In Summary
  • Personality and ideological clashes between South Africa’s resistance movements spilled into prison, and Robben Island was the biggest theatre of these conflicts.
  • Robben Island was declared a South African national monument and a museum was set up in September 1996.
    Today: It became a World Heritage Site in 1999.

African countries seem to share an uncanny pattern for creating their first free leaders – they all first led defiant protest against oppressive authorities, got arrested and were jailed only to emerge as mythical figures.

Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah was such a man, Jomo Kenyatta another, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe yet another.

The most remarkable to date is Nelson Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison to become the first black president of a multi-racial South Africa.


What had happened to him in those prison years?

Robben Island, known as the prison within a prison, was rough and lonesome.

Being held in it consisted hours of backbreaking work in the quarry, but it also afforded time and opportunity for study, debate and introspection.

The austere conditions in the prison were ideal for concentrated study and debate among the inmates.

Mandela’s character and leadership were further moulded at this ‘University of Robben Island’, vigorously promoted by Govan Mbeki.

Mandela himself said, “There is nothing like a long spell in prison to focus your mind and bring to you a more sober appreciation of the realities of your society.”

As early as 1972, nearly 20 years before he would be freed, and for many years thereafter, there were offers of release from jail on the condition that Mandela would renounce violence.

He rejected them all and reiterated that it was the government that dictated the ANC’s methods of activism.

Mandela had an over-optimistic view of the struggle before he went to jail in 1962. His prison ordeal transformed him into a much more reflective and influential leader.

Cut off from the mass media, stripped down to man-to-man leadership, he learnt about human sensitivities and how to handle the fears and insecurities of others -- including those of his Afrikaner warders.

Mandela had impressed the warders with his assertiveness, respect and legal knowledge. On Robben Island, Mandela ruled. The warders were under the prisoners’ control and the prisoners were under Mandela.

Eddie Koch, writing for the Mail & Guardian, noted that Mandela’s Cell No. 7 was the busiest corner of the high security maximum block of Robben Island on Saturdays.


During Mandela’s imprisonment, there was a steady stream of prisoners from the virulent cadres of the ANC’s military wing, the rival Pan Africanist Congress and Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s.

Personality and ideological clashes between South Africa’s resistance movements spilled into prison, and Robben Island was the biggest theatre of these conflicts.

They all sorely tested the leadership and diplomatic skills of Mandela and his colleagues from the Rivonia Trial.

Many of those who arrived on Robben Island, such as the leaders of the Soweto Students Representative Council who led the youth uprising that swept through the country in 1976, had no clear understanding of the political situation.

It would fall on Mandela and his colleagues to indoctrinate and educate them. And not that the prison was a free place for intellectual discourse: Robben Island was designed to prevent contact between leadership, militants and the rank and file of the movements.

Senior leaders were kept in single cells on Block B. Hardline cadres and guerrillas, who defied authority to the end, stayed in Block A’s isolation cells. The rest shared cells with each other in G (for general) Section.

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