In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island, off the coast from Bloubergstrand, Cape Town, South Africa. It was here in a prison that Mandela would spend eighteen of his twenty-seven years of prison sentence before he would be freed just prior to the fall of apartheid in South Africa.

Robben Island
Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, now a museum

The island was first used as a political prison in the mid-1600s. Dutch settlers sent slaves, convicts and indigenous Khoikhoi people who refused to bend to colonial rule. In 1846 the island was turned into a leper colony. From 1961 to 1991, a maximum-security prison here held enemies of apartheid.

The racist regime in South Africa cramped Nelson Mandela to a small cell. The ground was his bed. As Mandela recalled in Long Walk to Freedom, “I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. He had a bucket for a toilet and he was forced to do harsh labor in a quarry.

Mandela’s cell on Robben Island/ Image: SHELLEY CHRISTIANS

Contact with friends, family, and well-wishers was limited: Mandela was allowed one visitor a year for thirty minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months.

Despite the trying times, Robben Island became the crucible which transformed him.

Nelson Mandela and anti-apartheid resistance campaigner Walter Sisulu on Robben Island

In the late 1980s, the South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk and the African National Congress (ANC) initiated large-scale political reforms by relaxing apartheid laws and revoking the ban on black rights party.

Nelson Mandela was freed on 11 February 1990. He emerged from the jail as a mature leader who would fight and win the great political battles that would create a new democratic South Africa.


Featured Black&White Image: Jurgen Schadeberg/ Getty Image

Featured color Image: Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux



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