We remember the TV images of Nelson Mandela in a grey suit, in bright sunlight, walking free from prison in 1990. We might not know that he could have walked free five years earlier. The reason he did not is because the offer made to him by then State President of South Africa, P. W. Botha was conditional. The conditions basically required Mandela to retire in silence, abandon everything he had stood up for, and went against his responsibilities toward his political supporters.
Mandela once said, “In prison, you come face to face with time. There is nothing more terrifying.” To learn that he refused release after 22 years of incarceration, despite the terror of it, is more proof of Mandela’s unwavering pursuit of justice.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. He was imprisoned for nearly 20 years on Robben Island until a 1982 transfer to Pollsmoor Prison. Perhaps (?) another lesser known fact is that Mandela was a keen boxer. He boxed to maintain health and discipline, so I’ve included a couple of images of Mandela training — one from 1950 before his imprisonment (below) and one from a prison yard (bottom).
To keep fit, Nelson Mandela, solicitor, was at Jerry Moloi’s boxing gym at Orlando every evening. He’s shadow-sparring with Moloi (right) a professional featherweight. As the biggest case in South Africa’s history lumbered to the end of its first stage this August 1957, the 156 accused men and women wondered how many of them would be back in court again. The 156 national leaders had first appeared at a preparatory examination into treason at the end of 1956, in the specially constructd court at the Drill Hall, Johannesburg; they had spent their lives in and out of court for most of 1957; and they could now see the possibility of the same prospect for the third calendar year, 1958, if they were committed for trial in the Supreme Court. (Photograph by Drum photographer © Baileys Archive)
It’s difficult to know what to say upon the death of any man, but particularly a man who shaped history. Therefore, it was a treat, an inspiration (and a writer’s let-off) to find Mandela’s inspiring rejection of Botha’s offer on the UCSC Library website:
On 31 January 1985, Botha, speaking in parliament, offered Mandela his freedom on condition that he ‘unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon’. This was the sixth such offer, earlier ones stipulating that he accept exile in the Transkei. His daughter Zinzi read Mandela’s reply to this offer to a mass meeting in Jabulani Stadium, Soweto, on 10 February, 1985. This was the text of his response as read publicly by Zinzi:
I am a member of the African National Congress. I have always been a member of the African National Congress and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die. Oliver Tambo is much more than a brother to me. He is my greatest friend and comrade for nearly fifty years. If there is any one amongst you who cherishes my freedom, Oliver Tambo cherishes it more, and I know that he would give his life to see me free. There is no difference between his views and mine.
I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man. My colleagues and I wrote in 1952 to [Daniel François] Malan asking for a round table conference to find a solution to the problems of our country, but that was ignored. When [Johannes Gerhardus] Strijdom was in power, we made the same offer. Again it was ignored. When [Hendrik] Verwoerdwas in power we asked for a national convention for all the people in South Africa to decide on their future. This, too, was in vain.
It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people’s organisation, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.
I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.
What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?
Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Herman Toivo ja Toivo, when freed, never gave any undertaking, nor was he called upon to do so. I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.
When F. W. de Klerk signed off on Mandela’s release in 1990, he was careful to make certain that Mandela’s freedom would be unconditional.