Nelson Mandela endured three months of hospitalization before going home to die at age 95 on Dec. 5, but South Africa’s former president had known far greater confinement.
Section B at Robben Island Prison was Mandela’s home for 18 years. During that time he came to represent black South Africans’ struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s elaborate system of discrimination that denied blacks jobs, education, and even the right to vote.
Mandela already had been active for 20 years in the anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) when authorities sent him to Robben Island in 1962 on a life sentence for his political activity. Mandela would spend 27 years in prison altogether, most of them at Robben, a 40-minute ride across the water from Cape Town, accessible only by boat and dubbed by ANC the last outpost in the apartheid system.
Prison officials allowed Mandela out of an 8-foot cell each morning to empty his toilet bucket outside, then to walk in a cramped courtyard for a few minutes. Over time he won permission to tend his own small garden in the courtyard in the afternoons. He contracted tuberculosis, and during 13 years working in a limestone mine came near to blindness from hours spent chipping at white rock beneath a blazing sun.
Yet Mandela managed to dupe the censors, and with fellow ANC inmates (three later become presidents) fanned a revolution from inside his prison walls. Mandela’s 2010 book, Conversations with Myself, revealed the extent to which he was able to communicate with his wife at the time, activist Winnie Mandela, and others to draw international attention to the plight of the black majority in South Africa.
At birth the village name Mandela received, “Rolihlahla,” meant troublemaker. He was baptized in a Methodist church and became the first member of his family to attend school. While he learned African history from the elder chiefs, he studied English and Xhosa, and later excelled at track and boxing at a Wesleyan mission school. At 16, Mandela was circumcised according to tribal tradition. Attending the only university open to blacks at the time, he studied Dutch law, anticipating a career in civil service. But in 1942, feeling the brunt of rights denied blacks under apartheid, he joined the African National Congress. He spent the next 20 years organizing and then leading boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience against South Africa’s white-led government.
The ANC had links to communist leaders and guerrilla movements during the Cold War, as Mandela led political activities and also helped it form an armed offshoot. He was first arrested for leading a nationwide strike but received a life sentence for political crimes and sabotage.
But the white Afrikaaner government, eventually isolated by economic sanctions and international scorn, was by 1986 entering into secret talks with Mandela aimed at charting a path toward majority-led government. Hard-liners within his own ANC, as well as the white-ruled government, disapproved, yet the talks led to historic negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk, and Mandela’s 1990 release.
Mandela shared a joint Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1993, following successful negotiations toward an interim constitution that for the first time gave blacks the right to vote. It marked the peaceful termination of a system that led to violence and the deaths of thousands. In 1994, following the first election in which he and other blacks were allowed to vote, Mandela became president. De Klerk became his deputy, and the two steered a historic transition to democratic government.
In office Mandela learned to appreciate those he scorned in his Marxist-leaning days, including businessmen: “I realized, as never before, that if we want investments … we had to remove the fear of business that their assets will be nationalized.” Mandela could have become a dictator, but he stepped down in 1999, after only one term, never again to run for office, and assumed in his 80s a role as elder statesman. He kept at arm’s length scandals and corruption in the administration of his successors, all members of the ANC.
Weakened by tuberculosis, Mandela in recent years struggled with recurring lung infections. Robben Island is now a museum reached by regular ferry service and crowded with tourists. They come from all over the world to see the tiny cell of the man now affectionately known as “Madiba,” and to recall that sometimes systematic oppression and injustice meet their just end.