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Nelson Mandela, an older black man with graying hair, forms a raised fist with his right hand and holds it above his head. With his left, he is holding hands with Winnie Mandela, a black woman with dark hair. She is smiling and has formed a raised fist with her left hand, mirroring Nelson Mandela’s raised fist. A large crowd is gathered behind them.

Photo: Graeme Williams.

A will that could not be contained The story of Nelson Mandela

By Matthew McRae

Story details

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for opposing South Africa’s apartheid system. He faced harsh conditions meant to break his resolve, but Mandela refused to give up his efforts to achieve equality for all people.

Despite the terrible personal cost of imprisonment, Mandela continued to act as a leader and mobilized his fellow political prisoners. After he was released, Mandela helped negotiate an end to apartheid and became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

This is the story of Nelson Mandela’s journey from prisoner to president. 

A-black-and-white image of Nelson Mandela, a young black man wearing a suit and carrying a book and some files under his left arm, standing behind a desk in an office.

Mandela, in the 1950s. He worked as a lawyer, providing free or affordable representation to black people who defied apartheid laws.

Photo: Getty Images, Jurgen Schadeberg.

Why did Mandela go to prison?

Mandela went to prison because he opposed South Africa’s apartheid laws.

Apartheid means “apartness” in the Afrikaans language. Apartheid laws separated South Africans into four different racial categories: “white/European,” “black,” “coloured (people of mixed race),” or “Indian/Asian.” White people – 15 percent of the South African population – stood at the top of society, wielding power and wealth. Black South Africans – 80 percent of the population – were relegated to the very bottom. 

Many South Africans defied apartheid. Tactics included civil disobedience campaigns, national strikes and boycotts. Nelson Mandela joined this struggle in the 1940s as a young lawyer. By the 1950s, he had become an important leader in the struggle against apartheid. 

A black-and-white image of a group of black men and women look out a set of train car windows. Many are holding out their hands and making a “thumbs up” sign. A sign above the train window reads “Europeans only.”

Protestors in a train carriage marked “For Europeans Only” during the Defiance Campaign, 1952. In willful defiance, they hold their thumbs up as a sign of solidarity.

Photo: Getty Images, Bettmann.

The South African government responded to demands for equality and freedom with repression and violence. They shot and killed unarmed demonstrators and detained and arrested many others. 

Defiance of apartheid had started peacefully, but Mandela now believed that armed struggle was the only way forward. He and others formed an armed resistance group called Umkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), also known as MK. Mandela spent 17 months underground trying to gain support for the armed struggle, but was arrested in 1962. Then, in 1963, Mandela was put on trial for a number of charges. He and seven of his colleagues were sentenced to life in prison. 

A black-and-white image of a young Nelson Mandela wearing a suit, crouching and holding a trench coat around his head, as if he is hiding himself from rain.

Mandela leaving the All-In-Africa Conference in Pietermaritzburg, 1961. He was a surprise speaker at the conference, where he called for a democratic South Africa.

Photo: Peter Magubane.

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 achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela, at the Rivonia Trial, 1964

A black-and-white image of Nelson Mandela standing in front of a desk. He is surrounded by a group of five men, some of whom are wearing military clothing. One man, with his back to the viewer, appears to be speaking to Mandela, while the other men are looking at something on the desk.

Mandela meeting with Algerian freedom fighters, Morocco, 1962. While underground, he travelled extensively to meet other African leaders and groups fighting for liberation.

Photo: UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Robben Island Prison

An aerial view of Robben Island. The island is very flat and roughly oval in shape, with a little under half its surface covered with trees. An airfield is visible on the right side of the island. In the distant background behind the island, the mainland can be seen, including the buildings of a city. Rising above the city are large mountains.

Robben Island, South Africa, 1995. Prisoners were isolated from the outside world, but could see Cape Town, with its Table Mountain, mere kilometers in the distance.

Photo: Getty Images, Oryx Media Archive, Gallo Images.

Mandela and his compatriots were sent to a maximum security prison on Robben Island in 1964. There were no white prisoners on Robben Island. Mandela spent 18 of 27 years of imprisonment there, held with the other political prisoners who were kept in a separate section. 

A black-and-white image of Nelson Mandela. He is sitting and holding a piece of clothing on his knees. He appears to be sewing. He is wearing shorts, long socks, white shoes and a jacket.

Mandela mending clothes at Robben Island, 1964. He is wearing shorts because black prisoners were not permitted to wear long pants. Mandela and his fellow political prisoners challenged this rule and it was eventually changed.

Photo: Daily Express London, Cloethe Breytenbach.

On Robben Island, prisoners faced harsh conditions meant to break their resolve. Rights were denied based on people’s skin colour. Black prisoners ate more poorly than Indian/Asian or coloured (people of mixed race) prisoners. Black men were forced to wear shorts and sandals, even in winter, while other prisoners could wear pants and shoes.

Mandela mending clothes at Robben Island, 1964. He is wearing shorts because black prisoners were not permitted to wear long pants. Mandela and his fellow political prisoners challenged this rule and it was eventually changed.

Photo: Daily Express London, Cloethe Breytenbach.

Political prisoners faced the worst conditions of all. Condemned to hard labour, Mandela and his fellow activists spent more than a decade breaking rocks in a lime quarry. Some prisoners were assaulted and tortured by guards. 

Contact with the outside world was almost completely severed. When Mandela arrived on Robben Island, he was permitted one letter and one 30-minute visit every six months. He was denied permission to attend the funeral of his mother, who passed away in 1968, and one of his sons, who died in a car accident in 1969. It would be 21 years before he could hold his wife, Winnie Mandela, again. His two young daughters, Zeni and Zindzi, had to wait until the age of 16 to see him. 

Glass walls separated prisoners from visitors. They talked on phones as guards listened to every word. Letters were heavily censored, with words blacked out if they were not strictly personal. After prisoners found ways to read blackened content, censors began cutting out large portions of letters, reducing them to shreds. 

A black-and-white image of two rows of men in a courtyard. The men are sitting and breaking stones with small hammers.

Prisoners breaking stones at Robben Island, 1964. Inmates were forced to perform back-breaking labour. They were not allowed to talk or sing while working.

Photo: Daily Express London, Cloethe Breytenbach.

Although these precious letters do not reach [you], I shall nevertheless keep on trying by writing whenever that is possible…. It is some means of passing on to you my warmest love and good wishes, and tends to calm down the shooting pains that hit me whenever I think of you.

Neslon Mandela from a letter written to his daughters Zeni and Zindzi Mandela

The struggle continues

Despite their treatment, the prisoners on Robben Island continued to resist the apartheid regime in thousands of ways.

Mandela and other prisoners advocated for improved conditions and rights for all prisoners, regardless of race. In 1966, black prisoners secured the right to wear long pants instead of shorts. Eventually, prisoners were allowed to have a desk in their cells, and to read and study. They even planted a small garden.

A handwritten certificate with stylized writing. It is written in chiefly black ink, but some letters are coloured in blue or yellow. The top of the certificate reads “R.I. Amateur Athletic Association 1972 Summer Games.”

A handmade certificate awarded by the Robben Island Amateur Athletic Association.

Photo: UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

Prisoners also achieved the right to play soccer, tennis and volleyball. Summer games were held at the prison, and prisoners took pride in organizing the events and creating intricate programs with limited materials. 

Music became another way for prisoners to express their shared humanity. They created a record club and organized concerts for events and holidays.

A handmade certificate awarded by the Robben Island Amateur Athletic Association.

Photo: UWC-Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archives.

We regarded the struggle in prison as a microcosm of the struggle as a whole. We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same; I would simply have to fight on different terms.

Nelson Mandela

Long road to freedom

Outside the walls of Mandela’s prison, South Africans continued to resist the apartheid regime. In 1985, under increasing pressure, the government made an offer to release Mandela, on condition he renounce violence as a political tool. Mandela rejected the offer. His youngest daughter, Zindzi Mandela, read his response at a mass rally in Soweto:

A black-and-white photo of Zindzi Mandela, a young black woman, standing and speaking in front of several microphones.

Mandela’s youngest daughter delivering her father’s response to an offer of conditional release at a rally, Soweto, 1985. Mandela rejected this offer with powerful words.

Photo: Associated Press, Peters.

“What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected? […] Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.”

Mandela’s youngest daughter delivering her father’s response to an offer of conditional release at a rally, Soweto, 1985. Mandela rejected this offer with powerful words.

Photo: Associated Press, Peters.

Mandela was committed to achieving freedom for all South Africans, not just for himself. In 1986, he began to quietly reach out to the South African government to see if there was interest in negotiating an end to apartheid.

Four years later, on February 11, 1990, the most famous political prisoner in the world was released. He was 71 years old, but there was still work to do. Years of fraught negotiations followed the end of Mandela’s imprisonment. Throughout this period, political violence and civil war threatened to engulf the country.

In 1993, South Africa adopted an interim constitution. This paved the way for the country’s first democratic elections. That same year, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Mandela and South African President F. W. de Klerk. 

South Africa’s first democratic elections were held in 1994. When all the ballots were counted, Nelson Mandela had become the country’s first democratically elected president. Mandela would dedicate the remaining years of his life to transforming his country. He always acknowledged that there was still more to do – and that it was up to future generations to continue the struggle for freedom.

South Africa election, 1994

  • An aerial view of a snaking line of people outside a large building. The line is extremely long and is comprised of hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of people.

    South Africans lining up to vote, 1994. People waited for hours in lengthy lines for the opportunity to cast their ballot. Most had never before been permitted to vote.

    Photo: Getty Images, Gallo Images, Raymond Preston.
  • An elderly Nelson Mandela smiles as he reaches out with his right arm to put a ballot in a large metal ballot box.

    Nelson Mandela voting, 1994. Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa at the age of 75.

    Photo: Getty Images, Peter Turnley.

The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.

Nelson Mandela


Mandela thought that each of us has the power to make change. Where do you think you can have the strongest impact promoting equality?