Nelson Mandela’s Legacy for Political Prisoners
“No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.” (1)
– Nelson Mandela, July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013
Translator’s Note: The original version of Liliany Obando’s article in Spanish appears here.
At the time of her arrest on August 8, 2008, Liliany Obando was the human rights director for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers’ union. She’s a sociologist, documentary film maker, and single mother of two children. Prosecutors accused her of terrorism and belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A week before her arrest she had issued a report documenting the murders of 1500 Fensuagro union members over 32 years. Colombia has 10,000 political prisoners.
Obando left prison after 43 months on March 1st 2012. Because she had yet to be convicted or sentenced, she remained under court jurisdiction. The following year, almost five years after her arrest, a judge convicted her of “rebellion” on a charge of serving on the FARC’s International Commission. She received a sentence of five years, eight months of house arrest and must pay a fine of 707 million pesos, equivalent to $368,347 (USD). The judge acquitted Obando on the charge of handling “resources relating to terrorist activities.” She is currently under court jurisdiction waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on her appeal. The government’s case against Obando and other prisoners rests on discredited material taken from the computers of FARC leader Raul Reyes, seized after his murder. Since her release from prison, Obando and her family have had to endure police surveillance, harassments, and media slander.
Introducing her article, Liliany Obando writes: “We regard as political prisoners all those who are deprived of the liberty because of political reasons, more particularly because of their opposition to and/or criticism of the status quo. They may be unionists or not, convicted prisoners or not, either prisoners of conscience or prisoners of war. Many face charges of rebellion and such like.”
Obando makes use of Nelson Mandela’s commentary on his own imprisonment appearing in Spanish as: Nelson Mandela, “Conversaciones Conmigo Mismo,” Editorial Planeta S.A., Colombia, 2010. Mandela’s reflections appearing below are taken from an English language edition of that book: “Conversations with Myself,” Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York, 2010
– W. T. Whitney Jr.
Mandela, Symbol of Dignity
Nelson Mandela, one more of those indispensible individuals giving up his physical existence, leaves his legacy to those of us who dream of and struggle for a world in peace, one with social justice and without discrimination and exclusion.
His life was notable for his struggle against apartheid, for civil and human rights, and for national liberation for his people. Activism led to persecution and prison. His first detention occurred in 1956 on a charge of conspiracy against the regime. He went free shortly thereafter.
His tireless resistance and the political circumstances of his country during the 1960’s put him on the path of armed struggle and underground existence. He was commander in chief of the armed wing of the African National Congress, known as “Umkhonto we Sizwe,” or “spear of the nation.” The government viewed it as a terrorist group.
“The means which are used by the oppressed to advance their struggle are determined by the oppressor himself. Where the oppressor uses peaceful methods, the oppressed will also use peaceful methods, but if the oppressor uses forces, the oppressed will also retaliate with forces.” (2)
He was arrested again in 1964 and accused of sabotage and conspiracy against the South African government. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and locked up on Robben Island. Carrying identification number 466/64, he spent the first 18 years of his incarceration there, his most difficult time, Mandela himself says. He was forced to break rocks and most of the time could only look out at the bars of his cell windows. Visitors were not allowed. Reacting to strong pressure, the government transferred him and six other political prisoners to Pollsmoor Prison. To counter heavy criticism of his government, South African President Pieter Willem Botha in 1985 offered to free him in exchange for Mandela’s giving up what Botha called his violent struggle. Mandela rejected the offer, saying, “What freedom am I offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into a contract.”
Stricken with tuberculosis, Mandela was transferred to the Victor Verster prison in 1988. From there he would continue the now ongoing process of talks with the South African government. On February 11, 1990, at 72 years of age and having by then spent 27 years of his life in prison – more than 13,000 days – Nelson Mandela was finally free. After negotiations, President Willem de Klerk subsequently lifted all charges against him and against other members of the liberation movements.
In 1993, Nelson Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize for having contributed to the end of apartheid and building democracy in South Africa. He became his country’s first Black president as the result of multi-racial elections held on April 27, 1994, a first time for South Africa. Announcing his victory, he proclaimed South Africa was “free at last.”
His resolution, example, persistence, and consistency were what made him a figure of moral stature for the world.
Mandela’s teachings as a political prisoner
After a long passage through prison, Nelson Mandela left an indelible mark. In his own flesh he lived the desolation, anxiety, impotence, and indignation and rage at humiliations that are part of being locked up. But he also did everything possible to try to overcome the horrors and to grow as a revolutionary during his time in prison. Rather than represent the individual man, he embodies all those fighters in the world who are deprived of liberty because they hold up banners of justice. In prison Mandela wrote of his experiences in notebooks that he tried to preserve afterwards by relying on other people. What with frequent confiscations by the guards – “those remorseless fates”, he used to call them – he was never certain they would end up where they were supposed to go. The writings that survived constitute today’s memory, the disgraceful record, but also the strength and faithfulness of those who resist without breaking.
“Until I was jailed I never fully appreciated the capacity of memory, the endless string of information the head can carry.” (3)
Like all of us who have been in prison, Mandela felt pain due to separation from loved ones and to uncertainty about his fate. Writing helped him be able to express these feelings. His biographers says that the writings that most reflect his prison suffering are those he wrote while at Robben Island prison between 1964 and 1971, perhaps his most painful time of being a prisoner.
“1968 and 1969 have been difficult and trying years for me. I lost my mother only 10 months ago. On May 12 my wife was detained indefinitely under the Terrorist Act [sic], leaving behind small children as virtual orphans, and now my eldest son is gone never to return…. Then came Sept[ember] 26 (my wife’s birthday) when I was advised of my mother’s death… I was again quite unprepared and for a few days I spent moments in my cell which I never want to remember. But nothing I experienced in the late Forties and in Sept[ember] last year can be likened to what I went through on July 16…. Suddenly my heart seemed to have stopped beating and the warm blood that had freely flown in my veins for the last 51 years froze into ice. For sometime I could neither think nor talk and my strength appeared to be draining out. Eventually, I found my way back to my cell with a heavy load on my shoulders and the last place where a man stricken with sorrow should be.” (4)
He reflected also about the importance of solidarity by social and revolutionary organizations – a moral obligation – for their militants and members who are in prison. He also thought about the relevance of solidarity campaigns, not only as an effective way to give political prisoners visibility and try to secure their freedom, but also as a voice of encouragement helping them to endure hard prison conditions.
“I am also aware that massive efforts have been made here and abroad for my release and that of other political prisoners, a campaign which has given us much inspiration and shown us that we have hundreds of thousands of friends… Few things have inspired me more that the knowledge that in spite of all the enemy is doing to isolate and discredit us, people everywhere never forget us… In my lifetime I shall step out into the sunshine and walk with firm feet because that event will be brought about by the strength of my organization and the sheer determination of our people.” (5)
And he spoke of the importance of personal friends or comrades visiting prisoners who are locked up and of the strength they gain.
“You cannot unlock the gates of this prison so that I can walk out as a free man, not can you improve the conditions under which I have to live. But your visit has certainly made it easy for me to bear all the grimness that has surrounded me over the past 22 years” (6)
Mandela converted prison into that other battleground and platform where one must study, be in solidarity with fellow human beings, provide testimony, resist, and reflect about the very existence of so many of us who do make mistakes but have good ideas. Prison becomes a testing ground for every revolutionary and that’s why each day, each experience, every space in the lock-up must be taken advantage of. That way prisoners become better persons and better men and women who, on leaving prison, go on with their lives in struggle so that people might be able to dream about real justice, dream of peace and freedom.
“The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search realistically and regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. … Honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, and readiness to serve others…are the foundation of one’s spiritual life… At least, if for nothing else, the cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct, to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you. Regular meditation, say about 15 minutes a day before you turn in, can be very fruitful in this regard. You may find it difficult at first to pinpoint the negative features in your life, but the 10th attempt may yield rich rewards.” (7)
Through his moral stature as a political prisoner, Mandela is the essential reference point for those of us who were in prison. His experience, his resistance, his example, his loyalty to his ideas and his cause must inevitably nourish our own moral sense so we can understand that our course through prison will never end up as an empty sacrifice.
“A new world will be won not by those who stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena, whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of the contest. Honor belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat.” (8)
Our unrelenting resolve is to secure peace with social justice for our peoples. So we say with Mandela: “It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build.” (9) We political prisoners pay tribute to your example. You fulfilled the obligation to duty set by your conscience.
Rest in peace Tata Madiba!
Liliany Obando was the human rights director for Fensuagro, Colombia’s largest agricultural workers’ union. She’s a sociologist, documentary film maker, and single mother of two children. Prosecutors accused her of terrorism and belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). A week before her arrest she had issued a report documenting the murders of 1500 Fensuagro union members over 32 years. Colombia has 10,000 political prisoners.
1. “Long Walk to Freedom, Autobiography of Nelson Mandela,” Abacus, London, 1995, p. 233
2. From conversation with Richard Stengel about negotiations in the 1980’s. Nelson Mandela, “Conversations with Myself” (CWM), p.249
3. Letter to Hilda Bernstein, July 8, 1985, CWM, p. 115
4. Letter to Irene Buthelezi, August 3, 1949, CWM, pp.171-172
5. From the manuscript of Mandela’s unpublished autobiography written in prison, CWM,
6. Letter to Professor Samuel Dash, May 12, 1981, CWM, p. 243.
7. Letter to Winnie Mandela, February 1, 1975, CWM, p. 211.
8. Letter to Winnie Mandela, June 23, 1969, CWM, p. 175.