Christmas Behind Bars With Nelson Mandela: Recollections of Younger Anti-apartheid Activist Saths Cooper

The opening of the biopic Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom on Christmas Day in America was an appropriately timed gift, given the film's message about faith in one's belief, overcoming injustice and choosing love over hate. The "must-see" film powerfully chronicles stages in the life of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid activist and political protester-turned-president and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Given the timing of the film's release, it's of interest to know what Mandela did on those Christmas holidays behind bars. Insight comes from a fellow prisoner and younger South African freedom fighter, Saths Cooper, a colleague and friend of mine. Now a noted psychologist and president of the International Union of Psychological Science, he graciously shared recollections to fill in details about that historical time.

Cooper was incarcerated in the same cellblock as Nelson Mandela in the notorious Robben Island Maximum Security Prison off the coast of Cape Town, from 1977-1982.

Daily life spelled hard labor, crude cells, endless restrictions, bad food and abuse from prison officials. But Christmas offered some relief, "for the camaraderie, mutual sharing and lighter spirit that abounded," Cooper says. "We tended to feel the burden of imprisonment a little less and there was something akin to cheer that we allowed to envelop us."

"Madiba and I would spruce up to the extent that we could in jail," to be taken eagerly to see their visitors.

Mandela, affectionately called by his clan name "Madiba," was serving a life sentence after being convicted of sabotage with the intention of overthrowing the government in the infamous Rivonia Trial. Cooper, then in his twenties and more than 30 years younger than Mandela, was condemned in 1976 to a 10-year sentence under anti-terrorism legislation for co-organizing rallies supporting Mozambique's liberation from Portugal. A leader of many protests since his student days, Cooper had been arrested several times, including during the Durban Strike of 1973 when he was Secretary of the Black People's Convention.

The younger and older generation civil rights activists jogged together early mornings and played tennis matches in the afternoon but also often disputed politics. Even on Christmas, exchanges centered on current events, especially from reports of holiday visitors about what was then happening in the country.

"We'd compare the difference in the information gleaned from our visitors and if there was a continuation of the previous information," Cooper told me.

Mandela and his African National Congress did not always agree with the ideology of the Black Consciousness Movement founded by Cooper and his fellow youth that advocated for a black identity as opposed to multi-racialism. While analogies between Mandela and Cooper have been drawn (, Mandela, then 59, generally considered these young freedom fighters as "a new breed of prisoners" and "young lions" who were "brave, hostile and aggressive...[with an] instinct to confront rather than cooperate."

This older-younger divide was only briefly addressed in the new film about Mandela's life, where one short scene shows Patrick Lekota (a leader of the South African Students Organization who was also imprisoned on Robben Island) chastising Mandela for peacefully gardening in prison while a civil rights war was going on outside the prison walls.

Sharing views required caution. "All such information was strictly coded, as we were precluded from talking about other prisoners, politics and generally what was going on inside and outside prison," says Cooper.

If Christmas Day fell mid-week (as it did this year) prisoners would have to wait for the weekend time assigned for normal visiting hours.

Visits were conducted using telephones, through thick smudged Plexiglas, with one prison guard (called a "warder") behind the prisoner and another behind the visitor. No physical contact or political talk was permitted.

"However, Madiba was given some latitude to discuss family members who were political, as he'd made a case that these figures were responsible for taking care of his family whilst he was in prison," explains Cooper.

"Winnie usually visited Madiba and invariably sent her good wishes to me, which he was pleased to convey." Cooper knew Winnie personally from 1969, the time when she was detained and held in solitary confinement with others who refused to testify that she had broken her banning orders.

Cooper was visited by his wife or mother.

Mandela and I would "share information from those visits, sated with good memories," he recalls.

Gifts -- a major part of Christmas -- were not allowed. But some money was available to the prisoners through an account. Money could be sent, and kept by the prison on the inmate's behalf, to buy toiletries, writing material and food items. Mandela, classified as an "A-Group Prisoner," had more purchasing privileges compared to Cooper and his fellow post-1976 prisoners who objected to being classified, likening this to racial classification.

Cards -- a common holiday practice -- were allowed but not preferred by the prisoners. "A card was construed as a letter, and many of us preferred letters with more content," explains Cooper. But censorship was severe. "I often got a letter starting, 'Dear/est Saths, I wish to' [then a window/cut-out by the censors] with another line in the middle of the page, followed by another window, the pieces patched together with cellophane tape."

Letters to Mandela suffered the same excisions.

Mandela's autobiography also gives insights into what Christmas was like in lockup.

Christmas "was the one day when the authorities showed any goodwill toward men. We did not have to go to the quarry on Christmas Day, and we were permitted to purchase a small quantity of sweets."

While feasts are traditional for families on Christmas, "we did not have a traditional Christmas meal but we were given an extra mug of coffee for supper. "

On Christmas morning, the prisoners were permitted to organize a concert in the courtyard. "We would mix in traditional English Christmas songs with African ones, and include a few protest songs. The authorities did not seem to mind or perhaps know the difference. The warders were our audience, and they enjoyed our singing as much as we did."

The prisoners' amateur drama society was also allowed to put on its yearly offering at Christmas, albeit with only words and no stage, scenery or costumes. Mandela relates that he particularly enjoyed playing the role of Creon, an elderly king of Thebes in Sophocles' Antigone who was fighting a civil war and "would not break under the most trying circumstances" but he preferred the leadership characteristics of Antigone who "must temper justice with mercy."

Leading up to Christmastime, an added pleasure was an end-of-year sports and recreation competition for which prisoners were allowed to buy "prizes" (Christmas cookies, cakes and candy). Teams competed in tennis, volleyball, table tennis, scrabble, dominoes and checkers - games that both Mandela and Cooper played together all year.

New Year's Day, if it fell on a weekend, was also a time when the prisoners had visitors. "We eagerly looked forward to the start of another year shared with those we loved visiting us," says Cooper.

The two men shared pleasantries and well-wishes also on birthdays "which often were bitter-sweet, as it reminded us that another year in jail had passed."

Of all holidays, both Mandela and Cooper least favored Republic Day. As Cooper says, "It connoted everything that we mutually detested in the apartheid system."

Other dates were commemorated according to the partialities of each individual leader and political organization. For Cooper that included March 21, the date of the Sharpeville massacre, "which Mandela's organization (the ANC) did not like to acknowledge." On that date in 1960 -- now celebrated in South Africa as a public holiday in honor of human rights -- the Pan Africanist Congress, which broke away from the ANC, led black Africans to purposefully be arrested for not carrying their pass books, whereupon police opened fire on the protesters, shooting many in the back. Sixty-nine people, including women and children, were killed and 180 injured.

Mandela recounts in his memoir that every Sunday morning, a minister from a different denomination would preach to the prisoners. The clerics were recruited by the prison officials and were ordered to speak only about religious matters or they were not invited back.

Though a Methodist, Mandela attended each different religious service. He particularly appreciated an Anglican priest who recited passages of Winston Churchill's wartime radio addresses, including his famous declaration that "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Bits of news were also discreetly inserted into his sermons, for example, that "like the pharaoh of ancient Egypt, the prime minister of South Africa was raising an army."

Mandela also welcomed the sermon of a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church because of his scientific approach to religion. The clergyman explained that the story of the three Wise Men from the East who followed a star until it led them to Bethlehem was not just superstition or myth, but was grounded in evidence from astronomers that a comet followed the path outlined in the Bible.

Mandela also wholeheartedly agreed with the reverend's sentiments "that we must also look within ourselves and become responsible for our actions."

The title of Mandela's life story purposefully refers to the long "walk" to freedom. Coincidentally, the word "walk" resonated in the sermon in this year's Christmas Eve service I attended at St. Thomas Church in New York City, as we were encouraged to "walk" through darkness, trials and all types of problems.

Many Christmas services this year paid tribute to Mandela, including themes of forgiveness and reconciliation used by the Archbishop of Wales. These messages resound with Mandela's words that are powerfully voiced by British actor Idris Elba who has been nominated for a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Mandela in the movie.

Those notable Mandela quotes include:

"There is no way forward but peace."

"No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love for love comes more naturally to the human heart."

Such messages apply today for resolving conflict in the Middle East and around the globe.

Robben Island is a tourist attraction now. In 2012, Cooper took a group of psychologists attending the International Congress of Psychology held in Cape Town, of which he was President, to see the site.

This Christmas, 2013, Cooper is vacationing at a beach resort south of Chennai, India, the country of his parents' heritage. He is joined by his long-term partner Ann Watts, a noted South African psychologist on the board of the International Union of Psychological Science which he heads, and his daughter, Oneida, a senior student studying psychology in America at the University of Durham in New Hampshire.

It's a needed respite from his being on every continent, speaking at major psychology meetings as he carries on a similar message of human rights and social justice as Mandela.

The parallels between the two men extend to mourning. As Mandela's family, Cooper and the world mourn the death of the international icon, Cooper is also grieving the recent passing of his beloved mother, born on the same day as Mandela but 12 years his junior.