THE very cold in winter and the

THE LONG PRISON YEARS:
FRIENDS, FAMILY, AND GLOBAL SOLIDARITY

After midnight on June
12, 1964, Mandela and his fellow African found themselves bounded and then
flown on an old Dakota military transport plane to Robben Island. Alcatraz—
Devil’s Island—Robben Island—the name was synonymous with repression and
punishment. Historically, colonial authorities had banished troublemaking local
political prisoners to prison isles. In South Africa first the Dutch, then the
British colonialists had used Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, to imprison
African resistance fighters. Some had tried to run away but very few survived
the cold, shark-dominated waters. The prison discipline on Robben (“Seal” in
Dutch) Island was harsh, even cruel. Prisoners were beaten with the warden’s
batons and subjected to racist comments and epithets such as “kaffir. Absurd
forms of racial discrimination was diffused in everything: Africans could have
only tiny amounts of meals. They only received short pants, while Indian or
Colored South Africans received full length pants. They had to sleep on the
hard floor, on thin mats. Robben Island would be very cold in winter and the
prisoners were denied any warmth.

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Mandela’s cell was no
more than six square feet in area. He shared the political section of the jail
with his co-accused from the Rivonia Trial: Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed
Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, and Andrew Mlangeni. Every day, the
prisoners were forced to do labour with picks and shovels in a lime quarry,
where in summer the blazing sun reflecting on the limestone permanently damaged
Mandela’s eyes; yet he was not permitted to wear sunglasses for 3 years. The
outdoor work invigorated Mandela. “It felt good to use all of one’s muscles,
with the sun at one’s back.” Mandela refused to let the adversities of jail put
him down. His resistance took many forms: bringing together, stimulating, and
acting as a representative for the other prisoners; opposing racism and cruelty
and demanding fair treatment; and communicating with the outside world, family,
and friends. He fought for basic reforms of harsh prison conditions, no matter
how small and no matter how long it took him, showing his relentless pursuit of
justice, his doggedness, and his dedication. There were hunger strikes,
although this approach was of incomplete success given the island’s seclusion
from the mass media, something that Mandela understood; but still did for the
sake of his fellow prisoners.

Robben Island was the
living image of the racism of apartheid, but the prisoners transformed the jail
into a “university of the struggle.” At first the Rivonia prisoners, and then
later on more and more ANC and MK prisoners, including an incursion of militant
youth after the 1976 Soweto Revolt, all took educational courses to develop
their technical skills and focus their minds. Encouraged by Mandela, many attained
degrees or high school diplomas through external courses. However, many books
and certain subjects, such as political science, remained prohibited. This resistance
strengthened their unity and allowed a small measure of control over their
lives; after a while, prison authorities abandoned efforts to prevent them from
talking and let the discussions continue. Mandela exercised an authority over
his fellow prisoners

The warders of the
prison often turned to violence against the ordinary convicts, of whom they
were contemptuous. In this situation, Mandela’s bravery, leadership, and tactfulness
came into play as he initiated hard work to close the gap between the different
categories of prisoners and between prisoners and jailers. Gradually, there
were shared interests. Warders began to admit the humanity of all the
prisoners. They showed Mandela special respect, perhaps due to his rising
international name, or his royal descent, or simply because of his huge
physical stature. Mandela worked hard to try to develop a united front with PAC
and other political prisoners. This was not easy because of the political
rivalries. The PAC, whose members had arrived on the Island first, seemed to begrudge
the growing presence of ANC prisoners. However, Mandela was persistent in finding
a common ground and at times was able to strengthen unity between the different
organizations. In 1967, he was able to get PAC leaders to sign a petition for
better treatment of all prisoners. The mutual support of the prisoners for each
other was vital to their survival. On the Island, they surreptitiously
reproduced their outside political structures as best they could. Mandela
headed the ANC’s internal leadership on the Island, the High Command, or High
Organ, consisting of those who had been members of the legal ANC National
Executive Committee

 Mandela’s character shines through in his
relations with the other prisoners. For example, Eddie Daniels was a member of
a totally separate political organization, the Liberal Party, from a Colored
working-class background, and had never met Mandela before coming to the
Island. Looking back on their years together in confinement, Daniels emphasises
on Mandela’s integrity, prescience, empathy, tolerance, and leadership. He
could be amusing, kind, and modest. Once, when Daniels was sick, Mandela himself
cleaned the sick man’s toilet bucket.

On Robben Island,
Daniels was the sole member of the Liberal Party, , but Mandela insisted on
treating him as an equal. Daniels was stunned that a person of such stature as
Mandela would deign to make friends with him. In prison, after coming back from
important meetings, Mandela would report to the ANC and then, to protect
Daniels’s political integrity—as PAC members had accused Daniels of “being
ANC”—he would report to him separately. Mandela was, he emphasizes, “a
magnanimous man; where others ignored me—and I didn’t know anyone—he was just
that type of person who would come forward and embrace you and make you feel
good, and extend the hand of friendship.” In part, this approach aimed to build
non-racialism, to create a culture of survival on the island, and to interweave
the prisoners together like a family. Even though political differences cropped
up, Mandela would always say “let us work together; let us not fight one
another.” In this regard, states Daniels, Mandela was “a great unifier; he was
never boastful, never threw his weight around.”  Michael Dingake was an ANC activist also
jailed on Robben Island. He saw Mandela as the “most tireless participant” in
the prisoners’ discussions and for whom every day saw a busy routine of
meetings with fellow prisoners. Much of this schedule involved inquring about
other people’s wellbeing and complaints to such an extent that it seemed to
Dingake  that Mandela seemed to care more
for his compatriots than his own health. By insisting on their right to make
complaints and by representing their interests before the prisoner authorities,
Mandela empowered prisoners to present their own demands. Mandela was a “shrewd
tactician” who had an eye for detail and broad legal experience, which helped
blunt some of the worst extremes of cruelty carried out by prisoner officers.
He would always go straight to the top with complaints about abusive treatment
of the prisoners, demanding justice; in many ways, he simply rode over the hierarchy
such that it gradually accepted their rights. Mandela, a powerful and
well-informed debater, also taught Dingake to see the two sides of a question.  Some differences related to tactics. Mandela
was realistic. He once shocked Daniels by reflecting that one day they might
well have to make use of the hated Population Registration Act of the apartheid
regime. Yet here, Mandela’s concern was simply to ensure representation of
everyone. When some prisoners said that someday they would “take care” of a particularly
cruel warder, Mandela said, “No, we may have to use him.” On another occasion,
Mandela encouraged fellow political prisoner Andimba Toivo ja Toivo (leader of
the ANC’s sister movement in the neighboring country of Namibia, SWAPO South
West African People’s Organization), not to simply walk away from wardens and
opponents but to engage with them. Behind this diplomatic approach to warders
was practicality and common decency; hostility, Mandela reasoned, was
self-defeating. He also had vast self-control, which fellow prisoner and
confidante Maharaj argues lay in Mandela’s deep introspection and
self-criticism that helped him to think clearly and look at all points of view to
an argument. Mandela also decided to learn Afrikaans, arguing it was important
to know one’s enemy.

Mandela emphasized that
the major problem regarding the liberation movement was unity, something he
spent much time practicing on Robben Island. The secluded prisoners  valued news and education. “Newspapers,”
writes Mandela, “were more valuable to political prisoners than gold or
diamonds, more hungered for than food or tobacco; they were the most precious
contraband on Robben Island.” They fought continually for the right to have
newspapers and, when refused, arranged for copies to be smuggled. They
scavenged newspapers leftover by the warders. For six months, they had access
to a daily newspaper after befriending, and then outwitting, an elderly night
warder. In 1975, the prisoners even staged their own play, Sophocles’ Antigone,
in which Mandela played the regal character of Creon Sport and games became the
source of much needed recreation to reduce anxiety and while the time. Mandela had
persistently urged the International Red Cross to lobby for sports facilities
when the prison guards had refused to let the inmates indulge in play-ball.,

In 1982, Mandela was
distraught at the terrible news of the death of his mother and his son, Thembi.
Denied permission to attend his own son’s funeral, Mandela did not share his
grief with all, letting only his old friend, Walter Sisulu to console him.

In the initial years,
he was allowed only one visitor. Winnie would visit him but the visits lasted
only 30 minutes long, shorn of physical contact, through an opaque wall, and
under vigilance. It was not until 1984 that they had their first contact visit.
To dodge the restrictions on discussing politics, the couple invented a secret code
using names only they understood: to ask about the ANC in exile, he would ask,
“How is the church?” and so on.

The role of his wife became
pivotal to Mandela’s survival and future prospects. South African journalist
Benjamin Pogrund said that “Winnie never gave up, and went on fighting to keep
her husband’s name alive . . . with a personal passion, standing up to the
Security Police to show her contempt for them and the system they enforced.”
Her valour was never in question; she confronted armed police and berated them,
but it came with a terrible cost. Winnie Mandela was arrested again in 1962 and
then in 1969 without charge, in isolation for 18 months, denied bail and
visitors, and harshly interrogated. She was constantly harassed by security
forces and even denied church visits without permit

In 1975, Winnie briefly
resumed open political activity after her bans expired, but in a while she
again was banned and sent into internal exile.

By 1985 outside the prison
walls, crucial changes had taken place. Apartheid had acted as a brake on
socioeconomic development. The long prison years had significantly reduced
black consumption of goods and services, as well as acquisition of skills. The
South African economy saw deep structural changes. The currency value had
nosedived. Culture, heritage, and education also suffered under the impact of
apartheid policies and in the face of international sanctions and sports
boycotts. The oppressive social atmosphere exacerbated political strains.

The ANC was banned. In response,
new opposition forces emerged. Black Consciousness, led by appealing student
leader Steve Biko, took off in the late 1960s. Then in 1972–1973, the black
labour movement came to life again in a sudden, colossal strike wave. Things
were getting heated up and with a rigid, inflexible, and intolerant government
at the helm of state, the country finally exploded in 1976, ignited by student
protests in Soweto. Although the 1976 protests were crushed by brutal measures
from the state security forces that saw many casualties, popular resistance re-emerged
in the 1980s. All across the country these diverse groups spoke out loudly and
their support grew rapidly, with many people aligning themselves with the ideas
of the ANC exemplified in the Freedom Charter. One of their major demands was
the release of Mandela and all political prisoners. The anti-apartheid movement
took a global nature, uniting student, church, labor, and political groups with
exclusively antiapartheid organizations in which exiled South Africans often
played a large part. Some governments, mainly those in India, Scandinavia, and
Eastern Europe, provided material aid to the ANC in exile.

A strong agenda of this
worldwide anti-apartheid movement was the call for Nelson Mandela’s release. By
the 1980s, he had become a celebrated international prisoner of conscience and
the most outstanding opponent of apartheid. In February 1986, the British
Commonwealth people met with Mandela in jail, who persuaded them of his
sincerity for peaceful change, but they also concluded that the South African
government did not intend to negotiate in good faith. 29 Throughout this
period, Mandela was honoured with numerous awards and titles by various
organisations, the number and status of which grew with time and added to
pressure for his release. One of the earliest honors was as early as 1964, when
the Students’ Union of University College, London, elected him Honorary
President. In 1973, a scientist who discovered a nuclear particle at the
University of Leeds named it the Mandela Particle. India, the first country to
impose sanctions on South Africa, awarded Mandela the Jawaharlal Nehru Award
for International Understanding.

The anti-apartheid
movement developed other effectual techniques to expose apartheid; it built its
own media with newsletters, cartoons, and posters. It deployed various tactics,
including pickets, pitching, boycotting, industrial action, sports disruption,
mass rallies, and concerts.

 By the mid-1980s, Mandela occupied a rather peculiar
position; the government was not releasing him, yet without him, they could not
hope to resolve the deep political-economic crises adversely impacting the
country. They tested his willingness to accept a conditional release; his
relative Kaiser Matanzima, now an open collaborator of the apartheid system as
a Bantustan chief, offered to host Mandela in the Transkei if he stayed there,
out of the way. Mandela refused on principle. In February 1985, South African
President P. W. Botha offered conditional release if Mandela renounced
violence. Mandela retorted that only free persons can negotiate, and reminded
Botha that he still had not even granted him the status of political prisoner. In
spite of this deadlock, there were understated signs of change. The conditions of
Mandela’s prison accommodation had been changing for the better. In 1982, the
government moved him and other key leaders from Robben Island to Pollsmoor
Prison on the mainland near Cape Town. In 1985, he was cut off even from these
close friends, given three rooms on a different floor, and mostly prevented
from speaking to them. Mandela remained a prisoner as the years passed by. In
1988, he contracted tuberculosis, and was transferred again, this time to
Victor Verster Prison near the town of Paarl, 40 minutes northeast of Cape
Town. Now, Mandela was in very different surroundings: a warden’s bungalow
complete with expensive furnishing and all the communication devices. Yet
“stripped of all these fineries,” quoted Kathrada at the time, Mandela was
“still a prisoner.” At first, he still was cut off from both the internal
anti-apartheid resistance and the ANC in exile, and consequently, could not
properly communicate with them. But Mandela was stubborn. Gradually, however,
he was allowed to contact the ANC and became more accessible; he was treated to
a full family reunion as well as a meeting with Sisulu Kathrada on his birthday
in July 1989.  Mandela risked his life
earned reputation in agreeing to talk to a regime still commanding bloody
assaults on its own people and still regarded internationally as a pariah
state. It was a bold move.

A few months later,
Mandela led the Mass Democratic Movement and used his immense diplomatic and
human skills not only to unify the movement but also to plan an alternative,
negotiated route out of the chaos and violence that ever more enveloped South
Africa in the 1980s. Despite the traumas of 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela
maintained his commitment to principle; he refused freedom if other political
prisoners remained in jail, or if the ANC and its allies remained banned;
democracy had to come. By 1989, he was in close touch with both the government
and the ANC exile leadership and the ANC underground. Mandela and other ANC
leaders could finally see some kind of change on the way; the endgame of
apartheid was beginning, but it would be an indefinite, difficult, and dangerous
final road to freedom.