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Nelson Mandela, the prisoner’s power and its meaning for us today

Raymond Suttner
Raymond Suttner

17th June 2014

By: Raymond Suttner


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There are many situations where people complain of being powerless to effect change. It may be that we can learn from the way Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners dealt with adverse conditions, where they were seemingly without capacity.

Critical to all aspects of human life is the question of agency, the extent to which we are free to determine the condition of our own lives. Prisons are conceived as places where inmates are denied capacity to do anything without consent of the jailers.


Political prisoners generally did not consent to this. Just as African American slaves broke the law and secretly learnt to read, political prisoners recovered some control over the conditions of their lives, held political discussions and acquired contraband political literature.

Prisoners’ reactions were not always against regulations. They sometimes responded to the authorities denying them that to which they were legally entitled. They resisted imposition of punishment beyond the courts’ sentences. Under apartheid, specially trained warders guarding political prisoners sought vengeance beyond the law, trying to make prisoners’ lives unbearable.


In the early days on Robben Island there were severe assaults. When the Rivonia trialists arrived this reign of terror was in full swing and a commanding officer threatened them. Mandela (who had been on the Island before) went to the front and told the officer that if he laid a finger on anyone he would sue him till he was as poor as a church mouse.

Warders in general are trained to treat prisoners as objects, expected to obey instructions, including running when commanded or squatting in an undignified fashion. Political prisoners generally challenged this.

Dignity was crucial. Walter Sisulu reports on Mandela’s reaction to warders instructing them to run: ‘Now Nelson is a very stubborn chap. He responded to this by walking very, very slowly and of course we all walked slowly too. The warders had to beg him to cooperate and walk faster’.

Mandela’s agency is dramatically demonstrated in relation to offers to release him. When PW Botha proposed his release in 1985 it was the sixth reported offer. Whereas previous ones had been conditional on his willingness to live in a Bantustan, Botha made freedom dependent on his renouncing violence.

Through his daughter Zindzi, Mandela declared continued loyalty to the ANC and its then president, Oliver Tambo. He turned the demand for an end to violence against Botha.

“I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man.” He referred to ANC attempts to meet previous apartheid leaders to seek a solution to the country’s problems. The turn to armed struggle was only after ‘all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us.’ Mandela issued the challenge:

“Let Botha show that he is different to [DF] Malan, [JG] Strijdom and [HF] 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.”

In this period, from his prison cell, Mandela embarked on what was a very dangerous course of action, an attempt to initiate talks that would lead to a negotiated settlement. Mandela risked his own reputation, for he had no mandate from his comrades in prison or from the ANC leadership in Lusaka to embark on such talks.

Mandela frankly admits that he consciously chose not to seek permission because he would have been stopped. He wanted to present the organisation with a fait accompli. In taking this course Mandela knew that he could be called an “individualist” or a “traitor”, and that did happen. But he believed he was in a unique position to break what had become a stalemate, where the ANC was unable to defeat the “enemy” and the regime could not contain the resistance. He took this step, which had to be in secret, to create conditions for talks between the regime and the ANC, which ultimately led to democratic elections. Some may criticise his operating outside collective decision-making, but should collectivism be absolutised?

As the process unfolded the issue of releasing Mandela arose. Again he demonstrated a level of agency that must be unprecedented for a prisoner. He more or less determined the time and mode of his own release. Mandela refused release unless they first set Sisulu and others free. The regime backed down. The whole process of his release from Pollsmoor was under his direction.

If Mandela and other political prisoners could do what they did in those conditions, how do we use our own agency, wherever we are located to recover or safeguard our hard won freedom? Are we to be spectators in the life unfolding before us, or are we to find ways of being actors? Mandela found ways of influence in a situation that seemed insurmountable. Can we do less, however difficult we find our present political situation?

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst on current political and historical questions. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Suttner is a former political prisoner. His experiences are described in his book Inside Apartheid’s Prison (UKZN Press and Ocean, 2001). He blogs at Twitter: @raymondsuttner


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