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Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)
Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)


Indelible global icon Nelson Mandela dies at 95 Add to ...

The speech identified him publicly as the leader not just the ANC but the entire multiracial opposition to apartheid, and many people consider it the most effective of his career. “He spoke so powerfully and convincingly that it left little need for debate,” Ahmed Kathrada, another of the accused, wrote 25 years later in The Independent. “We accepted his lead and prepared ourselves for the worst.”

Three weeks later, on June 11, 1964, the judge dismissed the prosecution’s argument that the ANC had put its revolutionary plot into action, but concluded that it was a “communist-dominated organization,” and found all but one of the accused guilty of sabotage.

And so, in the same year that U.S. civil-rights leader Martin Luther King became, at 35, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the leader of South Africa’s civil-rights movement was sentenced to life in prison at hard labour. He was 46.


Used by the British to confine tribal leaders captured in the 19th century, Robben Island is five square kilometres of rock in the Atlantic. Although just off Cape Town, Mandela isolated from the rest of the world – his visitors restricted, his letters censored, his newspapers and magazines withheld. Forced to go without socks and to wear short pants, which he considered the humiliating garb of boys, he spent his days breaking rocks in a lime quarry under a blistering sun that permanently damaged his eyes.

Worst of all, he had no contact with Winnie and their two small daughters. At first he could write to her just twice a year. She was allowed to visit in August, 1964, a closely monitored half-hour session they spent shouting to each other through a window. Two years passed before she was allowed to return. Both his mother and his eldest son Thembi died in the early days of his incarceration, but he was allowed to attend neither funeral.

Fortunately, he was surrounded by friends and colleagues, such as Sisulu and senior ANC leaders Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, with whom he could discuss political philosophy and strategy. Even then he was taking a measured view of his imprisonment as merely another stage in a life-long campaign to win justice and dignity for his people.

From the beginning, he treated his guards as fellow human beings rather than enemies, seeing them as slaves of a system he despised. He was courteous, but refused to bow and scrape, as the more sadistic warders demanded, and steeled himself into a superficial equanimity, no matter the provocation, if only to deny them the satisfaction of seeing him lose control of his feelings.

Other prisoners said later that he was singled out for sadistic treatment and described one occasion when he was forced to dig a grave-sized trench, climb into it and lie in the dirt while his jailers urinated on him to show their contempt.

Two years after Mandela’s arrival on Robben Island, apartheid kingpin Hendrik Verwoerd was stabbed to death by a deranged parliamentary page, and succeeded as prime minister by Justice Minister Balthazar John Vorster. Once in office, Vorster expanded the powers of the police and the military under defence minister P.W. Botha, and created a ruthless secret service to counter rumours of an insurrection by MK-trained guerrillas.

Despite these reprisals, conditions began to improve for the ANC in the 1970s. A military coup led Portugal to withdraw from Angola and Mozambique, where the revolutionary government of Samora Machel raised ANC hopes of placing military bases on the South African border.

At the prison, Mandela complained to the authorities about the inmates’ “monotonous routine of either breaking stones [or]doing pick and shovel work” and eventually Robben Island’s brutal superintendent was replaced by Colonel Willie Willemse who, like Mandela, had been brought up in the Transkei. (Later, Willemse would play a critical role as a go-between in negotiating Mandela’s release.) The Red Cross became more vigilant on the prisoners’ behalf, and liberal white politicians such as Helen Suzman persuaded authorities to end the gruelling manual labour for the political prisoners and to allow them more study time and greater access to outside news.

To communicate with his jailers better, Mandela studied Afrikaners’ history and language. He also helped illiterate prisoners learn to read and write. In an atmosphere that blended fierce debate with political tolerance, prisoners drew inspiration from great literature. They read and recited passages from Shakespeare (a copy of the Bard’s collected works had been smuggled in disguised as religious texts), and Mandela was especially taken by a passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

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