Anti-apartheid activist shares powerful stories

Author: Tammy L. Lane • First Posted: Wednesday, October 27, 2010

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Eddie Daniels, a former anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1979.

Eddie Daniels, a former anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1979.

Eddie Daniels, a former anti-apartheid activist, was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964 to 1979.He spoke with diverse students at Leestown Middle School, reminding them that skin color is irrelevant.Daniels urged the students to make the most of their education, reminding them that everyone is the master of his own fate.

A South African who resisted apartheid and was jailed for 15 years with Nelson Mandela shared some of his story with hundreds of students in Fayette County Public Schools this week.

Eddie Daniels emphasized that in any setting, skin color is irrelevant – it does not reflect one’s integrity, compassion or intelligence.

“It’s like flowers in the garden – all are beautiful,” he told seventh- and eighth-graders at Leestown Middle School, urging them to assess people on the quality of their character.

In a living history lesson, Daniels recounted how the government’s oppressive measures had scarred South Africa. He also told personal stories of his imprisonment on Robben Island, where he and fellow activists were sent for dynamiting government utilities.

Amid brutal living conditions, the prisoners survived isolation, boredom, hard labor chopping lime in a quarry and sometimes torture. Daniels recalled how one time when he was ill, Mandela walked down to his cell and comforted him.

He praised Mandela’s leadership and his attitude after being locked away from trees, babies and bright colors for 27 years.

“When he came out of that prison, he walked with dignity and courage,” Daniels said, noting how he embraced his enemies in a call for reconciliation rather than retribution.

The kids at Leestown absorbed Daniels’ powerful stories and marveled at his resilience.

“A lot of things might not have happened if he hadn’t had the courage to do what he did,” said seventh-grader Reuben Chubaruk. “We need a lot more people like him.”

Classmate Antonio Sanchez agreed that Daniels was a man to be admired, noting, “He went through a lot and came out successful.”

Daniels also spoke at Lafayette High School, Crawford Middle School and Martin Luther King Jr. Academy.

“Mr. Daniels captivated the students at Crawford with his incredible story. I was so impressed with the connection he made with our young people. He would have stayed all day and answered every question. He is truly a great man,” said Mike Jones, principal at Crawford. 

In sharing his story, Daniels explained how South Africa’s injustices had been fully entrenched and how he had fought for changes all his life.

“We had apartheid and segregation for hundreds of years,” he said, describing how the disparate distribution of wealth and opportunities had affected the various races.

Money and an education, which were available only to the white minority, led to careers in law, medicine and politics.

“When you obtain those types of positions, you become leaders of your country,” he said. Meanwhile, “the black laborer’s son inherited ignorance and poverty over the generations.”

Daniels himself grew up chafing under the yoke of oppression.

“From the age of 12, I opposed the apartheid government,” he recalled. “I was ostracized as a youngster for standing up for what was right.”

Later, because he was classified as “colored” or of mixed race, he settled for menial work. “You take the job, swallow the insults and just do the work to have an income,” he said.

He also was a photographer – one who was routinely asked to lighten I.D. pictures so that residents could pass for white if they were colored or colored if they were African.

“People were desperate to achieve a higher social status,” he explained. “When you divide people into categories, people fight to get to the top, and others fight to defend what they have.”

Daniels, who was on Robben Island from 1964 to 1979, also drew parallels between South Africa’s apartheid system and the Jim Crow laws in the United States.

In his homeland, privileged whites had the best schools, the best jobs, the best choices. Meanwhile, Africans – who made up vast majority of the population – suffered and seethed. As in the Civil Rights era here, the oppressed groups eventually rose up and demanded reform. Daniels said icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks inspired activists in South Africa, where the government finally repealed apartheid laws in 1991.

“Without your support and the support of the world, we would still be fighting,” he added.

Daniels, who earned a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of commerce while studying in prison, urged the Leestown kids to follow their ambition – quoting from the poem “Invictus” how each is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.

“Education is the foundation of your lives,” he reminded them. “You’ll be able to travel the world, be held in high esteem and be able to make the world a decent place.”

The back story

The University of Kentucky’s College of Arts and Sciences is embarking on a year-long exploration of South African culture and history. One of the primary purposes of “Different Lands, Common Ground” is to engage the local community. The first opportunity is the visit by former anti-apartheid activist Eddie Daniels, a scholar-in-residence from Oct. 24 through Nov. 7. In addition to speaking in UK classes, he has talked with students at Lafayette High School, Crawford and Leestown middle schools and Martin Luther King Jr. Academy.


If you go
  • Book signing with Eddie Daniels, author of “There & Back: Robben Island, 1964-1979”
  • When: 1 p.m. Saturday Nov. 6
  • Where: Lucia’s World Friendly Boutique, 523 East High St.; (859) 389-9337



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