27 years is a long time to be imprisoned. Join Pin Africa as we explore Mandela’s time as a prisoner, and the history behind one of the prisons he made famous – Robben Island


Nelson Mandela spent over a quarter of his life in prison. He was a prisoner in Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison but spent most of his incarcerated life at Robben Island.

Between the 17th and 20th century, Robben Island was used as a hospital, a military base and, most famously, a prison.

When the Dutch arrived and settled in Cape Town in the 17th century, they quickly started to use Robben Island as a prison. In the early years, many of the prisoners were African chiefs, Muslim leaders, colonial soldiers and also civilians who may have suffered from either mental illness or leprosy.

Mandela’s long incarceration began with The Rivonia Trial of 1963-64 where he and several other ANC members were arrested, charged with acts of sabotage against the state and sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial led to one of Mandela’s most famous speeches commonly known as ‘I Am Prepared to Die.’

Under the apartheid regime, Robben Island became more commonly used for convicts and political prisoners. By 1964, 1,000 of the 1,500 inmates were political prisoners. The South African government were so committed to the apartheid regime, at the time, that the prison was filled with only non-white political prisoners. Other ANC political prisoners to have been imprisoned on the island were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Jacob Zuma and Njongokulu Ndungane.

Although prominent inmates were allowed to educate themselves whilst at Robben Island, the conditions were cruel with political prisoners permitted only two visits and two letters a year.

In 1974, aged 56, Mandela started to write his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ which would tell the story of his early life, youth, education and time in prison. This would later become an international bestseller and be made into a movie starring Idris Elba.

After Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison and then Victor Verster Prison before his release in 11th February 1990 at the age of 71.

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