“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” Nelson Mandela
1964 – Robben Island Prison – South Africa: It was said to be closest thing to hell in this world. The small three-square mile island located a few miles off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, had been a prison for political dissidents since the 17th century. The prison was cold, hostile, and notorious for human rights abuses, especially toward black Africans.
Prisoner 466-64 arrived to begin serving his life sentence for political treason in the winter of 1964. He was 45 years old. To be given a life sentence at Robben Island was usually a death sentence. A seven-foot by nine-foot cell would be his home. There was no bed, just a mat on the floor. There was no hot water; the toilet was a 10-inch diameter iron bucket.
Nelson Mandela was born the son of the chief in the small South African village of Mvezo in 1918. His African name, Rolihlahla, means “troublemaker.” In 1939, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only center of higher learning for blacks in the country. Mandela became involved in student government, leading a boycott against the quality of food, which resulted in a temporary suspension. He left school without receiving a degree.
In the early 1950’s, Mandela joined the African National Congress, the oldest political organization in South Africa. He rose to national prominence leading protests against racial discrimination and segregation. For his actions, he was arrested in 1963 and moved to Robben Island a year later.
In prison, Mandela was awakened each morning at 5:30 a.m. by a guard ringing a bell. After washing out his sanitary pot, breakfast was served through the small window in his cell door – a small bowl of cold porridge and a bitter cup of coffee. Lunch was a bowl of corn or rice, occasionally a vegetable like cabbage or carrots. Dinner was the same as lunch, except a five-ounce piece of meat was included every other day. Breaking rocks in the lime quarry was the order of the day, every day.
At one point every Thursday during his incarceration, Mandela and several of his fellow African prisoners were taken outside and ordered to dig a six-foot-deep trench. When the trench was finished, they were told to lie in the pit while the white guards urinated on them. Then they covered the pit back up, before being led back to their cells in solitary confinement.
Breaking rocks did not break Mandela’s spirit. His imprisonment became a time of transformation for him. Mandela’s positive attitude, despite unimaginable circumstances, not only influenced prison guards and officials, but a growing number of followers across South Africa.
On February 15, 1990, after almost 27 years in prison the world watched on live television as Mandela, at age 71, was finally released from prison. When he arrived in Cape Town, a crowd of 500,000 people greeted their hero. On April 27, 1994, 75-year-old Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa, winning the country’s first multiracial election with 62% of the vote.
As a gesture of peace and forgiveness, Mandela instructed his advisors to invite the Robben Island prison guards who had abused him to his presidential inauguration. When told by his advisors that he did not have to invite them, he responded, “I don’t have to be president, either.”
Nelson Mandela’s five-year term as president was one of healing race relations in South Africa and served as a shining example of the incredible strength of the human spirit to persevere in the face of unbelievable adversity. Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg in 2013 at age 95 and was buried in his small village.
“There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested,” said Mandela, “But I would not, and could not give myself up to despair, that way led to defeat and death.”