Immersed in Robben Island’s culture of comradeship, co-operation and self-improvement (some prisoners completed post-secondary degrees by correspondence), Mandela read widely and obsessively. (He was said to have devoured Leo Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece War and Peace in three days.) He also began to write a secret autobiography, which later became the basis for Long Walk to Freedom.
The world outside also changed over the years Mandela spent behind bars. The international obscurity in which he had languished began to fade, in part because of the rise of black consciousness, independence movements in other African countries, trade and sports sanctions, and worldwide outrage at the torture and murder of activist Steve Biko in police custody in 1977, which led to the UN imposing an embargo on all arms sales to South Africa.
Finally, in 1980, he was allowed to receive newspapers and resume studies for his law degree by correspondence from the University of London, where 7,000 of his fellow students voted to make him chancellor (he lost out to Princess Anne).
As the ANC marked the 25th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, a serious movement to free Mandela took root in South Africa and abroad – enveloping even the UN Security Council. Canada played a major role in exerting political pressure to impose sanctions on South Africa.
A corruption scandal had forced Vorster to resign in 1978, and he was replaced by Defence Minister Botha who, although widely known as the Big Crocodile, proved to be less rabid than his predecessor. Even so, he bolstered military reprisals against ANC operatives and found a way to drive a wedge into the anti-apartheid movement.
He also tried to restore links with the West by painting apartheid as a political bastion against the emerging African brand of communism in Angola and Mozambique – a seductive argument with such stalwart Cold Warriors as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
At the same time, he took a more conciliatory approach to his marquee political prisoners on Robben Island. In 1982, Mandela and four others were moved to the mainland and installed in more civilized – but still isolated – surroundings at Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. Mandela was now allowed to send and receive 52 letters a year. All were subject to censorship but he took full advantage of this privilege by reaching out, especially to church leaders, to assure his supporters that he was alive – and so was the struggle.
Botha’s divide-and-conquer strategy was to change the constitution to allow Asian and coloured South Africans, but not blacks, to elect their own assemblies and control their own education, housing and welfare systems. White voters supported the move in a 1983 referendum but, instead of being split, the multi-racial opposition movement was strengthened and created a new organization called the United Democratic Front (UDF).
On Jan. 31, 1985, Botha dangled another carrot, offering Mandela his freedom provided that he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument.” The rebuttal came 10 days later in a carefully crafted speech smuggled out of Pollsmoor by Winnie Mandela and read aloud by daughter Zindzi at a huge rally in Soweto – the first time in more than 20 years that Mandela’s words were delivered directly to his supporters. He insisted that the government should be the one to renounce violence by dismantling apartheid and removing the ban on the ANC.
As both sides dug in, the country almost became ungovernable. Protests grew, as did violent reprisals – police killed 19 protesters at a rally marking the 25th anniversary of Sharpeville. At the same time, the unwieldy bureaucratic apparatus required to maintain apartheid was crumbling under its own weight in a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing society. The pass laws, designed to segregate black workers in rural areas, for example, were at odds with inexorable and inevitable urban demands for cheap labour.
In July, 1985, a state of emergency was declared, giving police free rein to detain and interrogate suspects. But the unrest so alarmed financial markets that foreign banks began to call South Africa’s loans and the rand began to plunge. A poll conducted the following month showed that 70 per cent of blacks and 30 per cent of whites were anticipating civil war.
In the middle of this, Mandela fell ill and required prostate surgery. Upon recovering, he was returned to Pollsmoor and put in solitary confinement. Even so, he found ways to communicate with other ANC leaders and decided to write a letter to Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee to “propose talks about talks” as he phrased it in Long Walk to Freedom. There was no response until early 1986, when the minister visited Mandela with the Eminent Persons Group, a seven-member Commonwealth delegation, including Anglican Archbishop Ted Scott from Canada, seeking a break in the impasse. Finally, the government lifted the state of emergency and abolished the pass laws, by this point almost impossible to enforce anyway.