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When Was Nelson Mandela Released From Prison?

On February 11, 1990, the iconic civil rights leader Nelson Mandela was released from prison in South Africa. Mandela had been incarcerated for 27 years due to his activism and leadership against the oppressive apartheid regime. His release was a momentous event that marked the beginning of South Africa’s transition to democracy.

Mandela’s freedom represented a triumph over decades of brutal injustice and cemented his status as one of history’s most inspirational freedom fighters. His release came after an escalating local and global movement finally forced the white government to negotiations to end apartheid.

Nelson Mandela’s Long Imprisonment

Prior to becoming South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela was a prominent anti-apartheid activist and leader in the African National Congress (ANC) party. He advocated for equal rights and an end to the apartheid system that denied rights to the black majority population.

Due to his activism, Mandela was targeted by authorities and eventually arrested in 1962 at age 44. He was convicted of inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally. At a trial that has since been exposed as a sham, Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison.

Inciting workers’ strikes5 years
Leaving country illegally5 years (concurrent)

However, while in prison, Mandela was later charged with additional offenses along with other ANC leaders. In 1964, he was convicted at the Rivonia Trial of furthering communism and terrorism. His sentence was increased to life in prison. Mandela would go on to serve 27 years behind bars, mostly at the high-security Robben Island prison.

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Life Imprisonment Sentence:

  • Convicted of sabotage, violent conspiracy, treason (later revealed as fabricated charges)
  • Life sentence mandated to be served at Robben Island Prison
  • Forced to perform hard labor in prison quarry
  • Confined to small isolated cell, allowed only select visitors
  • Harsh reflective punishment for anti-apartheid leadership role

Mandela’s unjust imprisonment made him the face of the anti-apartheid movement both within South Africa and internationally. He inspired worldwide opposition even as the regime tried to erase him and the ANC from society.

What Led to Mandela’s Eventual Release?

Nelson Mandela remained imprisoned from 1962 until February 1990. Several key factors ultimately forced the South African government to release him after nearly 3 decades.

Local Protests & International Sanctions

Though banned by authorities, the ANC organized strikes and anti-apartheid protests within South Africa throughout the 80s. At the same time, Mandela’s imprisonment spurred international economic sanctions and divestment to pressure the government. This escalating unrest forced leaders to reconsider their stance.

Leadership Change

In 1989, F.W. de Klerk replaced P.W. Botha as President. Though an apartheid supporter himself, de Klerk saw the writing on the wall and knew repressive white rule was ending. Releasing Mandela was a necessary concession, although de Klerk would seek to maintain white influence in transition negotiations.

Secret Negotiations

Prior to his release, the government reached out to Mandela in prison to begin negotiations for an orderly transition to majority rule. Once released, Mandela provided the key to ensure the handover process did not spiral into civil war.

Shifting Global Politics

By 1990, communist regimes were collapsing worldwide and Cold War tensions easing. South Africa’s government could no longer justify repressive policies by citing communist threats. Ending apartheid became the only viable path forward.

These circumstances finally aligned to force authorities to release Mandela as the first necessary step towards ending apartheid entirely.

The Day Mandela Walked Free

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela finally walked out of Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town, South Africa after 27 years of incarceration. Mandela was 71 years old, with his health in decline after the harsh conditions he endured.

The world watched transfixed as he exited the prison gates hand-in-hand with his wife Winnie Mandela. Both clenched their fists triumphantly to the cheering crowds gathered outside.

Mandela gave a moving speech about achieving equal rights for all South Africans of every color. Media beamed images of his release and speech globally, signaling the death knell of apartheid.

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Key Facts About Mandela’s Release:

  • He exited Victor Verster Prison near Cape Town on February 11, 1990.
  • Mandela was 71 years old and had declining health after 27 years imprisoned.
  • His release was televised worldwide, making him the international face of change in South Africa.
  • In his speech, he reiterated his commitment to achieving democracy for all races.
  • His release came just days after the South African government lifted the ANC ban.
  • Four years of negotiations towards South Africa’s first democratic elections followed.

Mandela’s walk to freedom marked a key turning point in South Africa’s history. But much work remained to dismantle apartheid and Mandela played a crucial leadership role in the challenging transition period.

Transfer of Power and Elections After Release

In the four years after his release up until South Africa’s first free elections, Nelson Mandela worked tirelessly to ease tensions and ensure an orderly but rapid transition to democratic rule. Some key events:

  • 1990-1991: Mandela embarked on national and international tours to maintain pressure for change. He began negotiations with President de Klerk.
  • 1991: Apartheid laws were rescinded and restrictions on political groups lifted. But violence erupted between ANC and Inkatha supporters.
  • 1992-1993: Mandela continued negotiations amid ongoing instability and white extremist threats. A settlement plan was reached in 1993 to prepare for elections.
  • April 1994: South Africa held its first fully democratic elections. The ANC won 62% of the vote and Mandela was elected President.
  • May 1994: Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black President, marking the official end of apartheid.

Though filled with obstacles, Mandela’s mediation was crucial to ensuring the handover process remained on track. He accepted incremental change to ease white fears which facilitated reconciliation and a peaceful transition.


Nelson Mandela’s release from 27 years of unjust imprisonment in 1990 was a seminal moment in South African and human history.

His emergence from decades confined to a prison cell marked the beginning of the end for apartheid. Both his freedom and subsequent election as President fulfilled the dreams of generations who struggled against brutal repression.

Mandela demonstrated that no amount of oppression can extinguish the flame of freedom. His release proved that national and global solidarity can overcome even the most entrenched injustice.

Decades later, Mandela’s walk to freedom remains one of the most inspirational and impactful political events of the 20th century. It highlighted that ordinary individuals have the power to change history through perseverance.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Where was Nelson Mandela imprisoned for most of his 27 year sentence?

Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years behind bars confined at the high-security Robben Island Prison off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. The conditions there were harsh.

What crimes was Mandela originally convicted and sentenced for in 1962?

Mandela was initially given a 5 year sentence in 1962 for inciting worker strikes and leaving South Africa illegally. However, authorities escalated his charges and sentence to life while imprisoned.

How old was Nelson Mandela when he was released from prison in 1990?

Nelson Mandela was 71 years old when he was finally released after serving 27 years in prison from ages 44 to 71.

How long did the transfer of power take after Mandela’s release before elections in 1994?

South Africa held its first fully democratic elections in April 1994, four years after Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990.

What political party did Nelson Mandela lead and eventually win power with?

Mandela was leader of the African National Congress (ANC) political party which won South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, four years after his release.

How did Mandela’s imprisonment help fuel the global anti-apartheid movement?

Mandela’s harsh sentencing and imprisonment for 27 years brought worldwide attention to the injustice of apartheid. It motivated sanctions and pressure from governments and activists globally.

What were the major obstacles towards transitioning to democracy after Mandela’s release?

Obstacles included ongoing violence between rival groups, threats from white extremists opposed to change, and negotiating the transfer of power with existing apartheid government officials.

How did Mandela help ensure the transition process did not spiral into civil war?

Mandela mediated between all sides, eased fears through incremental change, and compelled authorities to rapidly cede power before negotiations could collapse and violence erupt.

What happened in South Africa’s 1994 elections that marked the end of apartheid?

The ANC and Nelson Mandela as leader won 62% of the votes in fully democratic elections in April 1994. In May, Mandela was sworn in as President.

How did Mandela’s imprisonment and release make him such an inspirational historical figure?

His unwavering commitment to equality despite decades of brutal confinement showed the power of the human spirit. His release and subsequent election embodied triumph over injustice.

Imran Khan

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