Nelson Mandela: From Prison To Presidency

Fri, Dec 6, 2013
By publisher

Special Mandela Edition

|  By Maureen Chigbo  |  Dec. 16, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

THE accolades are pouring in for a man all the nations on earth admire for his courage and tenacity of purpose and his dogged fight which dismantled the aparthied regime in South Africa. Many nations and people, who mourned the death of Nelson Mandela on December 5, remember him mostly for his resilence in the face of adversity and his magnanimity towards his adversaries who tormented him for the 27 years he spent in prison before he became the president of South Africa in 1994. He was also kind and forgiving of the aparthied rulers who tortured him and his fellow blackmen especially the freedom fighters who opposed the segregationists.

Although he had been severally detained, imprisoned and released for his political activism and opposition to aparthied rule, his long journey to the gallows for 27 years started on August 5, 1962, when South African police captured Mandela along with Cecil Williams near Howick. Jailed in Johannesburg’s Marshall Square prison, he was charged with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission. Mandela who represented himself used the trial to showcase the African National Congress, ANC’s moral opposition to racism while supporters demonstrated outside the court.  His hearing began on October 15, but he disrupted proceedings by wearing a traditional kaross, refusing to call any witnesses, and turning his plea of mitigation into a political speech. Found guilty, he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. On July 11, 1963, police raided Liliesleaf Farm, arresting those they found there and uncovering paperwork incriminating Mandela.

The subsequent Rivonia Trial began at Pretoria Supreme Court on October 9, 1963, with Mandela and his comrades charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. Their chief prosecutor was Percy Yutar, who called for them to receive the death penalty. Judge Quartus de Wet soon threw out the prosecution’s case for insufficient evidence, but Yutar reformulated the charges, presenting his new case from December until February 1964, calling 173 witnesses and bringing thousands of documents and photographs to the trial. With the exception of James Kantor, who was innocent of all charges, Mandela and the accused admitted sabotage but denied that they had ever agreed to initiate guerilla war against the government. They used the trial to highlight their political cause when Mandela made an inspiring speech borrowing from Fidel Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech – was widely reported in the press despite official censorship.


The trial gained international attention, with global calls from such institutions as the United Nations and World Peace Council for the release of the accused. However, deeming them to be violent communist agitators, South Africa’s government ignored all calls for clemency, and on June 12, 1964, de Wet found Mandela and two of his co-accused guilty on all four charges, sentencing them to life imprisonment rather than death. Mandela went through the harsh conditions in the prisons which improved in 1967 with black prisoners given trousers rather than shorts, games being permitted, and food quality improving.  In 1969, an escape plan for Mandela was developed by Gordon Bruce, but it was abandoned after being infiltrated by an agent of the South African Bureau of State Security, BOSS, who planned to shoot Mandela during the escape.

While in prison, Mandela protested the harsh physical and mental abuse of prisoners and complained to visiting judges. This led to the removal of the prison commander, Piet Badenhorst, who was replaced by Willie Willemse. Willemse developed a co-operative relationship with Mandela and was keen to improve prison standards. By 1975, Mandela had become a Class A prisoner, allowing greater number of visits and letters; he corresponded with anti-apartheid activists like Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Desmond Tutu.  That year, he began his autobiography, which was smuggled to London, but remained unpublished at the time. However, prison authorities discovered several pages of the manuscript, and his study privileges were stopped for four years. This made him devote his spare time to gardening and reading until he resumed his LLB degree studies in 1980.

By the late 1960s, Mandela’s fame had been eclipsed by Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement, BCM. Seeing the ANC as ineffectual, the BCM called for militant action, but following the Soweto uprising of 1976, many BCM activists were imprisoned on Robben Island. Mandela tried to build a relationship with these young radicals, although he was critical of their racialism and contempt for white anti-apartheid activists. Renewed international interest in his plight came in July 1978, when he celebrated his 60th birthday. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in Lesotho, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in India in 1979, and the Freedom of the City of Glasgow, Scotland, in 1981. In March 1980 the slogan “Free Mandela!” was developed by journalist Percy Qoboza, sparking an international campaign that led the UN Security Council to call for his release. Despite increasing foreign pressure, the aparthied government refused, relying on powerful foreign cold war allies in US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher considered Mandela a communist terrorist and supported the suppression of the ANC.

In April 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town along with senior ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba; they believed that they were being isolated to remove their influence on younger activists. Conditions at Pollsmoor were better than at Robben Island. Mandela missed the camaraderie and scenery of the island. Nonetheless he got on well with Brigadier Munro, Pollsmoor’s commanding officer, who permitted him to have a roof garden and to receive more letters.  While in prison, he was appointed patron of the multi-racial United Democratic Front, UDF, founded to combat reforms implemented by the then South African President P.W. Botha. Botha’s National Party government had permitted Coloured and Indian citizens to vote for their own parliaments which would have control over education, health, and housing, but black Africans were excluded from the system. Like Mandela, the UDF saw this as an attempt to divide the anti-apartheid movement on racial lines. Violence escalated, with many fearing the outbreak of civil war. According to Wikipedia, under pressure from an international lobby, multinational banks stopped investing in South Africa, resulting in economic stagnation. Numerous banks and Thatcher asked Botha to release Mandela – then at the height of his international fame – to defuse the volatile situation. Although considering Mandela a dangerous “arch-Marxist”,  in February 1985, Botha offered him a release from prison on condition that he ‘”unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon”. Mandela spurned the offer, releasing a statement through his daughter, Zindzi, stating: “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people (ANC) remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

In 1985 Mandela underwent surgery on an enlarged prostate gland, before being given new solitary quarters on the ground floor. He was met by “seven eminent persons”, an international delegation sent to negotiate a settlement, but Botha’s government refused to co-operate and called for a state of emergency and initiating a police crackdown on unrest in June.. The anti-apartheid resistance fought back, with the ANC committing 231 attacks in 1986 and 235 in 1987. Utilising the army and right-wing paramilitaries to combat the resistance, the government secretly funded Zulu nationalist movement Inkatha to attack ANC members, thereby worsening the violence. Mandela requested talks with Botha but was denied, instead secretly meeting with Kobie Coetsee, minister of justice in 1987. They met 11 meetings over three years. Coetsee organised negotiations between Mandela and a team of four government figures starting in May 1988. The team agreed to the release of political prisoners and the legalisation of the ANC on the condition that they permanently renounce violence, break links with the Communist Party and not insist on majority rule. Mandela rejected these conditions, insisting that the ANC would only end the armed struggle when the government renounced violence.

Mandela’s 70th birthday in July 1988 attracted international attention, notably with the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert at London’s Wembley Stadium.  Recovering from tuberculosis caused by dank conditions in his cell, in December 1988, Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl where he was housed in the relative comfort of a warders’ house with a personal cook. He used the time to complete his LLB degree. Allowed many visitors, Mandela organised secret communications with exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo.

de Klerk
de Klerk

In 1989, Botha suffered a stroke, retaining the state presidency but stepping down as leader of the National Party, to be replaced by the conservative F. W. de Klerk. In a surprise move, Botha invited Mandela to a meeting over tea in July 1989, an invitation Mandela considered genial.  Botha was replaced as state president by de Klerk six weeks later. The new president believed that apartheid was unsustainable and unconditionally released all ANC prisoners except Mandela.  Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, de Klerk called his cabinet together to debate legalising the ANC and freeing Mandela. Although some were deeply opposed to his plans, de Klerk met with Mandela in December to discuss the situation.  Both men considered the meeting as friendly. Mandela was later released unconditionally while all formerly banned political parties were legalised on February 2, 1990. The government published a photograph of Mandela meeting with de Klerk in Cape Town, the first photograph of Mandela published in over 20 years.

Leaving Victor Verster on February 11, Mandela held Winnie, his wife’s ‘s hand in front of massive crowds and press. The event was broadcast live across the world.  Driven to Cape Town’s City Hall through crowds, he gave a speech declaring his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority, but made it clear that the ANC’s armed struggle was not over, and would continue as “a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid.” He expressed hope that the government would agree to negotiations, so that “there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle”, and insisted that his main focus was to bring peace to the black majority and give them the right to vote in national and local elections.  Staying at the home of Desmond Tutu, in the following days, Mandela met with friends, activists, and press, giving a speech to 100,000 people at Johannesburg’s

Mandela proceeded on an African tour, meeting supporters and politicians in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Libya and Algeria, and Sweden where he was reunited with Tambo. In London, where he appeared at the Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa concert in Wembley Stadium, the global icon encouraged foreign countries to support sanctions against the apartheid government. In France, he was welcomed by President François Mitterrand, and in Vatican City by Pope John Paul II. In England he met Margaret Thatcher and in the United States, he met President George H.W. Bush, and also addressed both Houses of Congress and visited eight cities, being particularly popular among the African-American community. In Cuba, he met President Fidel Castro, whom he had long emulated, with the two becoming friends.  In Asia, he met President R. Venkataraman of India, President Suharto of Indonesia and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, before visiting Australia to meet Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Curiously, he did not visit the Soviet Union, a longtime ANC supporter.

In May 1990, Mandela led a multiracial ANC delegation into preliminary negotiations with a government delegation of 11 Afrikaner men. Mandela impressed them with his discussions of Afrikaner history, and the negotiations led to the Groot Schuur Minute, in which the government lifted the state of emergency. In August Mandela – recognising the ANC’s severe military disadvantage – made a ceasefire, offer – the Pretoria Minute, – for which he was widely criticised by MK activists. That notwithstanding, he spent much time trying to unify and build the ANC, appearing at a Johannesburg conference in December, attended by 1600 delegates, many of whom found him more moderate than expected. At the ANC’s July 1991 national conference in Durban, Mandela admitted the party’s faults and announced his aim to build a “strong and well-oiled task force” for securing majority rule. At the conference, he was elected ANC President to replace the ailing Tambo, while a 50-strong multiracial, multi-gendered national executive was elected.


Mandela was given an office in the newly purchased ANC headquarters at Shell House, central Johannesburg, while moving with Winnie to her large Soweto home. Mandela’s reputation was further damaged by the increase in “black-on-black” violence, particularly between ANC and Inkatha supporters in KwaZulu-Natal, in which thousands died. Mandela met with Inkatha leader, Buthelezi, but the ANC prevented further negotiations on the issue. Mandela recognised that there was a “third force” within the state intelligence services fuelling the “slaughter of the people” and openly blamed de Klerk – whom he increasingly distrusted – for the Sebokeng massacre. In September 1991 a national peace conference was held in Johannesburg in which Mandela, Buthelezi and de Klerk signed a peace accord, though the violence continued.

The Convention for a Democratic South Africa, CODESA, began in December 1991 at the Johannesburg World Trade Center, attended by 228 delegates from 19 political parties. Although Cyril Ramaphosa led the ANC’s delegation, Mandela remained a key figure, and after de Klerk used the closing speech to condemn the ANC’s violence, he took to the stage to denounce him as “head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime”. Dominated by the National Party and ANC, little negotiation was achieved. CODESA 2 was held in May 1992, in which de Klerk insisted that post-apartheid South Africa must use a federal system with a rotating presidency to ensure the protection of ethnic minorities; Mandela opposed this, demanding a unitary system governed by majority rule.

Following the Boipatong massacre of ANC activists by government-aided Inkatha militants, Mandela called off the negotiations, before attending a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Senegal, at which he called for a special session of the UN Security Council and proposed that a UN peacekeeping force be stationed in South Africa to prevent “state terrorism”. The UN subsequently sent special envoy, Cyrus Vance to the country to aid negotiations.  Calling for domestic mass action, in August the ANC organised the largest-ever strike in South African history, while supporters marched on Pretoria.

Following the Bisho massacre, in which 28 ANC supporters and one soldier were shot dead by the Ciskei Defence Force during a protest march, Mandela realised that mass action was leading to further violence and resumed negotiations in September. He agreed to do so on the conditions that all political prisoners be released, that Zulu traditional weapons be banned, and that Zulu hostels would be fenced off. The latter two measures were  to prevent further Inkatha attacks. De Klerk reluctantly agreed to the measures under increasing pressure.. The negotiations agreed that a multiracial general election would be held, resulting in a five-year coalition government of national unity and a constitutional assembly that gave the National Party continuing influence. The ANC also conceded to safeguarding the jobs of white civil servants. But  the concessions brought fierce internal criticism.  The duo agreed on an interim constitution, guaranteeing separation of powers, creating a constitutional court, and including a US-style bill of rights; it also divided the country into nine provinces, each with its own premier and civil service. This was a concession between de Klerk’s desire for federalism and Mandela’s unitary government.

Regretably, the democratic process was threatened by Concerned South Africans Group, COSAG, an alliance of far-right Afrikaner parties and black ethnic-secessionist groups like Inkatha. In June 1993, the white supremacist Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, AWB, attacked the Kempton Park World Trade Centre.  Following the murder of ANC leader Chris Hani, Mandela made a publicised speech to calm rioting, soon after appearing at a mass funeral in Soweto for Tambo, who had died from a stroke.  In July 1993, both Mandela and de Klerk visited the US, independently meeting President Bill Clinton and each receiving the Liberty Medal. Soon after, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway. Influenced by young ANC leader, Thabo Mbeki, Mandela began meeting with big business figures, and played down his support for nationalisation, fearing that he would scare away the much-needed foreign investment. Although criticised by socialist ANC members, he was encouraged to embrace private enterprise by members of the Chinese and Vietnamese Communist parties at the January 1992 World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Mandela also made a cameo appearance as a schoolteacher reciting one of Malcolm X’s speeches in the final scene of the 1992 film


With the election set for April 27, 1994, the ANC began campaigning, opening 100 election offices and hiring advisor Stanley Greenberg who orchestrated the foundation of People’s Forums across the country, at which Mandela could appear. Though a poor public speaker, he was a popular figure with great status among black South Africans.  The ANC campaigned on a Reconstruction and Development Programme, RDP, to build a million houses in five years, introduce universal free education and extend access to water and electricity. The party’s slogan was “a better life for all”, although it was not explained how this development would be funded.

With the exception of the Weekly Mail and the New Nation, South Africa’s press opposed Mandela’s election, fearing continued ethnic strife, and instead supported the National or Democratic Party.  Mandela devoted much time to fundraising for the ANC, touring North America, Europe and Asia to meet wealthy donors, including former supporters of the apartheid regime.  He also urged a reduction in the voting age from 18 to 14; rejected by the ANC, this policy became the subject of ridicule.

Concerned that COSAG would undermine the election, particularly in the wake of the Battle of Bop and Shell House Massacre – incidents of violence involving the AWB and Inkatha, respectively, Mandela met with Afrikaner politicians and generals, including P.W. Botha, Pik Botha and Constand Viljoen, persuading them to work within the democratic system, and with de Klerk. He convinced Inkatha’s Buthelezi to enter the elections rather than launch a war of secession. As leaders of the two major parties, de Klerk and Mandela appeared on a televised debate; although de Klerk was widely considered the better speaker at the event, Mandela’s offer to shake his hand surprised him, leading some commentators to consider it a victory for Mandela.

The election went ahead with little violence, although an AWB cell killed 20 with car bombs. Mandela voted at the Ohlange High School in Durban, and though he was elected President, he publicly accepted that the election had been marred by instances of fraud and sabotage.  Having taken 62 percent of the national vote, the ANC was just short of the two-thirds majority needed to unilaterally change the constitution. The ANC was also victorious in seven provinces, with Inkatha and the National Party taking one each.

Mandela’s inauguration took place in Pretoria on May 10, 1994, televised to a billion viewers globally.  South Africa’s first black President, Mandela became head of a Government of National Unity dominated by the ANC – which alone had no experience of governance – but containing representatives from the National Party and Inkatha. In keeping with earlier agreements, de Klerk became first Deputy President, while Thabo Mbeki was selected as second.   Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC, appointing Desmond Tutu as its chair.

To prevent the creation of martyrs, the commission granted individual amnesties in exchange for testimony of crimes committed during the apartheid era. Dedicated in February 1996, it held two years of hearings detailing rapes, torture, bombings, and assassinations, before issuing its final report in October 1998. Both de Klerk and Mbeki appealed to have parts of the report suppressed, though only de Klerk’s appeal was successful. Mandela praised the Commission’s work, stating that it “had helped us move away from the past to concentrate on the present and the future”. Mandela kept his promise not to seek a second term and retired in 1999 handing over power to Mbeki.

According to Wikipedia, under Mandela’s presidency, welfare spending increased by 13 percent in 1996/97, 13 percent in 1997/98, and 7 percent in 1998/99.  The government introduced parity in grants for communities, including disability grants, child maintenance grants, and old-age pensions, which had previously been set at different levels for South Africa’s different racial groups.  In 1994, free healthcare was introduced for children under six and pregnant women, a provision extended to all those using primary level public sector health care services in 1996.

The Land Restitution Act of 1994 enabled people who had lost their property as a result of the Natives Land Act, 1913 to claim back their land, leading to the settlement of tens of thousands of land claims.  The Land Reform Act 3 of 1996 safeguarded the rights of labour tenants who live and grow crops or graze livestock on farms. This legislation ensured that such tenants could not be evicted without a court order or if they were over the age of sixty-five. The Skills Development Act of 1998 provided for the establishment of mechanisms to finance and promote skills development at the workplace. The Labour Relations Act of 1995 promoted workplace democracy, orderly collective bargaining, and the effective resolution of labour disputes. The Basic Conditions of Employment Act of 1997 improved enforcement mechanisms while extending a “floor” of rights to all workers,  while the Employment Equity Act of 1998 was passed to put an end to unfair discrimination and ensure the implementation of affirmative action in the workplace.

Many domestic problems however remained. Critics like Edwin Cameron accused Mandela’s government of doing little to stem the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the country; by 1999, 10 percent of South Africa’s population were HIV positive. Mandela later admitted that he had personally neglected the issue, leaving it for Mbeki to deal with. Mandela also received criticism for failing to sufficiently combat crime, South Africa having one of the world’s highest crime rates; this was a key reason cited by the 750,000 whites who emigrated in the late 1990s.   Mandela had never planned on standing for a second term in office, and gave his farewell speech on 29 March 1999, after which he retired. He continued with his public life until June 2004, aged 85 and amid failing health, Mandela announced that he was “retiring from retirement” and retreating from public life, with his famous statement: “Don’t call me, I will call you.”