This Week in History
June 10, 1980
Nelson Mandela writes from prison
In South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) makes public a statement by Nelson Mandela, the long imprisoned leader of the anti-apartheid movement. The message, smuggled out of Robben Island prison under great risk, read, “UNITE! MOBILISE! FIGHT ON! BETWEEN THE ANVIL OF UNITED MASS ACTION AND THE HAMMER OF THE ARMED STRUGGLE WE SHALL CRUSH APARTHEID!”
After the massacre of peaceful Black demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, Mandela helped organize a paramilitary branch of the ANC to engage in acts of sabotage against the white minority government. He was tried for and acquitted of treason in 1961 but in 1962 was arrested again for illegally leaving the country. Convicted and sentenced to five years at Robben Island Prison, he was put on trial again in 1963 with seven other ANC members who were arrested at Rivonia in possession of a store of weapons. Charged with sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy, Mandela admitted to many of the charges against him and eloquently defended his militant activities during the trial. On June 12, 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Through it all, Mandela’s resolve remained unbroken, and he led a movement of civil disobedience at the prison that coerced South African officials into drastically improving conditions on Robben Island. In 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, and in 1988 to a cottage, where he lived under house arrest.
In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became South African president and set about dismantling apartheid. De Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, suspended executions, and on February 11, 1990, ordered the release of Nelson Mandela after 27 years as a political prisoner. Mandela subsequently led the ANC in its negotiations with the minority government for an end to apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial government. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 26, 1994, more than 22 million South Africans turned out to cast ballots in the country’s first-ever multiracial parliamentary elections. An overwhelming majority chose Mandela and the ANC to lead the country, and a “national unity” coalition was formed with de Klerk’s National Party and the Zulus’ Inkatha Freedom Party. On May 10, Mandela was sworn in as the first Black president of South Africa.