How prison changed Mandela

Friday December 6 2013

Mandela’s Cell No. 7 on Robbens Island. His cell was the busiest corner of the high security maximum block of Robben Island on Saturdays. PHOTO/FILE

Mandela’s Cell No. 7 on Robbens Island. His cell was the busiest corner of the high security maximum block of Robben Island on Saturdays. PHOTO/FILE 

By Kwamchetsi Makokha
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African countries seem to share an uncanny pattern for creating their first free leaders – they all first led defiant protest against oppressive authorities, got arrested and were jailed only to emerge as mythical figures.

Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was such a man, Jomo Kenyatta another, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe yet another.

The most remarkable to date is Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison to become the first black president of a multi-racial South Africa.


What had happened to him in those prison years?

Robben Island, known as the prison within a prison, was rough and lonesome.

Being held in it consisted hours of backbreaking work in the quarry, but it also afforded time and opportunity for study, debate and introspection.

The austere conditions in the prison were ideal for concentrated study and debate among the inmates.

Mandela’s character and leadership were further moulded at this ‘University of Robben Island’, vigorously promoted by Govan Mbeki.

Mandela himself said, “There is nothing like a long spell in prison to focus your mind and bring to you a more sober appreciation of the realities of your society.”

As early as 1972, nearly 20 years before he would be freed, and for many years thereafter, there were offers of release from jail on the condition that Mandela would renounce violence.

He rejected them all and reiterated that it was the government that dictated the ANC’s methods of activism.

Mandela had an over-optimistic view of the struggle before he went to jail in 1962. His prison ordeal transformed him into a much more reflective and influential leader.

Cut off from the mass media, stripped down to man-to-man leadership, he learnt about human sensitivities and how to handle the fears and insecurities of others -- including those of his Afrikaner warders.

Mandela had impressed the warders with his assertiveness, respect and legal knowledge. On Robben Island, Mandela ruled. The warders were under the prisoners’ control and the prisoners were under Mandela.

Eddie Koch, writing for the Mail & Guardian, noted that Mandela’s Cell No. 7 was the busiest corner of the high security maximum block of Robben Island on Saturdays.


During Mandela’s imprisonment, there was a steady stream of prisoners from the virulent cadres of the ANC’s military wing, the rival Pan Africanist Congress and Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s.

Personality and ideological clashes between South Africa’s resistance movements spilled into prison, and Robben Island was the biggest theatre of these conflicts.

They all sorely tested the leadership and diplomatic skills of Mandela and his colleagues from the Rivonia Trial.

Many of those who arrived on Robben Island, such as the leaders of the Soweto Students Representative Council who led the youth uprising that swept through the country in 1976, had no clear understanding of the political situation.

It would fall on Mandela and his colleagues to indoctrinate and educate them. And not that the prison was a free place for intellectual discourse: Robben Island was designed to prevent contact between leadership, militants and the rank and file of the movements.

Senior leaders were kept in single cells on Block B. Hardline cadres and guerrillas, who defied authority to the end, stayed in Block A’s isolation cells. The rest shared cells with each other in G (for general) Section.

To add insult to injury, in the initial days, the Indian prisoners would be held separately from their African counterparts.

Mandela always sought opportunities to argue and persuade the Afrikaner warders to the ANC line of thinking. This in itself helped develop his skill in argument.

Mandela’s friend, Walter Sisulu, with whom he had been jailed, saw those talks as the precursor of the later negotiations with the apartheid government: “The negotiation itself was a process which started from this source.”

Mandela also deepened his interest in the law while in prison. He realised that it provided the only basis for a lasting settlement and that it -- and not war -- was the basis of his hopes for South Africa’s future.

His unpublished essays and writings from jail watching the South African stage as a spectator, showed far more intellectual depth and originality than his early anti-colonial clichés.


He was persistent in getting to the truth, however uncomfortable.

Mandela saw the prison as a laboratory of how the different races could understand each other and live in harmony. He saw the prison as a microcosm of a future South Africa where reconciliation would be essential for survival.

The head of the prison in 1971, Colonel Willie Willemse, spoke of Mandela’s astuteness and readiness to govern the transition in the country: “Mandela had a special stature.

He was experienced in the politics of change. I never felt he was waiting for revenge. I never experienced bitterness among any of them, but Mandela played a role in persuading them.”

He had been steeled and hardened and his underlying toughness was essential to the success of the negotiations that followed.

His ability to convert past enemies (the Afrikaners), proved essential to his policy of reconciliation. In jail, he had seen how Afrikaners could be changed, “180 degrees”.

He had worked closely with White and Indian colleagues so as to trust them completely. He harboured no bitterness or feelings of revenge to the other races.

After his release from prison he overtly showed the Afrikaners that they would be safe in South Africa under his government.

He visited the widows of some of the dead presidents who had persecuted him and strongly supported the predominantly White sports teams.

This was to set the pace for how he hoped his fellow citizens would co-exist — without bitterness and recriminations.


Location: Robben Island is about seven miles (11km) off the coast of Cape Town

Namesake: Portuguese sailors named it for the plentiful seals (Dutch for seals ‘rob’). It has also been known as Penguin Island.

History: People lived on Robben Island thousands of years ago, when the sea channel between the Island and the Cape mainland was not covered with water.

The Prisoner: Nelson Mandela, detained in the island prison for 18 years, was the most famous political prisoner

Other uses: Robben Island has not only been used as a prison It was a training and defence station during World War II (1939-1945) and a hospital for people with leprosy, and the mentally and chronically ill (1846-1931).

Leprosy hospital: The hospital closed in 1931 when the United Nations declared that lepers no longer needed to live in isolation.

Monument and museum: Robben Island was declared a South African national monument and a museum was set up in September 1996.
Today: It became a World Heritage Site in 1999.