27 years of imprisonment
Photo : Ryutaro Ichiryu
Imprisoned for 27 years, Nelson Mandela fought to change South Africa and do away with the apartheid system. He didn’t want to achieve wealth or authority, but freedom.
In 1918, Mandela was born in Mvezo, a small village located in the district of Umtata, his father being the chief of the town. He entered the Fort Hare University to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree, and it was there where he met Oliver Tambo, with whom he established a law firm providing free or low-cost legal counsel for many poor black people. However, Mandela left Fort Hare University at the end of his first year, because he got involved in a Students’ Representative Council boycott against university policies.
After the Afrikaner-dominated National Party supporting the apartheid policy of racial segregation won the election in 1948, Mandela began to participate in politics as an anti-apartheid activist. Because of the apartheid policy, Mandela and other black people lived in a country where they were considered inferior to the white race and their freedom was restricted.
Soon Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC), political party and became the vice-chairman in 1952. In 1961, he co-found the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also abbreviated MK), the armed wing of ANC and became their leader.
In order to protest against the current government, Mandela led sabotage campaigns against military and government, blowing up also government buildings, or power facilities.
Mandela stated that non-violent protests against apartheid hardly achieved any success. However, he also said that all protesting including violence must be done in such a way that nobody would get hurt, or killed. So they planned to blow up the symbolic place of apartheid Parliament. Due to these protests, the government decided Mandela and other ANC party members as terrorists.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested, and the following year, during the Rivonia Trial also known as the trial of Nelson Mandela, he was charged with treason. The words from the trial will always be remembered. ‘During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to struggle for the African people. 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.’
Mandela was then sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.
Mandela and some colleagues were imprisoned on Robben Island, located around 12km far from Cape Town. In prison, prisoners were segregated by race and political prisoners were separated from ordinary criminals. Mandela received the lowest classification, he was allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. He had no privacy and no space, he could not stretch out when he was lying down. He was just allowed to wear short sleeve shirts and short pants, not long sleeve shirts, long pants and jackets, and in his bed room, there are only two tiny blankets, so in winter, it was very cold. It was obvious that prison had affected him both physically and emotionally.
However he stood up to the authorities every day, as he was the leader of the prisoners and could not let his side down. While in prison, he became more and more famous and widely known in South Africa as a significant black leader.
In 1982 Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison with some other ANC members.
At the same time, much international and local pressure urged South Africa government to release Mandela. Finally President F. W. de Klerk decided to release Mandela in 1990.
When he was released, he declared that his main goal was to bring peace to the black majority and give them the right to vote in both national and local elections. In 1990, he returned to the leadership of ANC, and in 1991, he was elected ANC’s president at its national conference.
It wasn’t long after in 1993, when Mandela and De Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1994, the first multi-racial elections were held in South Africa with the ANC wining 62% of the votes, and Mandela became the first black South African president who helped to abolish apartheid and bring equality to all South Africans.