South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela is perhaps the only politician to serve several decades in prison and come out stronger than ever. In an attempt to silence the popular lawyer and African National Congress (ANC) activist, he was arrested and acquitted of treason in 1961. The following year, Mandela was arrested for illegally leaving South Africa. It was in 1964, however, that Mandela’s fortunes would turn for the worse.
He and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life for attempting to overthrow the government. Serving 18 of his 27 years behind bars in the harsh Robben Island prison just outside of Cape Town, the authorities tried to break Mandela’s spirit with hard labor and other forms of ill treatment. Correspondence with the outside world was scarce, as Mandela was only allowed to receive and write a letter once every six months.
Over the course of his imprisonment, Mandela’s fame rose as the spiritual leader of stamping out apartheid. He became known for staging protests and radicalizing other Black prisoners at Robben Island. Eventually, his disturbances sparked prison officials to improve the conditions. Mandela was moved to a different location and eventually put on house arrest. In 1985, Mandela was offered a chance at freedom by then-President P.W. Botha but only if he would renounce his militancy. In pure defiance, Mandela rejected the offer.
When P.W. Botha suffered a stroke in 1989, it gave way for Frederik Willem de Klerk to replace him in the post. Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and related anti-apartheid groups in 1990 and announced that he would free Nelson Mandela. As he left Victor Verster Prison on this day in 1990, Mandela would address the nation with measurable humility and stern resolve.