had encouraged township youth to perform violent acts. (They divorced in 1996.)
In 1992, an assortment of South Africans gathered near Johannesburg to work out the details for a new government. Mandela and de Klerk led the two main parties, but the gathering included tribal chiefs, labor union officials, black nationalists, and white separatists.
Both black and white extremists tried to stop the talks, but Mandela and de Klerk kept talking. They didn't particularly like or trust each other, but they believed that compromise was better than civil war. In November 1993, the painstaking negotiations produced a constitutionthe founding document of a new South Africa. Both Mandela and de Klerk campaigned, along with other candidates, to lead the newly liberated nation.
In a typical campaign stop, Mandela's motorcade would arrive at a black township and roll onto a soccer field. Throngs filled the bleachers, chanting "Nelson Man-DEL-a! Nelson Man-DEL-a!"
Mandela walked stiffly, and sometimes he was so tired that he stumbled over his words. It didn't matter. The fact that he was there was enough.
Throughout the campaign, there was an undercurrent of hate and violence, but on April 27, 1994, Nelson Mandela and millions of other blacks cast the first ballots of their lives.
When the new Parliament convened in May, it chose Mandela to be President without a dissenting vote. In his inaugural address on May 10, 1994, he declared, "Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world."
Within a year of the establishment of democracy, South Africa already felt like another country. Black newscasters read the evening news, and classrooms were filled with children of all ethnicities. Best of all was the decrease in murderous political violence.
And while 41 percent of blacks still had no real jobs and millions were still homeless, there was little bitterness or despairfew South Africans had expected overnight magic.
"The old government didn't care about us," said Makhosi Khanyile, a woman living in a Zulu slum north of Durban. "People feel that this government is theirs. They are still waiting for the promises, it is true, but if sometimes they get angry with this government, that is their right because it is theirs."
In 1999, Mandela finished his five-year presidential term and settled into a busy retirement, working to promote AIDS awareness and other causes. He was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki, the son of another Robben Island prisoner.
Under Mbeki, crime and corruption have increased, the AIDS crisis has worsened, and millions remain without jobs or decent homes. Ineligible to run for a third term, Mbeki is likely to be succeeded next year by Jacob G. Zuma, the current head of the A.N.C.
Today, the question hovering over South Africa is: Can the nation narrow the gap between rich and poor and offer its majority the hope of prosperity along with the gift of freedom?
That question remains unanswered. But thanks to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the answer is now in the hands of all South Africans.