Christensen: Mandela, Churchill and Gandhi linked by prison and greatness

rchristensen@newsobserver.comDecember 7, 2013 

It is one of the coincidences of history that the three great political figures of our age became famous after spending time in South African jails.

Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, who died last week, is the most famous inmate, having spent 27 years as a prisoner on Robben Island and other prisons for anti-apartheid activism.

But less well-known is that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi also spent time in South African prisons.

Mandela is one of those rare individuals who will likely live on in the history books for generations to come. That raises the question of what other modern figures fit that description. I came up with two: Churchill and Gandhi.

To be a great political figure of the age, in my view, you have to help turn the tide of history and inspire generations of people around the world. In Mandela, Churchill and Gandhi you have three fighters for freedom: against Nazism and communism, against colonialism and against institutionalized racism. And, of course, they fought for their countries.

South African experiences

Churchill arrived in South Africa in 1899 as a war correspondent covering the Second Boer War between the British and the Boer Republics. He was captured by the Boers but escaped from a POW camp in Pretoria, walking 300 miles to safety. After writing about his exploits, Churchill became a minor hero in England and launched his political career by winning a seat in Parliament in 1900.

Gandhi, born in India, was a London-trained barrister who arrived in South Africa in 1893 and spent the next 20 years battling for the rights of the country’s large Indian population. Gandhi was arrested three times – training for when he returned to India to lead the independence movement of what is today India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mandela would sometimes call Gandhi his “political guru” and his “role model.” After his release, the first country that Mandela visited was India.

Churchill hated Gandhi, seeing him as a threat to his beloved British empire, which, of course, he was.

Memorable Americans

There are no Americans on my list. Nor are there any of the modern butchers – such as Hitler, Lenin or Stalin – although they will be remembered by history just as Attila the Hun is recalled.

But a list of modern American political figures who will have a prominent place in American history books 500 years from now – as opposed to just a mention – might include Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ronald Reagan.

Roosevelt helped save capitalism by rounding off its rougher edges with social programs. He also played a critical role in recognizing the danger of the Nazi tide earlier than most Americans, and he showed foresight in going ahead with the uncertain atom bomb project.

Reagan helped save the welfare state by keeping it from becoming overgrown. Reagan played some role in encouraging the fall of communism, which finally collapsed under his successor George H. Bush for multiple reasons.

King has become the voice of one of America’s great social revolutions. A century from now, King may get more ink in American history textbooks than either Roosevelt or Reagan. King, like Mandela, was a student of Gandhi.

Barry Saunders and I will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Quail Ridge Books to talk and answer questions about our columns. John Drescher, The News & Observer’s editor, will moderate.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or

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