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Nelson Mandela’s Prison Life

27 years in prison! sounds like 27 days, months right? Well, it is often said endurance is the ability to bear a hard thing but turn it into glory. Here is how Nelson Mandela spent over 2 and half decades in prison yet emerged as  a great leader. (Nelson Mandela’s Prison Life)





According to him,

Born in 1918 in Transkei, a part of South Africa Rolihlahla. Mandela (known as Nelson) grew up in a country where black people had little or no say.  Then government was a white person only zone, leaving most black people to work as servants in factories and on farms. As a consequence, it was the black community who were the poorest members of the South African population.

On 5th August 1962, Nelson Mandela got imprisoned for attempting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid rule.

Nelson Mandela, the father of Freedom

Nelson Mandela, father of Freedom

Life in Prison-Nelson Mandela’s Prison Life

“I went for a long holiday for 27 years,” Nelson Mandela once said of his years in prison.

A warder’s first words when Nelson Mandela and his ANC comrades arrived were: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.” this was as Robben Island where he was imprisoned.





According to him,

They faced a harsh regime in a new cell block constructed for political prisoners. Each had a single cell. To start with, they refused them from reading materials.

They crushed stones with a hammer to make gravel and were made to work in a blindingly bright quarry.

A, fellow prisoner, Walter Sisulu spoke of a day Nelson Mandela’s emerging leadership among the inmates was displayed. “The prison authorities would rush us…’Hardloop!’ That means run. One day they did it with us. It was Nelson who said: ‘Comrades let’s be slower than ever.’ It was clear therefore that the steps we were taking would make it impossible ever to reach the quarry. They had to negotiate. 

Robben Island Prison: Inside the notorious Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years

Robben Island Prison: Inside the notorious Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years

Long Walk to Freedom –Nelson Mandela’s Prison Life

“In those early years, isolation became a habit. They routinely charged us for the smallest infractions and sentenced to isolation.” He wrote in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom. “The authorities believed that isolation was the cure for our defiance and rebelliousness.”

“I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”

Still, his determination and wit were clearly undiminished. His lawyer George Bizos saw it at first hand.

“He came to the consulting room on my first visit to Robben Island.  Accompanied by no less than eight warders. Two in front, two on each side and two at the back… in shorts and without socks. He was setting the pace at which this group was coming towards the consulting room. And then with all gravitas he said ‘You know, George, this place really has made me forget my manners. I haven’t introduced you to my guard of honour’.”

University behind bars-Nelson Mandela’s Prison Life

After the first few months on the island, life settled into a pattern.

“Prison life is about routine: each day like the one before; each week like the one before it. So that the months and years blend into each other,” Mandela wrote.

They were forbid from studying some subjects such as politics and military history.  Robben Island became known as a “university behind bars”.

ANC and Communist Party stalwart Mac Maharaj remembers it as a cause of a falling out with Nelson Mandela.

“Here he was showing right at the outset this focus of thinking of the other side.  Understanding them, anticipating them and so at the end of the day understanding how to accommodate them.”

Mandela Returns to Robben Island

Mandela reflected on his RObben Island experience on returning  when on rturning there in 1994. Here, he said “Wounds that can’t be seen are more painful than those that can be seen and cured by a doctor. One of the saddest moments of my life in prison was the death of my mother. The next shattering experience was was when my eldest son died in an accident. The government refused him permission to attend either funeral.

Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie Mandela, Winnie Mandela fought alongside Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and wife, Winnie Mandela; Winnie Mandela fought alongside Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s letters from prison to his second wife Winnie are poignant. They show the price paid for his total immersion in the anti-apartheid struggle.




According to him,

Left to raise their children alone, Winnie once described the impact of taking them to see him in prison: “Taking them at that age to their father – their father of that stature – was so traumatic. It was one of the most painful moments actually. And I could see the strain on my children both before their visit and for quite some time after they had some contact with their father.” 

He became the first president of South Africa to be elected from 1994 to 1999. This occurred in  a fully representative democratic election. See also  Mandela’s Success Story.

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