GAVIN Engelbrecht grew up in South Africa when the every utterance of Nelson Mandela was banned, to publish his image was a criminal act, and the abuse and torture of black people was commonplace. As a young man, he became a willing footsoldier of apartheid, but the things he witnessed led him to lay down his gun and, ultimately, to leave his country of birth (at the height of the Emergency).

GROWING up in the cocooned world of white suburbia in apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela was a faceless bogeyman to us.

The embodiment of evil, he had been banished to Robben Island for good, his every utterance banned and possession of his image punishable with imprisonment.

A Communist sympathiser and terrorist to boot, it was inconceivable that he would ever be freed, let alone have the vote or become the country’s President and achieve the virtual sainthood he did.

As a child I was inculcated with the tenets of white superiority.

The only black people I had dealings with were the “boy” who worked in the garden and the “girl” who lived in a small room in the back garden and tended to our domestic chores.

My parents were addressed as baas (boss) while I was bassie (little boss).

The only black people allowed in white areas had to carry reference books, while a “white-by-night” curfew reigned.

The black “locations” were out of sight and out of mind.

In news broadcasts Prime Ministers Hendrik Verwoerd and later John Vorster railed against outside interference in our affairs and constantly warned of the swaart gevaar (black danger) and the Red peril.

Crude propaganda pumped out by the state-controlled SABC branded the African National Congress (ANC) as instruments of the Communist Soviet Union.

We were defending the last bastion of Christianity on the African continent. Mandela was not mentioned.

Viewing the glistening bay of Cape Town from Table Mountain, I never gave a thought to Robben Island and was even less aware of Mandela languishing there. It was just part of the pretty view.

On leaving school, I was conscripted into the South African Police to do my compulsory military training.

Just weeks before completing our training we were sent into Alexandra, near Johannesburg, as the bloody riots of June 1976 erupted. It was the first time I had been in a black township and it felt as if I was in a foreign country.

Seeing schools and administrative buildings in flames fuelled my racial prejudices. Give them schools and look what they do with them. Burn them them down I reasoned. They are only puppets of their Communist masters and not fit to govern. I became a willing footsoldier of apartheid.

The enemy was Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) co-formed by Mandela. Its ranks filled with disenchanted youths who had fled the country.

When a neighbouring police station was attacked with rocket-propelled grenades it only served to heighten the sense of the threat.

Casual brutality against innocent black people and torture to extract information from suspected criminals were part of the daily routine.

Witnessing one particularly brutal interrogation forced me to question everything I represented and eventually become a staunch opponent of the regime and everything it stood for.

The victim was a black man who committed the cardinal sin of having raped white women. His bestial treatment at the hand of enraged white policemen haunted me . . . and still does.

It was about this time the Free Mandela campaign was launched in London, placing the imprisoned leader firmly in the collective consciousness of the world. He could no longer be ignored.

I was spurred to hand in my gun and become a journalist at the The Star, which sought to place the spotlight on the injustices of the system within constraints of draconian censorship laws.

I vividly recall when I saw the first photograph of Mandela, furtively handed around the newsroom. But he remained an enigma.

The authority’s fear of what he stood for was encapsulated in one trial I covered, where a man who was found to have a tin mug with crudely scrawled inscription “Viva Mandela” was jailed for five years.

I left South Africa at the height of the emergency, the country a volatile whirlpool of violence with no respite in sight. Mandela’s release remained an impossible dream.

I voraciously read his still-banned biography by Anthony Samson, which included Mandela’s dramatic courtroom declaration: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

When I gave my visiting father the book to read he was insulted and we ended up having a heated row.

It was with incredulity and elation that I learned that South African President FW De Klerk had done the unthinkable and unbanned the ANC.

Rather than an act of political altruism it was a purely pragmatic move. But it set in train the eventual release of Mandela himself.

When he was freed most white people awaited his first speech with trepidation and fear.

Here who was a man who had every reason to be bitter and vengeful. Incarcerated for 27 years, he had been refused permission to attend the funerals of his mother and first-born son and only saw his daughters for the first time after more than 10 years in jail. Instead his message was one of reconciliation and peace to the white minority, while making clear the struggle was not over.

The rest is history.

Even after the bloody massacre of his followers at Boipatong by Inkatha militants, Mandela kept his eye firmly on the goal and stamped his authority on the ANC.

With elections looming the country teetered on the brink of a bloody all-out civil war. Activists of the white supremacist AWB stormed the trade centre where negotiations were underway. Then ANC leader Chris Hani was assassinated.

Mandela made an impassioned call for calm. It was his moral authority that carried the day.

The ANC were swept into power in a surge of euphoria in the new-styled Rainbow Nation.

When I saw my father after the elections, his feelings had changed completely and were a barometer of how Mandela’s ascent to power had been received by the bulk of white people.

Mandela was a real statesman. We were hoodwinked all those years about him, he said.

Mandela cemented his place in the white psyche when he embraced the rugby success of the Springboks in the 1991 Rugby World Cup, immortalized in the Hollywood blockbuster Invictus.

To the dismay of many, Mandela did not seek a second term.

My mother once wrote: “We are to my mind the poorer for the great man's retirement. But I also respect him for not clinging to power like some have beyond their capabilities.”

She added: “ I know that when he dies I will be one of many who will cry real tears of sorrow.”

Many now are. And his death will leave a void both in South Africa and on the world stage.

But his legacy will always endure and hopefully serve as a conscience to those who have taken up his flame.