Nelson Mandela Begins 27 Years in Jail

Nelson Mandela and Diana, Princess of Wales, share a fun moment in March 1997
Nelson Mandela and Diana, Princess of Wales, share a fun moment in March 1997

by Ray Setterfield


June 12, 1964 — Born in 1918, Nelson Mandela belonged to a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo, where his father was chief. After he died in 1927, nine-year-old Mandela was adopted by a high-ranking Thembu regent who saw his young ward as a future tribal leader.

Their relationship came to an end some years later when Mandela learned that his guardian had arranged a marriage for him. Rather than go through with it he fled to Johannesburg and took a job as a night watchman.

It was a sad turn of events for a man who had been the first in his family to receive a formal education. Mandela — then known by his birth name, Rolihlahla — had completed his primary studies at a missionary school.

At the time it was common practice for teachers to give African students English names. So when he was seven years old Rolihlahla became Nelson. In later years, as a sign of respect, many people referred to him as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.

Mandela may have needed the night watchman job to earn money but he moved on to study law at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand, and qualified as a lawyer in 1942 at the age of 24.

Two years later, disturbed by the racial prejudice that had become rife in South Africa, he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a political group seeking equal rights for black people.

It faced a monumental challenge in its struggles after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which introduced its formal system of racial classification and segregation — apartheid (separate development).

While maintaining white minority rule, apartheid meant that by law the basic rights of non-whites were heavily restricted. Not only were they unable to serve in government, they weren’t even allowed to live in the same areas as whites or go to the same schools. They could not share a table in a restaurant with whites, nor sit next to them on a train or bus.

In retaliation, the ANC launched its Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws and called for boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and other non-violent protests. Mandela travelled across the country to organise protests.

His activities became too much for the authorities so in 1956 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of treason. Mandela was held at a prison in Johannesburg for five years before the charge was dropped and he was released.

The ANC, which became a banned organisation while Mandela was behind bars, had always advocated peaceful protest. But after he came out of jail Mandela and other ANC leaders decided to set up a secret military group called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.

It was a fateful decision. In 1963, the police found weapons and documents belonging to the secret group, which led to the arrest of Mandela and seven others. They were charged with plotting to overthrow the government and each was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mandela would spend the next 27 years in jail, initially on Robben Island, seven miles off the coast of Cape Town. After 18 years he was transferred to the first of two inland prisons.

Whilst behind bars he was quoted as saying: “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 to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Over the years he became one of the world’s most famous prisoners and there were international campaigns to ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. At the same time South Africa came under increasing pressure to abolish the apartheid system and by the mid-1980s it found itself among the world’s pariah states, the subject of economic, sporting and cultural boycotts that affected almost every aspect of life.

It all came to a head in 1989 when President (Pieter Willem) “P.W.” Botha suffered a stroke. The reforming (Frederik Willem) “F.W.” de Klerk, who had held secret talks with Mandela in his cell, took his place – first as party leader, and later as President.

Knowing that the apartheid system was leading to both economic and political bankruptcy, de Klerk was bent on reform. As President, he released all important political prisoners in 1990, including Mandela, and lifted the ban on the ANC. His government then began systematically to dismantle apartheid.

Mandela became President of the ANC in 1991 and worked with de Klerk in bringing an end to apartheid while introducing equal rights for all. They shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa."

The country’s first all-race elections, held in April 1994, saw the ANC win a majority of seats in the new National Assembly. Mandela became South Africa’s first black President with de Klerk as his deputy in a government of national unity.

An iconic figure around the world symbolising peace, equality and determination, Mandela retired from politics in 1999 and set out to live a quiet life with his third wife, Graça. He said: “I have retired, but if there's anything that would kill me it is to wake up in the morning not knowing what to do.”

A lung infection brought his days to an end and he died in December 2013 at the age of 95. The world mourned his loss.

Published: May 26, 2020

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