How did Nelson Mandela survive 27 years in prison

Nelson Mandela 2008

Source:, Author: South Africa The Good News

William Ernest Henley
Published 1888

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Nelson Mandela, (July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013,) one of the most well-known leaders of South Africa, called “Madiba” by those who loved him, attributed this poem from the Victorian era as one of the elements that helped him survive his 27-year incarceration.

According to people closest to him, Mandela often recited this poem from memory when he felt low or lost. During his long incarceration, whenever he was permitted, he wrote and reread this piece of literature to boost his spirit, and to keep his mind active. He shared this poem with his fellow inmates whenever possible.

A prison, with its thick walls, heavy bars and super strict policies, is undoubtedly the last place to nurture a fire in the spirit of a fighter. But even against all adversaries, South Africa’s first black president Nelson Mandela emerged with an even stronger spirit after his isolation in Robben Island and later, Capetown. He proved not only to survive his banishment for 27 years, but he has also thrived in it.

How did he do it, some may ask. Year after year passing him by with almost no contact with the outside. There were only small things like being permitted to have only one visitor annually per 30 minutes and being able to write and receive one letter every six months. His last few years in sentence were spent in a jail garden where he could watch TV and do practically whatever he wants. However, it is still imprisonment and his earlier years were not as comfy.

In the first 18 years, he was in Robben Island where prisoners were given a small cell, which measured only 8 feet x 7 feet. It had nothing in it but a straw mat and a refuse bucket. He was forced to work in a limestone quarry.

Due to deplorable and almost inhumane conditions, he wasn’t allowed to wear protective goggles and was forced to pound stone into fine, dust-like gravel under the searing South African sun. He was outfitted in nothing more than a pair of ill-fitting shorts – a common form of degradation in Robben Island at that time, exclusively used for black prisoners.

This prolonged exposure to direct sunlight combined with little protection from the elements, plus the unwilling absorption of fine dust from processed rocks permanently damaged Mandela’s eyesight, and severely compromised his tear ducts, (which necessitated corrective surgery in 1994.)

There was ill-treatment and a lot of isolation for people who do not follow orders. It may be assumed that he would have made proper use of his time by reading, only they were not allowed any reading materials. So, in turn, there was a lot of thinking and contemplating hours, which is the kind of activity that can be found as excruciating and depressing, even. But Mandela has proved to be an exception.

According to his lawyer, George Bizos, Mandela’s wit and cool was not diminished by prison. During one of his visits, Bizos recalled his client being escorted into the consultation room by no less than 8 prison guards. Mandela himself wore nothing but a pair of shorts.

Madiba, with his unconquerable spirit, took this in stride, and even introduced his “guards of honor” to Bizos.

It was not by being silent and accepting that Mandela has survived prison. In contrast, he was defiant of its ways. During his stint in Robben Island, he silently protested the ill-treatment of his fellow inmates from abusive prison guards.

In one infamous incident, wherein prison personnel made it a sport to chase groups of prisoners from their cells to the limestone quarry, (many of them suffered from physical injuries along the way,) Madiba turned to his fellow inmates and said, “Comrades, let us be slower than ever.”

This effectively put a stop to said sport, and the prison guards were compelled to negotiate better terms with Mandela. This, of course, still earned him time in solitary confinement.

In his autobiography: “The Long Walk to Freedom, (published in 1995)” Mandela wrote, “I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”

He has charmed his other companions and even they saw his undeniable leadership. It was not escape that he aimed. It was building communities and relationships. There was a collectivism that seems to follow wherever he goes and it has earned him respect. His determination and intelligence only seemed to burn brighter over the years, especially when they started studying behind bars. As for the days, it went by in a routine.

Twenty-seven years is a long time. Even for a man with so much fire, this was more than enough time to extinguish whatever it is that’s keeping him running. To be able to survive this much discouragement and refuse defeat, optimism is actually essential. It was Mandela’s strong will that made him mature. It was by having a cause that prevented him wallowing in self-pity. For almost three decades, he has been a master of his own prison and was able to appear dignified. The state of his mind had a large contribution to his own survival.

Whenever possible, Madiba read all and any form of literature that came his way. He exerted all efforts to learn Afrikaans, which many people who suffered from the effects of apartheid frowned upon at that time. It was considered the language of the “oppressors,” or the white populace of South Africa who refused to give equal rights to their colored counterparts.

Mandela insisted that this was the best way of understanding the other side, that there was a real need to understand their culture. Learning the language was the best way to anticipate and accommodate actions from the people who promoted apartheid.

As noble as it may sound, Mandela was no exception to grief and loneliness. During his time in prison, his mother and his son died and had a funeral which he wasn’t permitted to attend. He suffered a few ailments along the way too but he kept bouncing back.

For the entire time he was in prison, he has maintained his demeanour and inspired a lot of people. It was the most amazing thing that he did not fall into bitterness and that his spirit has survived everything that was thrown at him. Apparently, there were not enough bars and walls to contain his wit, charm and positivity. Nelson Mandela was a living testimony and proof of how surviving prison does not mean one’s heart must turn cold. It is a work of the mind, and of the spirit.

Nelson Mandela’s greatest achievement was the unification of all races in post-apartheid South Africa. He fought for equal rights for everyone, and not just for the colored people of his country.

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