Blast From the Past is a weekly history blog dedicated to the lives of marginalized groups — such as women, racial minorities, people with disabilities and people on the LGBTQ+ spectrum — on a particular day. The author hopes that readers will not view these dates as a linear timeline of progress: legal and political victories do not always reflect that “things are getting better.” Rather, we should examine these stories as snapshots of people’s lives, and place them within the context of their time.
Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Mandela led the movement to end apartheid — institutionalized segregation — in South Africa. In 1944, the lawyer became a leader of the Johannesburg youth wing of the African National Congress. In 1952 he began to publicly advocate for nonviolent resistance of apartheid, from his position as the deputy national president of the ANC. But Nelson’s tactics changed in 1960 after peaceful black demonstrators in Sharpeville were brutally massacred. Nelson helped organize a new paramilitary branch of the ANC in order to engage in guerrilla warfare against the white South African government. In 1961 he was arrested for treason, and arrested again in 1962 for illegally leaving the country. He was convicted in 1964 for sabotage and sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela spent his first 18 years of confinement at the infamous maximum-security facility, Robben Island Prison. He lived in a tiny cell with no bed or plumbing and he had to work in a limestone quarry every day. He was only allowed to write and receive one letter every six months, and only once a year was he allowed to meet with a visitor for 30 minutes. Mandela drafted his memoirs from jail, and on the topic of the prison he wrote: “It is said that no-one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones – and South Africa treated its imprisoned African citizens like animals.” But Mandela remained steadfast in his belief that blacks deserved the same rights as everyone. He quietly led a civil disobedience movement to improve conditions for black prisoners. For years, he and the other black prisoners demanded that they could be allowed two teaspoons of sugar (the allotment for Indian and mixed-race prisoners) instead of one. Eventually, the guards gave all prisoners one-and-a-half teaspoons a day. He cultivated a good relationship with many prison guards due to his charisma and calm spirit, and began to negotiate for other improvements. He repeatedly asked for the work in the limestone quarry to end. In 1977, the prisons system agreed and abolished manual labor. When Mandela began to put on weight without the daily work, the staff agreed to build a tennis court in the courtyard. Mandela was later moved to another location where he lived under house arrest.
Meanwhile, the rise of the militant Black Consciousness Movement during the 1970s led to an increase in public interest in Mandela. A worldwide anti-apartheid movement began to rise. Countries, businesses and banks began to isolate themselves from South Africa as a means of protest. In 1990, the South African government feared its increasing isolation and agreed to open negotiations. Mandela was released and saw the end of apartheid. Four years later, he became South Africa’s first black president.
Although it is easy to see Nelson Mandela as simply a definition in a history book — South African president, Nobel Peace Prize winner, leader of anti-apartheid movements — his many accolades should not distract from his fundamental and poignant humanity. Years after he was released, his time in prison still affected his routine and his interests. He still woke up no later than 4:30 a.m., exercised, and began breakfast by 6:30. Music — eventually played in prison over the loudspeakers and at Christmas concerts — was one of the ways that Mandela kept his sanity and his spirit while in a maximum security prison. Years later, his greatest pleasure was
watching the sunset while listening to Handel or Tchaikovsky. His preferred breakfast was still a simple porridge with fresh fruit and milk. Mandela’s achievements were incredible — but not because he was a superhero. What we can learn from Mandela is the story of a man with quiet resolve and steadfast belief in equal rights. Mandela is not the man we all wish we could become. He is an example of who we can be.