Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He faced harsh conditions meant to break his resolve, but Mandela refused to give up his efforts to achieve equality for all people.
Despite the terrible personal cost of imprisonment, Mandela continued to act as a leader and mobilized his fellow political prisoners. After he was released, Mandela helped negotiate an end to apartheid and became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.
This is the story of Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to president.
Why did Mandela go to prison?
Mandela went to prison because he opposed South Africa’s apartheid laws.
Apartheid means “apartness” in the Afrikaans language. Apartheid laws separated South Africans into four different racial categories: “white/European,” “black,” “coloured (people of mixed race),” or “Indian/Asian.” White people – 15 percent of the South African population – stood at the top of society, wielding power and wealth. Black South Africans – 80 percent of the population – were relegated to the very bottom.
Many South Africans defied apartheid. Tactics included civil disobedience campaigns, national strikes and boycotts. Nelson Mandela joined this struggle in the 1940s as a young lawyer. By the 1950s, he had become an important leader in the struggle against apartheid.
The South African government responded to demands for equality and freedom with repression and violence. They shot and killed unarmed demonstrators and detained and arrested many others.
Defiance of apartheid had started peacefully, but Mandela now believed that armed struggle was the only way forward. He and others formed an armed resistance group called Umkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), also known as MK. Mandela spent 17 months underground trying to gain support for the armed struggle, but was arrested in 1962. Then, in 1963, Mandela was put on trial for a number of charges. He and seven of his colleagues were sentenced to life in prison.
I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Mandela and his compatriots were sent to a maximum security prison on Robben Island in 1964. There were no white prisoners on Robben Island. Mandela spent 18 of 27 years of imprisonment there, held with the other political prisoners who were kept in a separate section.
Political prisoners faced the worst conditions of all. Condemned to hard labour, Mandela and his fellow activists spent more than a decade breaking rocks in a lime quarry. Some prisoners were assaulted and tortured by guards.
Contact with the outside world was almost completely severed. When Mandela arrived on Robben Island, he was permitted one letter and one 30‐minute visit every six months. He was denied permission to attend the funeral of his mother, who passed away in 1968, and one of his sons, who died in a car accident in 1969. It would be 21 years before he could hold his wife, Winnie Mandela, again. His two young daughters, Zeni and Zindzi, had to wait until the age of 16 to see him.
Glass walls separated prisoners from visitors. They talked on phones as guards listened to every word. Letters were heavily censored, with words blacked out if they were not strictly personal. After prisoners found ways to read blackened content, censors began cutting out large portions of letters, reducing them to shreds.
Although these precious letters do not reach [you], I shall nevertheless keep on trying by writing whenever that is possible…. It is some means of passing on to you my warmest love and good wishes, and tends to calm down the shooting pains that hit me whenever I think of you.
Neslon Mandela from a letter written to his daughters Zeni and Zindzi Mandela
Despite their treatment, the prisoners on Robben Island continued to resist the apartheid regime in thousands of ways.
Mandela and other prisoners advocated for improved conditions and rights for all prisoners, regardless of race. In 1966, black prisoners secured the right to wear long pants instead of shorts. Eventually, prisoners were allowed to have a desk in their cells, and to read and study. They even planted a small garden.
We regarded the struggle in prison as a microcosm of the struggle as a whole. We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same; I would simply have to fight on different terms.
Outside the walls of Mandela’s prison, South Africans continued to resist the apartheid regime. In 1985, under increasing pressure, the government made an offer to release Mandela, on condition he renounce violence as a political tool. Mandela rejected the offer. His youngest daughter, Zindzi Mandela, read his response at a mass rally in Soweto:
Mandela was committed to achieving freedom for all South Africans, not just for himself. In 1986, he began to quietly reach out to the South African government to see if there was interest in negotiating an end to apartheid.
Four years later, on February 11, 1990, the most famous political prisoner in the world was released. He was 71 years old, but there was still work to do. Years of fraught negotiations followed the end of Mandela’s imprisonment. Throughout this period, political violence and civil war threatened to engulf the country.
In 1993, South Africa adopted an interim constitution. This paved the way for the country’s first democratic elections. That same year, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Mandela and South African President F. W. de Klerk.
South Africa’s first democratic elections were held in 1994. When all the ballots were counted, Nelson Mandela had become the country’s first democratically elected president. Mandela would dedicate the remaining years of his life to transforming his country. He always acknowledged that there was still more to do – and that it was up to future generations to continue the struggle for freedom.
South Africa election, 1994
The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.