Nelson Mandela: From Prison Inmate to President

Nelson Mandela.
The prison island Robben Island, where Mandela spent twenty-seven years in prison.
Nelson Mandela’s prison cell on Robben Island.
Mandela giving a speech in the year 2000.
A crowd of people mourning Nelson Mandela’s death.

As explained in the previous chapter, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for having plotted to overthrow the government.

While in prison, corrections officers tried to break Mandela’s and the other inmates’ spirits by subjecting them to hard labor and severely restricting their mail correspondence and visits. As a result, Mandela hardly saw his family, including his children, for all of the twenty-seven years he spent in prison. However, some corrections officers were more prone to looking out for the prisoners’ well-being, and Mandela had time to both read and engage in deep intellectual discussions with other inmates.

An admired man

When the apartheid system crumbled in the early 1990s, Mandela was finally released. Still remembered and admired as a freedom-fighter, Mandela was now made leader of the ANC and assumed a role where millions of followers looked to him for guidance. From this powerful position, he could easily have started agitating against people he perceived as oppressors, but instead he chose to bury the hatchet and forgive his old enemies. Mandela’s ability to put rancor aside in this way astonished people, and earned him respect with politicians in the apartheid regime with whom he was now set to negotiate a democratic future. The same capacity to forgive, furthermore, also made it easier for government negotiators to accept handing over power to a black majority, since they trusted that its leader, Mandela, would not allow petty acts of vengeance against white people.

Missed by many

When the negotiations were completed, in 1994, with the stage set for a transition to majority rule, Mandela led the ANC into South Africa’s first country-wide parliamentary election. As predicted, his party then easily won this election, and he himself subsequently went on to steer the country with a steady hand as president until 1999. Mandela’s decision to thereafter retire from politics was lamented by many, and his later passing, in 2013, left much of the country grieving. The widespread sadness, undoubtedly, had to do with having to say good bye to Mandela, whom most South Africans thought of as a fine, righteous man, but not only this. People were also concerned about how South Africa was going to stay united in a time when their greatest unifying symbol — the Father of the Nation — was gone.