By Robert Hite

I never would have been a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia if it had not been for Nelson Mandela.

That is not an exaggeration.

Namibia was part of South Africa after the South African Defense Forces kicked the German colonists out in 1915 during World War I. South African then took administrative control over what was then called Southwest Africa.

It was only after Southwest Africa became independent from South African rule in 1990 and was named Namibia that the corps received approval to open an office there. Mandela’s unrelenting effort for freedom made that possible.

I was lucky to visit Robben Island where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail on a trip with four other volunteers during our service from 2002-2004. We have contacted each other since Mandela died with each of us recalling the trip and thinking about the man who created so much freedom for those who had little, almost none.

All the Island consists of is some old buildings, the jail and rock quarry where Mandela and others defiant of White rule and Apartheid were held. The 8-by 8-foot cell assigned to him was like all the others. However, when we walked by his cell, we knew we walked by something great, a piece of history and we where in awe. Of course I took photographs!

Some people criticized Mandela for giving up his Ghandian non-violent approach to righting Apartheid’s wrong and associating himself with world leaders the West disagreed with.

I do not.

I am too young to have lived during this country’s "separate, but equal" segregated policies although I know something about it. Apartheid was much worse if you can imagine that.

The Whites held the power and segregated the non-Whites – blacks, Colored and other groups – into "Locations," neighborhood areas, as they called at the time. By law, the non-Whites had to be in their Location from the late evening to morning and could not leave. They could not enter stores either. They submitted the list of what they wanted through a window for a clerk to get for them and then make payment. They could not buy white sugar, only brown sugar, no soft drinks and other consumer products.

Apartheid was the worst attack on human dignity and nature that I have ever seen and motivated me to work even harder as a volunteer.

Mandela was the first black to open a legal practice in 1952 and became an expert in "pass cards," identification cards non-Whites were required to carry with them that recorded their movements much like a passport.

My respect for Mandela increased when I saw him laughing and joking with the same people who implemented and enforced Apartheid, which resulted in the death of hundreds, after he was released. I remember shaking my head when I saw him do that. That took courage and a true moral compass that few have ever possessed. He said if he continued hating them after he walked out of jail they would win, so he didn’t.

His compass also kept the country out of the real possibility of a Civil War in which thousands would have died had it happened. It did not because of him.

After my Peace Corps service ended I got lucky again. I met some other travelers with a car and we went to the village where Mandela grew up as a child. It was desolate area with not much there. Again, I knew what it meant.

The third time was even more rewarding. I took a guided tour of Johannesburg and we went by his house. I think it was a weekday. Regardless of that, people packed the streets and house. Of course, Rev. Desmond Tutu’s house was up the street. Two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize lived with blocks of each other. I knew what that meant, too.

Those experiences exceeded most others that I have lived.

Robert Hite is a former Examiner news reporter.

His death brought back these memories that I have not thought about or visualized for years. It is comforting and sad at the same time. It makes me want to go back.