The Prison Years of Nelson Mandela

Fri, Dec 6, 2013
By publisher

BREAKING NEWS, Special Mandela Edition

Despite his travails in prison, Nelson Mandela remained strong-willed and committed to the war against apartheid in South Africa

By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Dec. 16, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

NELSON Mandela’s is no doubt a profile in courage. His life as an activist and a champion of human rights struggle against apartheid endeared him to people in South Africa and around the world as a man with a heart for humanity. But the part of his adventurous life that begs a retelling is the several years he spent in and out of prisons in his quest to end the oppression of blacks in South Africa.

In those days of apartheid, Mandela was always at the forefront of the battle. He organised protests and led other activists to demand an end to the oppression of blacks by the racist government. His boldness meant that he was always at loggerheads with the state which saw him as a constant threat to the government.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Nelson Mandela frequently found himself in police station cells, court holding cells and prison cells for short periods of time, as his political activities made him a target of the apartheid regime. After the banning of the African National Congress in 1960, he went underground in 1961 and became the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the Congress. On August 5, 1962, he was captured and charged to court for leaving the country illegally and inciting a workers’ strike. During the trial, Mandela representing himself with Joe Slovo as legal advisor used the opportunity to showcase the African National Congress, ANC, moral opposition to racism while lots of his supporters demonstrated outside the court during the trial.  The hearing for his case began on October 15, 1962, but he disrupted proceedings by wearing a traditional kaross, refusing to call any witnesses, and turning his plea of mitigation into a political speech. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He was jailed in Johannesburg’s Marshall Square prison.


While serving that term police raided Liliesleaf Farm on July 11, 1963, arresting those they found there and uncovering paperwork documenting illegal activities, some of which mentioned Mandela. His subsequent trial known as Rivonia Trial began at the 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 1963 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 a guerilla war against the government. They used the trial to highlight their political cause. One of Mandela’s speeches – inspired by Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech – was widely reported in the press despite official censorship. The trial gained international attention, with global calls for the release of the accused from institutions such as the United Nations and World Peace Council. The University of London Union voted Mandela to its presidency, and nightly vigils for him were held in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London. 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 and his co-accused were transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. Isolated from non-political prisoners in Section B, Mandela was imprisoned in a damp concrete cell with a straw mat on which to sleep. He was verbally and physically harassed by several white prison warders. The Rivonia Trial prisoners spent their days breaking rocks into gravel, until being re-assigned in January 1965 to work in a lime quarry. Mandela was initially forbidden to wear sunglasses, and the glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyesight.

At night, he worked on his LLB degree, but newspapers were forbidden, and he was locked in solitary confinement on several occasions for possessing smuggled news clippings. Imprisoned in Class D as the lowest grade of prisoner, he was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, although all mails was heavily censored.

Mandela and his friends took part in work and hunger strikes to improve prison conditions, viewing this as a microcosm of the anti-apartheid struggle. In Robben Island prison, ANC prisoners elected him to their four-man “High Organ” along with Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, while he also involved himself in a group representing all political prisoners on the island. Mandela initiated the University of Robben Island, whereby prisoners lectured on their own areas of expertise. He also debated topics such as homosexuality and politics with his comrades, getting into fierce arguments on the latter with Marxists like Mbeki and Harry Gwala.

Govan Mbeki

Even though he attended Christian Sunday services, Mandela studied Islam. He also studied Afrikaans, hoping to build a mutual respect with the warders and convert them to his cause. In prison, various official visitors met with Mandela. The most significant was the liberal parliamentary representative, Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party, who championed Mandela’s cause outside prison. In September 1970 he met British Labour Party MP Dennis Healey. South African Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger visited him in December 1974, but he and Mandela did not get on. His mother also visited him in 1968, before she died. Mandela also lost his firstborn son Thembi in a car accident the following year.  Mandela was forbidden from attending either funeral. His wife was rarely able to visit because she was also regularly imprisoned for her political activities. Mandela’s daughters first visited him in December 1975 before Winnie got out of prison in 1977. But she was forcibly settled in Brandfort, still unable to visit him.

As the years rolled by, prison conditions improved. Black prisoners were given trousers rather than shorts, games were permitted and food quality increased. 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 intended to shoot  Mandela during the escape. In 1970, when Commander Piet Badenhost became the commanding officer. Mandela, seeing an increase in the physical and mental abuse of prisoners,  complained to visiting judges, who had Badenhost reassigned. He was replaced by Commander Willie Willemse, who developed a co-operative relationship with Mandela and was keen to improve prison standards. By 1975, Mandela had become a Class A prisoner. He was allowed a greater numbers of visits and letters. This made it possible for him to link up 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. When prison authorities discovered several pages, his study privileges were stopped for four years. Mandela then devoted his spare time to gardening and reading until he resumed his LLB degree studies in 1980.

In March 1980, the slogan “Free Mandela!” was developed by a journalist named Percy Qoboza. It sparked an international campaign that led the UN Security Council to call for his release. Despite increasing foreign pressure, the government refused, relying on powerful foreign Cold War allies in United States of the America like  President Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom Prime Minister. 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 like 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 what obtained at Robben Island. Getting on well with Pollsmoor’s commanding officer, Brigadier Munro, Mandela was permitted to create a roof garden. He also read voraciously and corresponded widely. In Pollsmoor prison,  he was permitted 52 letters a year. He was appointed patron of the multi-racial United Democratic Front UDF, founded to combat reforms implemented by South African President P.W. Botha. Botha’s National Party government had permitted coloured and Indian citizens to vote for representatives of 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 across the country escalated, with many fearing civil war. 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. 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, the ANC, remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

Later that year, 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.  In June 1985, Botha declared a state of emergency and initiated a police crackdown on unrest. The anti-apartheid resistance fought back, with the ANC committing 231 attacks in 1986 and 235 in 1987.

Mandela requested for talks with Botha but was denied. He then had secret meetings with Kobie Coetsee, minister of Justice in 1987. 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 condition that they permanently renounce violence, break links with the Communist Party and not insist on majority rule. Mandela rejected the conditions, insisting that the ANC would only end the armed struggle when the government renounced violence.

Mandela's freedom publicised by the Press
Mandela’s freedom publicised by the Press

Mandela’s 70th birthday in July 1988 attracted international attention, with the BBC organising the Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute music gig at London’s Wembley Stadium.  After he recovered from tuberculosis caused by dank conditions in his cell in December 1988, Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. Here, he was housed in the relative comfort of a warder’s house with a personal cook, using the time to complete his LLB degree. He was also allowed to receive many visitors. Here, Mandela organised secret communications with Oliver Tambo, exiled ANC leader. In 1989, Botha suffered a stroke, and stepped down  but retained the presidency as leader of the National Party. He was 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. However, 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, a meeting both men considered friendly, before releasing Mandela unconditionally and legalising all formerly banned political parties on February 2 1990.

Leaving Victor Verster on 11 February, Mandela held Winnie’s hand in front of a mass crowd 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 the 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 the press, giving a speech to 100,000 people at Johannesburg’s Soccer City.