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Exchange With Reporters During a Visit to Robben Island With President Nelson Mandela of South Africa

March 27, 1998

Ahmed M. Kathrada. Ladies and gentlemen of the media, this is not a press conference. You've had your share in Cape Town, and we don't believe in double features. [Laughter] But what we want to do now is, our President is going to hand over to President Clinton a quarry rock, with his little finger, authenticated by our President that this is a genuine quarry rock from the quarry where he worked for 13 years.

President Mandela. It's a great honor and a pleasure because, as we have said on many occasions, our victory here is victory in part because you helped us tremendously. Thank you very much.

President Clinton. Thank you.

Mr. Kathrada. May I just say that this is not a press conference. Any question must be confined to Robben Island and Robben Island only, please.

Q. We're just interested in your experience. We'd like to hear firsthand from you about your experiences in this cell.

President Mandela. Well, there were pleasant—[laughter]—and unpleasant experiences, and it depends how you look at the situation. As you know, right down the centuries and in many parts of the world, there are men and women who are able to turn disaster—what would crush many people—to turn that disaster into victory. And that is what these men here, like Mr. Kathrada and others, did.

And so when I come here, I call back into memory that great saga in which the authorities, who were pitiless, insensitive, and cruel, nevertheless failed in their evil intentions. They were responsible for that.

Q. President Mandela, can we just ask you, is there—you've been back to the island many times——

President Mandela. Let's come closer, please.

Q. You've been back to the islands many times. Can you tell us what the special significance is of this particular visit with the American President?

President Mandela. There is no doubt that, as I said at the press conference, that the visit by President Clinton is a high watermark in relation to all the visits that we've held. And coming to Robben Island is something more important, with that significant achievement of coming to South Africa. And we appreciate that very much.

Q. President Clinton, what are you feeling?

President Clinton. Well, my first thought was to thank God that the person who occupied this cell was able to live all those years in that way without having his heart turn to stone and without giving up on his dreams for South Africa.

The other thing that I would say is that I think this is a good object lesson in life for all young people. You know, 99.9999 percent of the people will never have a challenge in life like the one Mr. Mandela faced when he spent all these years in prison. But everyone has difficulties, everyone faces unfairness, and everyone faces cruelty. And the one thing that is beyond the control of anyone else is how you react to it, what happens to your own spirit, what happens to your own heart, what happens to your own outlook on life.

And he is the world's foremost living example of that. And every young child, I wish, could think about his or her life that way, and there would be a lot more happiness in the world and a lot more generosity, because then no one would feel compelled to react in a certain way because of what others said or others did. It's a very important thing about living.

NOTE: The exchange took place during a tour which began at 1:15 p.m., led by Robben Island Council Chair Ahmed M. Kathrada, a former prisoner at Robben Island.

William J. Clinton, Exchange With Reporters During a Visit to Robben Island With President Nelson Mandela of South Africa Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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