Nelson Mandela's Cell Mate, 'Saths' Cooper, Also An Anti-Apartheid Hero

The name Sathasivian Cooper may not be as famous internationally as that of Nelson Rohihlhla Mandela, but the younger man fondly called “Saths” and the older man affectionately nicknamed “Madiba” (meaning "troublemaker") were both rebels and anti-apartheid activists at the same time in their native South Africa, labeled as terrorists and incarcerated in the same cell block in the notorious Robben Island Maximum Security Prison off the coast of Cape Town.

With the death of the iconic former South African president unleashing memories from associates, and the movie “Mandela” scheduled for release Christmas Day, I want to bring to light the story of the much younger activist. Cooper, 63, not only followed a similar path against racism but also rose to a position of President, as the first African head of the International Union of Psychological Sciences (IUPsyS), a prestigious global organization with more than 80 member countries.

[Mandela] was learning from us. He wanted to understand us, the fieriness of us, the resistance that we were a part of, and what we stood up against — the oppression.

- Sathasivian Cooper, anti-apartheid activist

I’ve known Saths Cooper for years, in my role on the board of the International Association of Applied Psychology and as Saths’ biographer for a chapter in an upcoming book, “International Psychology Pioneers: Portraits and Perspectives” and video profile.

As Saths told me, the younger and older prison cell neighbors played tennis and jogged together over a five-year period from 1977-1982 and talked often about political differences.

The 50-something Mandela was curious about the activities of the 20-something activists.

“Many interactions were to help him understand what was happening from the young people,” Saths told me. “He was learning from us. He wanted to understand us — the fieriness of us, the resistance that we were a part of, and what we stood up against, the oppression.”

Mandela was intrigued by this youth who challenged the prison guards by refusing to follow demeaning rules like taking off one’s hat just because the guard wished it.   

Saths also refused to be called by his first name by his captors. “That was too familiar, the guards are not my friends,” he told me. “So I insisted they call me by my last name, ‘Cooper.’ They did it, because I gave them no other option. They never used my first name. They always used the surname. I would not let them become familiar or verbally abuse me.”  

The younger man also learned from the elder. “He taught me patience,” Saths told me, “that certain things can be done if you are patient rather than wanting to change things now or yesterday; things will happen if you plan and execute them properly.”

Patience got Mandela through the endless prison days, says Saths.

“Mandela said to me, ‘Let’s make an appointment to have a talk session, and we should talk about your organization, and let’s do it in December.’ It was October, so why do it in December, I wanted to know? That was his way of dealing with being in prison — having a schedule, setting an appointment ahead two months later, to make the time go with meaning and have something to look forward to."

“Also, it was his way to say you will have two months to think about it and maybe your responses will shift.”

As a young founder of the Black People’s Convention, Saths had opposed the “multi-racial” policies of Mandela’s Africa National Congress.  

While just a teenager, Saths helped young student activist Steve Biko (memorialized in the movie “Cry Freedom”) create the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) which rekindled opposition to apartheid when the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress liberation movements were banned in April 1960, after the infamous Sharpeville massacre and after Nelson Mandela went underground and eventually was imprisoned.

Both ultimately came to embrace non-racialism as enshrined in the South African constitution.

Parallels between the two generations of men yield insights into understanding their fight for human rights and social justice. Both Saths Cooper and Nelson Mandela:

• Sought to understand the nature of conflict. Boxing taught Mandela about the strategy of a fight. Cooper’s favorite musical was “West Side Story,” similarly not for the violence but for the “spectacle.”

• Learned to listen. As the son of a tribal councilor, Mandela was “groomed to counsel rulers of the tribe” (recounted in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom).” In Cooper’s path as a psychologist, listening is essential for leadership and reconciliation.

• Have similar American heroes in Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cooper adds Mahatma Gandhi.  

• Made early personal sacrifices. Both divorced their first wives, though later established long-term unions with powerful women, Mandela with his third wife, Graça Machel – the widow of a former President of Mozambique – and Cooper with a South African psychologist who is a leader in the organization he heads.  

• Started out as student activists. Mandela’s early student protest against the food led to a boycott of elections. Cooper became a founding member of the South African Students Organization advocating for a Black identity as opposed to multiracialism (that later evolved into the BMC in 1969).

• Evolved from angry rebels into peaceful unifiers. Mandela, a self-described “hothead,” founded the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) yet later became the voice against violence. Cooper, who always “pushed boundaries,” joined student activist Steve Biko to lead the BCM that staged marches, uprisings and protests that erupted into violence, and arrests. Later in life, Cooper would embrace more peaceful unity.

Three months before Mandela unified the country as the first democratically elected president in 1994, Cooper helped form the Psychological Society of South Africa, the first psychological organization to accept members regardless of race or gender and promote non-participation in oppressive activities. His new initiative is the formation of the Pan African Psychology Union.  

In 1998, Cooper was the beneficiary of Mandela’s South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when he was declared a “victim of gross human rights violations.”

No longer bucking authority, Saths promotes human rights, advocating about poverty among youth, against violence and rape, and for solutions to homelessness and AIDS (a passion of Mandela’s after his son’s death from the disease). He has advised the military and police and contributed to changes in legislation such as the Criminal Procedure Act.

Last year, Saths Cooper received his profession’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Mandela, the IUPsyS  Achievement Against the Odds Award for overcoming extreme personal hardship in pursuit of social justice and human. More awards are to come from The British Psychological Society and the American Psychological Association.

Judy Kuriansky is a New York clinical psychologist on the faculty at Columbia University Teachers College and Chair of the Psychology Coalition of NGOs at the United Nations. A well-known relationship counselor, frequent guest commentator on HLN's Showbiz Tonight, and member of the iconic Friars Club (a fraternity of great comedians and performers), she has also been a mental-health first responder after disasters worldwide. A pioneer of radio call-in advice talk and popular media personality for years, her many books include "The Complete Idiots Guide to a Healthy Relationship" and "Living in an Environmentally Traumatized World: Healing Ourselves and Our Planet."