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How Long Was Nelson Mandela in Prison?

Nelson Mandela, the famous South African anti-apartheid activist and former president, spent a total of 27 years in prison from 1962 to 1990. He was arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison in 1962. Then in 1964, he was convicted again and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela served his long prison sentence primarily on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.

Mandela’s imprisonment was controversial both in South Africa and around the world. Many saw him as a political prisoner who was fighting against an unjust system of apartheid in South Africa. During his decades in prison, “Free Mandela” became a popular anti-apartheid slogan and Mandela became a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.

Dates and Events During Nelson Mandela’s 27 years:

Below is a table summarizing the key dates and events during Nelson Mandela’s 27 years behind bars:

August 5, 1962Mandela is arrested after living on the run for 17 months. He is imprisoned in Johannesburg and charged with incitement and leaving the country illegally.
October 1962Mandela is sentenced to 5 years in prison for incitement and leaving the country illegally.
June 12, 1964While imprisoned, Mandela is charged with sabotage and sentenced to life in prison during the Rivonia Trial.
April 1964Mandela begins his imprisonment on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town. He remains here for 18 years before being transferred to other prisons.
June 12, 1982Mandela is transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
December 1988Mandela is transferred from Pollsmoor Prison to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.
February 11, 1990After 27 years in prison, Mandela is released from Victor Verster Prison.

Why Was Nelson Mandela Imprisoned?

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activism and efforts to dismantle the racist and discriminatory apartheid system in South Africa.

Specifically, in 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to 5 years in prison for incitement and illegally leaving the country. Mandela had been organizing anti-apartheid strikes and protests against the apartheid government. The charges were intended to silence his activism.

Then in 1964, Mandela was convicted during the famous Rivonia Trial where he and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. The apartheid government accused them of plotting acts of violence against the state. However, Mandela always maintained that he advocated non-violent protest against apartheid.

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Overall, the apartheid regime saw Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement as a threat to white minority rule in South Africa. His life sentence was intended to neutralize him as a political opponent. Mandela’s imprisonment made him the most prominent political prisoner in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Key Factors Leading to Mandela’s Arrest and Imprisonment

  • Leadership in the African National Congress (ANC) – As a co-founder and leader in the ANC, the anti-apartheid organization, Mandela was seen as a threat.
  • Advocating non-violent resistance – Mandela organized strikes, boycotts and other protest acts against apartheid laws.
  • Traveling abroad – Mandela traveled internationally to gain support for the anti-apartheid cause, illegal under apartheid laws.
  • Treason charges in 1956 – Mandela was arrested and charged with treason in protest campaigns in 1955, though he was acquitted in 1961.
  • Government crackdown – The apartheid state used mass arrests starting in 1962 to crack down on anti-apartheid dissidents.
  • Rivonia Trial – The 1964 trial led to a life sentence for Mandela and other ANC leaders.

Where Was Nelson Mandela Imprisoned?

Over his 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner in three different locations:

Robben Island Prison (1964 – 1982)

  • This prison was located on Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa.
  • Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island.
  • The prison was known for its harsh conditions including forced hard labor in a lime quarry. Prisoners were isolated and given limited rations.

Pollsmoor Prison (1982 – 1988)

  • In 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
  • Here he was held with other senior ANC leaders. Conditions were better than Robben Island.
  • While imprisoned, Mandela earned a bachelor of law degree through a University of South Africa correspondence course.

Victor Verster Prison (1988 – 1990)

  • Mandela spent his last two years of imprisonment at Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town.
  • He had a private house here and more freedom compared to previous prisons.
  • Mandela initiated talks with the apartheid government from Victor Verster that eventually led to his release.

Significant Events During Mandela’s Imprisonment

Mandela’s decades-long imprisonment included many significant events:

  • Hard labor in Robben Island Prison – For much of his imprisonment, Mandela did hard labor in a limestone quarry and was subjected to harsh conditions.
  • “Free Mandela” campaign – By the 1980s, there was international political action calling for Mandela’s release including a high-profile “Free Mandela” campaign.
  • Refusing conditional release – Mandela rejected multiple offers of conditional release from prison by refusing to renounce violence against apartheid.
  • Secret talks with government – Beginning in 1986, Mandela initiated secret talks with the South African government which eventually resulted in his release.
  • 70th birthday tribute – In June 1988, a star-studded London concert celebrated Mandela’s 70th birthday and called for his freedom.
  • F. W. de Klerk elected President – In 1989, de Klerk was elected South African president and began negotiations to end apartheid, including Mandela’s release.
  • Release from prison – On February 11, 1990, Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster Prison after 27 years behind bars.
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Key People Associated with Mandela’s Imprisonment

  • F.W. de Klerk – As president, he lifted the ban on the ANC and released Mandela in 1990.
  • Winnie Mandela – Mandela’s second wife who campaigned vigorously for his release while raising their two daughters.
  • Walter Sisulu – Fellow ANC leader imprisoned with Mandela at Robben Island for 25 years.
  • Govan Mbeki – Anti-apartheid activist imprisoned at Robben Island alongside Mandela for 23 years.
  • Ahmed Kathrada – Anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned with Mandela for 26 years.
  • Dennis Goldberg – ANC leader and Rivonia trial defendant, imprisoned for 22 years.

What Were Conditions Like at Robben Island Prison?

The conditions that Nelson Mandela faced at Robben Island prison were extremely harsh and intended to break the spirits of political prisoners.

Forced Labor and Isolation

  • Prisoners were forced to perform hard labor quarrying limestone daily. The work was difficult and dangerous.
  • Inmates were isolated in their cells and communication was prohibited during Mandela’s early years there.
  • For years, prisoners could only see their families and legal teams once every six months.

Poor Living Conditions

  • The cells were small with poor ventilation and thin mattresses on the floor as beds.
  • Prisoners had buckets for toilets in their cells. Food was inadequate with meager rations.
  • Healthcare was also very poor and prisoners’ health suffered drastically.

Political Prisoner Status

  • As political prisoners, anti-apartheid inmates were singled out for worse treatment and discrimination.
  • Black prisoners received worse rations and conditions than other racial groups.
  • The warders subjected political detainees to harassment, physical attacks, and other human rights abuses.
  • Still, they found ways to study, debate politics, and strategize against apartheid.

How Did Nelson Mandela Help Dismantle Apartheid While in Prison?

Though imprisoned, Mandela actively fought apartheid throughout his 27 year sentence. He:

  • Inspired and led the anti-apartheid struggle internationally as a jailed activist. The “Free Mandela” campaign made him the face of the cause.
  • Refused conditional release offers unless apartheid ended – this gave the movement leverage.
  • United African, Indian, and colored political groups against apartheid while imprisoned.
  • Secretly initiated talks with the government that eventually led to a negotiated end to apartheid.
  • Helped orchestrate civil disobedience campaigns and international economic sanctions from prison that pressured the government.
  • Set the groundwork for South Africa’s first democratic elections through his negotiations with de Klerk.
  • Emerged from prison as the moral and ethical leader of a new multiracial South Africa.
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What Effect Did Imprisonment Have on Nelson Mandela?

Mandela endured many hardships during his long imprisonment, but also grew in significant ways:

  • His health suffered greatly from the physical toll and conditions inside prison.
  • He had limited contact with his family, missing seeing his children grow up.
  • Initially bitter over his sentence, he eventually accepted the need to work with former enemies.
  • He learned patience and tolerance, becoming less radical and more strategic.
  • He earned a law degree to advance his education despite imprisonment.
  • Prison strengthened his self-discipline, resilience, and focus on his principles.
  • Solitary reflection during his sentence shaped Mandela’s leadership style and vision.
  • He decided a non-racial, democratic society was the only way forward for South Africa.

How Did Mandela’s Release Pave the Way to Ending Apartheid?

Mandela’s release was a watershed moment. It:

  • Built international pressure and signaled apartheid was ending. The country was forced to change.
  • Allowed Mandela to lead direct negotiations with the government to create a new political system.
  • Gave Mandela an international platform to advocate for democratic reform.
  • Inspired South Africans that political change was coming after decades of activism.
  • United South Africans behind Mandela as he promoted reconciliation over retaliation.
  • Enabled the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 with Mandela as president.
  • Led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Mandela backed to heal wounds.
  • Resulted in the official end of apartheid once Mandela became president.

So in many ways, Mandela’s release set the stage for dismantling apartheid by empowering Mandela to lead the country’s transition.

Why is Nelson Mandela Such an Important Historical Figure?

Nelson Mandela is globally admired for his historic fight against institutionalized racism. Some key reasons why he is so important historically:

  • As South Africa’s first black president, he broke the race barrier after decades of apartheid.
  • By peacefully transitioning from prison to president, he served as a model of grace under pressure.
  • He successfully led South Africa from apartheid to inclusive democracy, averting civil war.
  • Mandela created a model for reconciliation by working with former opponents.
  • He shined a spotlight on the injustice of apartheid through his long imprisonment.
  • As an activist, Mandela embodied integrity, courage, and principled leadership.
  • He inspired freedom movements worldwide as proof activism can defeat oppression.
  • Mandela showed personal change is possible by transforming his politics in prison.
  • His capacity to forgive vs. retaliate after decades jailed was extraordinary.
  • He devoted his life to fighting for equality, dignity, and human rights for all.


Nelson Mandela’s sacrifice and lifetime of activism made him one of history’s most significant moral and political leaders. His 27 year imprisonment exemplified the inequality and injustice of apartheid. However, the decades Mandela spent behind bars did not diminish his commitment to non-violence or destroy his human dignity and courage.

Instead of growing bitter, Mandela grew more strategic, learning to work with his enemies for the greater good. His perseverance reshaped South Africa. After finally emerging free following nearly three decades cut off from the world, Mandela continued his fight – not through acrimony but by leading his country towards reconciliation. His release set in motion the end of apartheid and inauguration of a new multiracial democracy.

Mandela paved the way for South Africa’s historic transition through principled compromise. After 27 years confined apart from most of society, Mandela’s greatest triumph was bringing all of South African society together as president. His example continues to inspire people working for justice and equality worldwide.

Prison Inside Team

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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