SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
By the time he died this week, Nelson Mandela was considered one of the few - maybe the only - giant on the world stage. But the man who was prisoner 466-slash-64 on Robben Island, was a giant among heroes who offered their lives for freedom as valiantly as he did. In a way, the acclaim the world now heaps so justly on Nelson Mandela commemorates them, too.
There was Walter Sisulu, who first recruited Nelson Mandela to the African National Congress, and formed the ANC Youth League with him in 1944. He was arrested many times, and spent years living underground before they were arrested and stood trial in 1964. When a prosecutor told the court the defendants did not represent the real South Africa, Mr. Sisulu replied: Why doesn't the government put the matter to the test by having elections in which everyone could vote? They had no answer.
There is Ahmed Kathrada, who also stood in the dock with Nelson Mandela, and cracked rocks with him on Robben Island. He was inmate 468/64. After their release, Mr. Kathrada wrote a great memoir, called "A Simple Freedom," in which he said that a prisoner can look through his cell window and choose to see either bars or stars.
There's Stephen Biko, a fierce, funny and eloquent former medical student who led the Black Consciousness Movement. In the 1970s, while Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders languished in prison, Mr. Biko seemed to many exactly what South Africa's racist regime feared he would be: the next generation in the struggle against apartheid. He was banned in 1973, and arrested outright in 1977; thrown into a prison cell in Port Elizabeth, stripped and chained. Police said, unconvincingly, that he struck his own head. So they put him, naked, into the back of a police van and drove 750 miles to Pretoria, where he died of his wounds. Steven Biko was almost 31.
There are so many names to memorialize, they are difficult to remember. There were the men, women and children who died at the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when police fired into a crowd protesting a law of South Africa's apartheid; and those who died in the Soweto shootings of 1976. And there were thousands of township kids who marched peacefully, and boldly, into police bludgeons. Each sacrifice helped tip South Africa toward justice.
In many ways, the victims of apartheid pardoned their country. As Stephen Biko said: In time, we shall be in a position to bestow on South Africa the greatest possible gift - a more human face.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.