Nelson Mandela – The Road to Robben Island

First Steps in the Long Walk to Freedom

The years preceding 1994 were the best of times in South Africa – for about 10% of the population. For the rest, extreme discrimination was a matter of course.

Apart from racial segregation and disenfranchisement, non-whites in South Africa were relegated to the lowest echelons of society, often facing inhumane working conditions, abuse, and police brutality.

This is the South Africa that gave rise to one of the world’s greatest statesmen and most respected leaders.

Meanwhile, In a Small Village in Africa

‘Nelson’ Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in a small village called Mvezo in what is now known as the Eastern Cape Province, and Christened Rolihlahla Mandela by his parents. He was the son of a local chief, and took the name Mandela from his grandfather, a son of a local king.

Being born into rural politics, Nelson’s early childhood was filled with fireside tales of his ancestor’s bravery in war and there’s no doubt these early tales of courage in the face of adversity fuelled him throughout his life.

When Mandela was nine, his father moved the family to Qunu, where he later died. Since Rolihlahla was only twelve at the time, his was placed under the guardianship of a local Regent, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who raised him as his own.

Nelson lived in Jongintaba’s expansive compound and got to witness his ward’s approach to what he called ‘democracy in its purest form’’. As he watched Jongintaba administer justice in tribal meetings that gave everyone an equal voice.

He remembers the regent described a leader as a type of shepherd, and it was Jongintaba’s policy of allowing his subjects to criticize him when needed that shaped Mandela’s magnanimous leadership style.

At that stage he had his sights set on fulfilling a traditional African male role as a policeman or interpreter, but tales of great leaders like Moeshoeshoe, Dingane, and Sikhukune inspired him to dream of greater things.

Education Is The Most Powerful Weapon

His first teacher, at the local Qunu primary school, gave him the name ‘Nelson’ as it was customary to give black children colonial names in those times.

Mandela excelled at school, finally graduating at the well-reputed Healdton Wesleyan secondary school before heading to Fort Hare University to study law.

No Problem Is So Deep That It Cannot Be Overcome

The seeds of resistance were already sown in this young man’s mind when he was expelled from the University in 1940, along with his friend Oliver Tambo due to participating in a student protest. The king was furious and threatened to marry Nelson off to the first taker unless he returned to university.

Unimpressed with this prospect, the young man ran away to Johannesburg to live with his cousin in George Goch Township.

During this time, Nelson made a number of significant connections, including Walter Sisulu, who arranged for him to do his articles at a local law firm run by a liberal sympathetic to the ANC’s cause.

While Mandela wasn’t a member of the ANC at first, he realized that the party had the potential to further his ideals of racial equality.

Now that he was earning a small wage, Nelson Mandela rented a room in Alexandria and enrolled in the University of South Africa to complete his BA, which he achieved in 1943. He moved closer to Johannesburg and enrolled in Wits University where he was the only black student.

Sometimes It Falls Upon A Generation To Be Great

Here, he faced daily incidents of discrimination based on race, which prompted him to become an active member of the ANC. Sisulu had an increasing influence on Nelson Mandela and cemented his ideals of black independence, free of both communist and colonialists, in order to achieve self-determination.

His friend Anton Lembede supported these ideals and together they approached ANC chairman, Alfred Xuma, about forming the ANC Youth League to mobilize young Africans.

Throughout his time in this organization, Mandela opposed all attempts to allow non-African interference in the ANC.

He believed that South Africa needed to find a homegrown solution to uniquely African problems. His was an entirely different approach to many other African leaders who had come to power on the continent before him.

Instead of viewing white people as the enemy, he considered them an equal part of creating a strong and unified nation and was unwilling to embrace principles of ‘reverse relations’’.

Mandela was eventually promoted to the executive committee of the ANC’s Transvaal branch.

I Will Continue Fighting For Freedom Until The End Of My Days

During 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated Herenigde Nasionale Party, entrenched apartheid into South African law, sparking a period of fervent resistance by the ANC. This time, Nelson Mandela was onboard with measures such as boycotts and strikes to help erode apartheid from the bottom up.

Eventually, Mandela changed his views on communism, believing that a classless society had some similarities with the traditional African principles of Ubuntu.

In 1952, the ANC joined Indian and communist political groups in launching a program of passive resistance. Mandela started addressing mass gatherings and became one of the best-known activists of his time.

When People Are Determined They Can Overcome Anything

His speeches, which extolled equality above all else, helped grow ANC membership to over 100 000 people, and he became regional president of the ANC in 1953. The government responded to these protests by implementing martial law under the Public Safety Act.

This led to several arrests among ANC members, including Mandela who was banned from attending meetings or speaking to more than one person at a time for a period of six months. Despite this, the Mandela Plan to divide the ANC  into a more centrally-led cell structure went ahead.

In 1955, Mandela took part in the unsuccessful protest to prevent racially-based eviction from Sophiatown and was forced to acknowledge that the ANC would have to resort to more extreme measures in order to achieve its means. This ultimately led to the formation of the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe.

Despite the horrific injustices to his people under apartheid, Nelson Mandela never advocated violence. Instead, he masterminded acts of sabotage on vital infrastructure, like power stations, transport services, and communications networks to take place at night when there was no one around.

In 1961, MK announced its presence with 57 bombings on 16 December and New Year’s Eve.

Racism must be opposed by all means

Due to these activities, Nelson Mandela soon became one of South Africa’s most wanted men. He also gained world renown for his ability to evade authorities during these years, moving in and out of the country unseen.

His international exploits and insightful speeches on peace and equality soon focussed world attention on South Africa. International sanctions and isolation soon followed, and it was this pressure that eventually led to the end of apartheid.

On 5 August 1962, Nelson Mandela and Cecil Williams were arrested at a roadblock outside the rural Natal town of Howick.

He was charged with inciting strikes and leaving the country unlawfully and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. In the meantime, police raided Liliesleaf Farm, a suspected communist community and uncovered documents detailing numerous strikes and protests, further implicating Nelson Mandela in treason.

In 1964, Mandela and five other accused where back in court at the famous Rivonia Trial. His impassioned ‘I am prepared to die’ speech on this occasion kept everyone spellbound for over four hours. The fact that he was allowed to speak for so long is testament to his incredible ability to capture the attention, and the hearts, of all who heard him.

His words focussed not on hatred and revenge, and he showed no remorse for his actions. Instead, he described his ideal of equality for all South Africans and described his willingness to die rather than give up the struggle.

An ordinary man would have sealed his fate with these words, but he convinced the judge of his genuine commitment to a better future for all. In return, he received a life sentence instead of the death penalty requested by the prosecutor.

Hope Is A Powerful Weapon Even When All Else Is Lost

After his trial, Nelson Mandela was duly shipped off to Robben Island. He was subjected to hard labour and solitary confinement for 19 years. In all this time, he didn’t ever give up hope.

He never allowed hatred and frustration to fester, grow, and become part of his psyche. Instead, he spent many long hours considering a peaceful and prosperous way forward for his beloved homeland.

He kept his fellow prisoners in good spirits, won over his captors, and managed to keep the flames of freedom burning from his place of incarceration.

Despite severe censorship, he sent letters to his comrades from behind the walls, encouraging hope, perseverance, and tolerance. As his fame and popularity grew worldwide, the apartheid government approached him with numerous offers of conditional release.

He never took the easy way out, sacrificing his freedom so that others might one day enjoy theirs. His perseverance and unfaltering dedication to his cause, without anger and bitterness, have inspired generations of both leaders and ordinary folk across the world.

He made a conscious choice to stick to his beliefs, do the right thing, and never back down from his vision, no matter what. It’s a choice we’re all faced with every day. It’s easy to succumb to fear and resentment, but you can achieve so much more by seeking opportunities for reconciliation and progress in any situation.

Find out more about Nelson Mandela’s journey in our next article.


  • Liz Olbrich
    August 5, 2021 at 5:38 pm

    I learn a little more about our beautiful country every day – thank you for this.

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