Nelson Mandela: An Iconic Man on an Iconic Day

There are hundreds of words that come to mind when one hears the name Nelson Mandela: Hope. Fight. Defiance. Justice. Injustice. Peace. Change.

Imprisoned for nearly three decades for pursuing social change in South Africa, Nelson Mandela defines the qualities a leader should possess. On this day, February 11, 1990, Mandela was released from prison. Upon his attained freedom, Nelson continued to change South Africa and the world forever. It is only right we take a look back at a man’s life that impacted the world with his unbreakable spirit. To do so, we look into University Press of Kentucky’s newly released book, A Simple Freedom by Ahmed Kathrada, who was imprisoned with Mandela and later appointed Parlimentary Counsellor in the office of Mandela’s presidency, to get a glimpse behind their cell walls.


“All human beings experience fear at some stage in their lives. There are childhood fears, and adult fears…Adult fear is different. It is not imaginary; it is self-experienced, or learnt from the experiences of others. It is ever present. In the apartheid years African people lived in constant fear of being raided and arrested by the police at any time of the day or night…Hundreds of thousands of African people were jailed for transgressions of these laws. I’m in complete solitary confinement for ninety days, as complete as my captors can make it.” -Ahmed Kathrada, A Simple Freedom


Nelson Mandela was born into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo where his father served as chief. After his father died in 1927, he was adopted by Jongintaba Dalindyebo, a high-ranking Thembu regent. His new role model quickly began shaping Mandela for the role of leadership.


Mandela was the first of his family to receive a formal education. He took his learning all the way to the University of Fort Hare. It was the only western-style college for South African blacks at the time. He continued his education in Law at the University of Witwatersrand where he became involved with both white and black activists against racial discrimination. He was fascinated with the issue and immediately began his fight towards equal rights. Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 where he honed in on his passion for political change.

In 1961, Nelson Mandela became the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), or better known as MK. The next year, he illegally traveled outside the country to Ethiopia, London, and Algeria to strengthen his political pursuit against apartheid. The courageous move ended up with his arrest upon his return. Mandela was sentenced to prison for five years. The following July, police accumulated evidence in a raid that would capture Kathrada, and change Mandela’s sentencing to life. This action would be labeled in history as the The Rivonia Trial.


“It is no accident that I’m with Madiba (Nelson Mandela), Walter and the others in the Rivonia Trial. Come what may, I dare not show weakness…When Madiba suggests that when we are found guilty, and even sentenced to death, we should not appeal, I wholeheartedly agree, knowing what that means…at the trial, he makes one of history’s most dramatic speeches: ‘During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” -Ahmed Kathrada, A Simple Freedom



Mandela spent the first 18 years in prison locked away in a tiny cell at the Robben Island Prison. Robben Island was a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town. Because of his political status, his rations were slim and he was required to do intense labor in a lime quarry.


“The cell is small, there are two thin soiled mats on the floor to sleep on, a bucket for ablutions, a metal plate and spoon, a window too high to see out of and a single naked light bulb, like a demented Cyclops, staring impassively and relentlessly at me day and night. In the evening I am given a plastic bottle of water. This is life stripped to its barest.” -Ahmed Kathrada,  A Simple Freedom


Even though his physical presence was held down behind bars, his spirit proved stronger than ever. Mandela served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners, encouraging ways of treatment through nonviolent resistance, finished his Bachelor’s Degree in Law, and even snuck his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, out of the prison’s walls.


“We are taken to the consulting room. But before that, they bring in Mandela. He’s wearing short pants and sandals. He has completed eleven months of his five year sentence, and he’s lost weight. But his bearing and his presence are unshakeable.”-Ahmed Kathrada, A Simple Freedom


Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982 and then placed under house arrest in 1988.

Two years later, a newly elected president named F.W. De Clerk ordered for the release of Nelson Mandela. His determined character allowed him to finish his goal to demolish apartheid. The political talks from Mandela and De Clerk earned a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their historical progress in South Africa.

22 million residents casted their votes in the first ever multiracial parliamentary elections. The ANC was chosen to lead, and Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.


“In Johannesburg, I said to Madiba, ‘Look, there’s this little girl, can I bring her to you, to the house?’ His response was pure, vintage Madiba. He said, ‘No, that’s too much trouble for her. Let’s rather go to her.’ So, on the appointed day, he got into his helicopter with gifts for Michelle. She also had gifts for him. The most moving and unforgettable scene was, after the exchange of gifts, Michelle spontaneously put her little arms around his neck, and kissed him. It must have brought tears to the eyes of thousands…”-Ahmed Kathrada, A Simple Freedom



A Simple Freedom if available for purchase online at the University Press of Kentucky’s website. Denis Goldberg’s memoir, A Life For Freedom, is also a powerful testimony about the number of racial injustice issues during a tumultuous time in South African history. Both books can be purchased through University Press of Kentucky.

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