In His Own Words: Nelson Mandela's Prison Years

"Prison - far from breaking our spirits - made us more determined to continue with this battle until victory was won."

By The Nelson Mandela Foundation

By Nelson Mandela Center of Memory

Nelson Mandela walks out of the gates of Victor Verster prison (1990-02-11) by Gideon MendelThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

27 years in prison

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 work made him a target for 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. In 1962 he was captured, and sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country illegally and inciting a strike. In 1963 he joined other MK leaders in the Rivonia Trial, at the end of which he was sentenced to life for sabotage. He was finally released from prison in 1990 after over 27 years of unbroken incarceration. Eighteen of those years were spent on Robben Island.

Warrants of Committal Warrants of Committal (1962-11-07/1964-06-12)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Sentenced to life imprisonment

Following Nelson Mandela’s sentencing on 7 November 1962 the Pretoria Magistrates Court issued a warrant committing him to prison for five years. He had been convicted and sentenced that day to three years for one charge of “inciting to trespass laws” (to strike) and two for leaving South Africa without a passport. It was stipulated that the two sentences were to run consecutively.

A second Warrant of Committal was issued by the Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court of South Africa on June 12, 1964, the same day the judge handed down a sentence of life imprisonment for Mr Mandela and his colleagues, who were convicted on four counts of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial.

The first two counts were for contravening Section 21(1) of the General Laws Amendment Act (Sabotage Act) No. 76 of 1962; the third in contravention of Section 11(a), read with Sections 1 and 12 of Act No. 44 of 1950; and the fourth was for contravening Section 3(1) (6), read with Section 2 of Act No. 8 of 1953 (as amended).

The two framed warrants were presented to Mr Mandela on February 11, 1995 – the fifth anniversary of his release from prison – by then Correctional Services Minister Sipho Mzimela, on behalf of the department.

Robben Island: 1963-1982

Many people are unaware that Nelson Mandela was sent to prison on Robben Island twice. The first time was a brief period in 1963, about six months after he had been sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country illegally and inciting a strike. Initially held at Pretoria Local Prison, Mr Mandela was sent to Robben Island in May 1963 and then, on 13 June 1963, he was inexplicably returned to Pretoria. After he had been there for about a month, his colleagues were arrested and they stood trial together for sabotage in the Rivonia Trial. Mr Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. He remained on Robben Island until the end of March 1982 after which he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. Then, after a few months in hospitals, he was sent to Victor Verster Prison in December 1988 from where he was freed on 11 February 1990.

May 1963: Arriving at Robben Island

This story about Nelson Mandela’s first imprisonment on Robben Island strongly demonstrates his iron will and indelible sense of dignity that helped him to survive 27 years in prison. He shows, on the one hand, that from day one, the prison warders were determined to treat the prisoners as nothing more than cattle as they tried aggressively to bring them under their control. It was not to be. Mr Mandela immediately took charge and showed how one can turn the tables even in the more dire circumstances. It was this dignity and strength demonstrated by Nelson Mandela and that of his colleagues later that marked their imprisonment and subsequent demeanour.

May 1963: Remembering the coldest experience in prison

"... We drew strength and sustence from the knowledge that we were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim."

Nelson Mandela's prison cell

The 2x2 meter cell in section B of Robben Island Prison, in which Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years.

Limestone Quarry Limestone QuarryRobben Island Museum

Prisoners were forced to work in the island's quarries. This picture shows the infamous Lime Quarry, located at the center of the island.

Robben Island group of prisoners (1977-04-25)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

“Prison is itself a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is, above all, a test of one's commitment…”

In the draft of the sequel to his autobiography which he started writing in 1998, Nelson Mandela recalled the harshness of prison life and how his experience as a lawyer before he went to prison helped him to cope. Throughout all his writings from the very early days to even after he had retired, Nelson Mandela was at pains to point out that not every prison warder or apartheid official was bad. This view was underpinned throughout by his assertion that to get along in life one should see the good in all people. It also helped him to choose the right time to initiate talks with the apartheid regime – which was a continuation of efforts made by the African National Congress since the early 1900s and up to 1961.

Sequel to Long Walk to Freedom - Revision 4.1 - Chapter 2 - Page 1 (1985/2002)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Removing roadblocks

One of Nelson Mandela’s greatest achievements was his qualification as an attorney. In 1953 he established South Africa’s first black law partnership in Johannesburg with his friend and comrade Oliver Tambo. During his long imprisonment he used his knowledge of the law to full effect and advantage. His answer to brutality and bullying as well as harassment and abuses was to turn to the law, whether it was on his own behalf or to assist other prisoners: he would either threaten to take action or to institute legal action. As this story shows, it became an essential protection.

It would have been easy for Nelson Mandela to allow the world to believe that he was physically assaulted in prison. On the contrary, he has publicly said that it never happened to him. It happened to others but not to him. It would also have been easy for him to tar all the prison guards with the same brush – that they were brutes who would never give an inch.

Here Mandela paints a different picture; he talks about how the jailers were not all ‘rogues’ – he makes a point of showing the human, and more humane, side of some of his jailers.

No title {Further reflections} No title {Further reflections} (1976)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Paying tribute to his comrades

Nelson Mandela never hesitated to say that he achieved what he did as part of a “collective” and that his comrades in the African National Congress and particularly those he was in prison with were part of this collective.

Whenever he had the chance he complimented them, as well as those from other political persuasions who suffered with him in prison.

In this extract to the sequel to his autobiography, he remembered his prison comrades and recalled how he did not tell them he was initiating dialogue with the apartheid government until it had already started. For very good reason.

He also explained that negotiation was nothing new.

8 Rivonia Trialists (1964) by UnknownRobben Island Museum

The Release Mandela Campaign

While Mandela and his comrades were imprisoned on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, efforts to campaign for their release were growing. Since the prisoners were deprived of newspapers for most of the time they were in jail, the campaigners could not expect them to know about their work to publicise their plight.

In this extract from his unpublished autobiographical manuscript written in prison, it is clear that not only was he aware of these efforts – despite stringent censorship of letters and visits, he derived strength from them.

His writing about this issue gave him the opportunity to express his optimism about his eventual freedom and the success of the struggle against apartheid.

(Long Walk Original Manuscript p615).

Mickey Patel Posters (Image 3) (1988/1988)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

By the time Nelson Mandela turned 70 – and was still imprisoned – the campaign for his release had reached virtually every corner of the world.

Any and every medium was used to push, coerce, and encourage anyone and everyone to do their bit to help free him. From students and concert goers to politicians and bankers, most people were touched by the Free Mandela Campaign.

One of the efforts was a series of ten posters by artist Mickey Patel which he donated to the office in India of the African National Congress in exile. One hundred more of these posters were then made from a silk-screening.

Twenty-three years later the posters found a home at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. They were donated by a former anti-apartheid activist, Mosie Moolla, who escaped from police custody in 1963 and found his way to India where he became the ANC’s Chief Representative in that country.

To Zeni Mandela (back)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Keeping strong: letters to his family and lawyers

Heavy censorship of correspondence in prison meant that if a prisoner wanted to communicate anything of a sensitive nature to anyone outside prison they needed to smuggle it out.

To Zeni and Zindzi Mandela To Zeni and Zindzi Mandela (1969-06-23)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

1969: secret visits

In a letter to his daughter Zenani to mark her 12th birthday in 1971 Nelson Mandela recalled her birth after his wife had been jailed for 15 days. Like most of his letters to his children he poignantly tries to be a long-distant father.

Winnie Mandela was pregnant with her eldest daughter when she was arrested for participating in a protest against the pass laws. “Do you understand that you were nearly born in prison?” he writes.

The letter tells her how she was only 25 months old when he went underground and they never lived together again.

He describes one of her secret visits to him in hiding: “I took you into my arms and for about ten minutes we hugged, and kissed and talked. Then suddenly you seemed to have remembered something. You pushed me aside and began searching the room. In a corner you found the rest of my clothing. After collecting it you gave it to me and asked me to go home. You held my hand for quite some time, pulling desperately and begging me to return.”

To Zeni Mandela To Zeni Mandela (1971-03-01)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

1971: Letter to Zeni

Perhaps the most harrowing time in prison for Nelson Mandela was when his wife Winnie was arrested and detained for more than 17 months. From May 1969 to September 1970 she was gone out of their lives and there was nothing he could do to help her or the children she left behind.

At that time their daughters Zeni and Zindzi were aged nine and ten respectively and their father wrote to them from Robben Island trying to comfort them, to be a father. He knew it was highly unlikely that the letter would ever reach them. Luckily he kept a copy in one of two hard-cover notebooks he used to write down the letters he sent.

These notebooks were confiscated by prison warders when he was still on Robben Island but returned to him more than 15 years after his release by a former Security Policeman Donald Card who kept them in his house for years.

Smuggled Letter - Nelson Mandela Smuggled Letter - Nelson Mandela (1976-12-01/1977-06-29)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

1976: Writing to his lawyers

On more than one occasion Mr Mandela and his comrade, Ahmed Kathrada smuggled out letters, especially to lawyers, to complain about conditions in prison.

For example, in January 1977 Mr Mandela wrote, in tiny handwriting, a long letter to lawyers in Durban instructing them to take action against the prison authorities for a list of instances for “abusing their authority”. The letter was addressed to a firm of attorneys called Seedat Pillay and Co.

In October 2010 one of the attorneys of that firm who became a judge of the High Court of South Africa, Judge Thumba Pillay donated to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory that letter as well as a series of related documents.

Mandela's cell 1970s by UnknownRobben Island Museum

Desk calendars

In the early years in prison Nelson Mandela and his comrades were forbidden from keeping watches or clocks. He initially made a calendar on the wall of his cell. Later he was allowed to order a desk calendar a year from South African Tourism. He kept a series of desk calendars on Robben Island Prison where he was held from 13 June 1964 to 31 March 1982 and in Pollsmoor Prison where he was until 12 August 1988 and at Victor Verster Prison when he was transferred there, until his release on 11 February 1990. He continued recording information in these calendars, while he was in hospital in 1988 – first in Tygerberg Hospital and then in Constantiaberg MediClinic -- being treated for tuberculosis. These desk calendars were South African Tourism calendars with scenic photographs and the words “Land of Golden Sunshine”. 

Inside of Nelson Mandela's cell (1971)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Together with his notebooks, the desk calendars are the most direct and unmediated records of his private thoughts and everyday experiences. He did not make entries every day. In fact, there are sometimes weeks where he made none at all. It should be borne in mind that taken-for-granted necessities in the outside world were actually precious luxuries in prison. Milk for tea, for example, was an event. So, too, were visits and letters. And the single word ‘Raid’ masks a deeper menace.

South Africa today desk calendar South Africa today desk calendar (1976) by Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

1976: Soweto uprisings

There is no entry for the Soweto 16 June 1976 uprisings. Nelson Mandela and his comrades only heard about this much later when new political prisoners arrived on Robben Island. In the early years on the Island Mandela and his co prisoners were not allowed any newspapers and did not have a radio.

1977 Desk Calendar 1977 Desk Calendar (1977-01-01/1977-12-31)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

1977: An arranged media visit

Nelson Mandela notes the visit by the media to Robben Island in 1977. The Apartheid government arranged the visit by journalist to dispel rumours about harsh conditions on the Island.

Mandela photographed without his permission - Robben Island (1977) by © National Archives of South AfricaThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

1977: The prisoner in the garden
The famous photograph of Madiba taken on the day the international media was invited by the prison commissioners to Robben Island to observe the prison conditions. This photograph was taken without his consent, and under protest.

1989 Desk Calendar 1989 Desk Calendar (1989-01-01/1989-12-31)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

1989: De Klerk meeting

On 13 December 1989, Nelson Mandela whilst still in jail met State President F W De Klerk for the first time.

CNA 1990 Diary CNA 1990 Diary (1990)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

1990: Reunion

In his final weeks in prison Nelson Mandela was given a diary by a university friend and comrade who had not seem him for years.

This inscription appears on the first page of the slim black 1990 diary: “Dearest Nelson, with our love and every good wish. Radhi and ‘J.N.’ – to remember the first January 1990 meeting after so many, many years!!!”

Apart from an entry on 1 January about the Singh’s visit to him at Victor Verster Prison he made one other entry. On 13 January he made his last diary entry -- he filled a page with a poignant description of a group of ducks that had wandered into the house in which he had lived for just over a year.

'Release Mandela' poster by CAPRobben Island Museum

Long Walk to Freedom: the original autobiography written in prison

In the 1970s while they were serving life sentences on Robben Island, a couple of Nelson Mandela’s colleagues came up with the idea that he should secretly write his autobiography to be published in time for his 60th birthday in 1978. He set about doing this and sent drafts for comment to Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada. Once a draft had been corrected and approved Mac Maharaj and Laloo Chiba transcribed it into tiny handwriting. In the end 600 pages become about 60 pages which were smuggled out in the cover of a study file of Mac Maharaj when he was released in 1976. In the event the manuscript was not published in 1978 as hoped but Mr Mandela used it as the basis for his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

Childhood Days Childhood Days (1976)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Only a handful of pages of the original manuscript have survived and are housed in the South African National Archive in Pretoria. The Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory has the version typed from it by Sue Rabkin.

A year after Mr Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 he began working with American journalist Richard Stengel on what is now Long Walk to Freedom (1994). It was based on the prison manuscript and a series of interviews.

In the book Mr Mandela says:
“We created an assembly line to process the manuscript. Each day I passed what I wrote to Kathy, who reviewed it and then read it to Walter. Kathy then wrote their comments in the margins. Walter and Kathy have never hesitated to criticize me, and I took their suggestions to heart, often incorporating their changes. This marked-up manuscript was then given to Laloo Chiba, who spent the next night transferring my writing to his own almost microscopic shorthand, reducing ten pages of foolscap to a single small piece of paper. It would be Mac’s job to smuggle the manuscript to the outside world.”

Robben Island group of prisoners (1977-04-25)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

After Mr Mandela had made the corrections, the pages were given to fellow prisoners Isu ‘Laloo’ Chiba and Mac Maharaj to transcribe into tiny handwriting.

That manuscript was then divided into cocoa containers and buried in the garden of B Section, Robben Island, using digging tools fashioned by Jeff Masemola. Their later discovery by prison officials during the construction of a wall, resulted in Mr Mandela, Mr Sisulu and Mr Kathrada – whose handwriting was on the original – in losing their study privileges for four years.

Nelson Mandela remembers Robben Island (2004-08-13) by photographer Matthew Willman on behalf of the Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

“... no prison walls, guard dogs or even the cold seas that are like a deadly moat surrounding Robben Island prison, could ever succeed to frustrate the desires of all humanity… ”

Credits: Story

Discover more about Nelson Mandela here

Photographer - Ardon Bar-Hama
Photographer - Matthew Willman
Research & Curation - Nelson Mandela Center of Memory Staff

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