CAPE TOWN – Nelson Mandela’s former jailers and fellow prisoners united in his memory Tuesday across the water from Robben Island where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.
Ex-prison guard Christo Brand was among some 200 people packed into an auditorium at the ferry departure point — known as “Nelson Mandela Gateway” — to the island off Cape Town which is now a museum and top tourist site.
Mandela had been the same person as president as he was in prison, said Brand, who struck up an unlikely and enduring friendship with the icon he met as a teenage guard when Mandela was 60.
While saddened by Mandela’s death, Brand said, he also felt relief “because I know that he died in peace and that is what he was fighting for”.
A single candle flickered and images of Mandela were displayed on a big screen at the departure point, where long queues of tourists waited to board a ferry to the island.
“He’s touched us all. He meets hate with love,” said tearful Norwegian tourist Lars Dahl, 62, who attended the memorial with his children after visiting the island.
“We’re here in Cape Town and we felt it was important to honour him and his memory and thank him.”
Outside the building, people left messages in a book of condolences, placing wreathes and had their photographs taken with a bust of Madiba, the clan name by which the ex-president was fondly known.
Visitors joined in struggle-era songs and chants of “Nelson Mandela”.
Former Robben Island inmate Lionel Davis hailed Mandela’s contribution to reconciliation among South Africa’s former political enemies.
Even in prison, Mandela had started reaching out to the Afrikaner nation which jailed him under its harsh apartheid racial laws.
“With his death, we have reconciled again as South Africans. We have reconciled as a world community. It is up to us to make that legacy a reality,” said Davis.
“It is our duty that we as South Africa fulfil that legacy of Mandela from today onwards, that we endeavour to break down the barriers that still keep us apart.”
Lorraine Steenkamp, a black South African, said visiting Mandela’s former prison was “the greatest gift”, just days before he was to be laid to rest.
“If it wasn’t for Nelson Mandela fighting for our freedom, I wouldn’t have married my husband or had these two beautiful kids. He’s an Afrikaner.”
Tens of thousands of mourners, meanwhile, were gathering in Soweto’s massive Soccer City stadium for an official memorial service.