frontline: the long walk of nelson mandela

prisoners breaking rocks at robben island

The Prisoner

In the winter of 1964, Nelson Mandela arrived on Robben Island where he would spend 18 of his 27 prison years. Confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months. But Robben Island became the crucible which transformed him. Through his intelligence, charm and dignified defiance, Mandela eventually bent even the most brutal prison officials to his will, assumed leadership over his jailed comrades and became the master of his own prison. He emerged from it the mature leader who would fight and win the great political battles that would create a new democratic South Africa.
"He always made the point, if they say you must run, insist on walking.
If they say you must walk fast, insist on walking slowly.That was the whole point.We are going to set the terms." Neville Alexander, fellow prisoner
The Newly-discovered Film of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in 1977 (realvideo) NOTE: This footage, taken by a South African government cameraman in 1977, has never been seen before. It shows Mandela's prison cell and near the very end, several seconds of a tightlipped Mandela, caught by the camera as he worked with other prisoners repairing a road. The film was shot during a journalists' tour of Robben Island. The tour was initiated by the government in order to dispel stories of brutal conditions. By this time - 1977 - Mandela was in many ways a forgotten man. He had been on Robben Island 13 years and throughout South Africa his image and words were banned.

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The Letters to Winnie These four letters, written from Robben Island between 1976-1979, convey how Winnie was the love of his life. They also offer a glimpse of the painful guilt Mandela felt for the wife and family he always had to put second to his political cause.
"The Dark Years" In this section from his memoirs, Mandela describes the harsh daily routine during the early years on Robben Island.
Neville Alexander's Interview One of the "young revolutionaries" sent to Robben Island the same year as Mandela, Alexander recounts how Walter Sisulu's and Mandela's arguments for self-discipline in prison won over "hotheads" like himself. He also details how Mandela's traits of character were revealed in his dealings with the authorities and fellow prisoners.
Jack Swart's Stories When Mandela was moved to Victor Verster in 1988, Swart became his chef, glimpsing private times in Mandela's life, including visits from his wife, family and colleagues. He recounts some of this, as well as anecdotes about Mandela'a first experience with a microwave; what it was like to drive Mandela secretly around the Cape Town area; and the events and the atmosphere in the days and hours leading up to Mandela's historic 1990 release.
Fikile Bam's Interview He was on Robben Island with Mandela for ten years and shares stories of Mandela's personal political skills; his effort to learn the Afrikaan language; and the kind of books he liked to read.
George Bizos's Reflections As Mandela's longtime lawyer and constant visitor during his imprisonment, Bizos relates some revealing anecdotes about the prison years.
Christo Brand's Interview He was Mandela's warder for many years, first on Robben Island and then at Pollsmoor Prison. He sketches many details of Mandela's prison life--from his beloved garden and taste in music; to how his letters were censored; and how he helped hide Mandela's newborn grandchild so he could see and hold him in prison.
"The Most Important Person in Any Prisoner's Life" This short chapter from Mandela's memoirs describes his relationships with warders and how his fellow prisoners devised strategies to evade their jailers and communicate with each other.
Ahmed Kathrada's Stories A dedicated friend of Mandela who was imprisoned on Robben Island from 1964-1989, Kathrada recounts how the prisoners smuggled out Mandela's autobiography. He also describes how, years later at Pollsmoor Prison, Mandela broke the news about his secret talks with the government.
Strini Moodley's Interview A young member of the Black Consciousness movement, he was sent in 1976 to Robben Island where his cell was diagnonally across from Mandela's. Moodley offers several stories about Mandela's attitude and demeanor to his jailers; discusses why the younger generation felt Rivonia prisoners like Mandela were in a "time warp;" and recounts how he came to see that Mandela's conciliatory approach did improve prison conditions.