Learning the Language of the Enemy: 1962 to 1985

In 1962 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country illegally and for inciting a strike. The next year, from prison, he became accused number one in the Rivonia Trial, which saw most of the senior internal leadership of Umkhonto weSizwe sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage.

Mandela would be a prisoner for over 27 years. By the time he was released he was the most famous political prisoner in the world, and a global symbol for the anti-apartheid movement. He used his time in prison to further his studies, read widely, reflect deeply, and learn as much as he could about Afrikaner histories and cultures. He became proficient in Afrikaans, engaged his jailers intensely, and nurtured deep friendships with fellow prisoners Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Eddie Daniels, Laloo Chiba and Mac Maharaj. From the outset he was regarded as the leader and representative of African National Congress (ANC) prisoners, a position he used to sustain unrelenting pressure on the prison authorities to improve conditions. He led ANC engagements with new generations of political prisoners.

In the first few years of his incarceration Mandela lost both his mother and his eldest son. He was also devastated by the apartheid regime’s relentless persecution of his young wife and children. Using every means available to him, from writing letters to getting his lawyers to intervene, and from prison visits to financial assistance from supporters, he reached out to his family, nurturing them both collectively and individually.