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On This Day: Nelson Mandela Sentenced to Life in Prison

Written By Denis Cummings
Last updated: February 11, 2023

On June 12, 1964, Nelson Mandela received a life sentence for committing sabotage against South Africa’s apartheid government, avoiding a possible death sentence.

Mandela Sentenced for Sabotage

Nelson Mandela, leader in the African National Congress, an organization dedicated to protesting the South African government’s policy of apartheid, had been arrested in 1956 on treason charges, but was acquitted.

The ANC was banned by the government in 1960, following the Sharpeville massacre. Mandela was forced underground, “adopting a number of disguises—sometimes a laborer, other times a chauffeur,” writes PBS. “The press dubbed him ‘the Black Pimpernel’ because of his ability to evade police.”

In 1961, believing that non-violent measures would not be successful, Mandela and other ANC leaders formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a militant wing of the ANC. Beginning on Dec. 16, 1961, MK, with Mandela as its commander in chief, launched bombing attacks on government targets and made plans for guerilla warfare.

Mandela was arrested on Aug. 5, 1962, and sentenced to five years in prison for inciting a workers’ strike in 1961. A year later, in July 1963, the government launched a raid on the Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia, which had been used as an ANC hideout. It arrested 19 ANC leaders and discovered documents describing MK’s plans for attacks and guerilla warfare.

The government charged 11 ANC leaders, including Mandela, with crimes under the 1962 Sabotage Act. At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela chose not to take the witness stand, instead making a long statement from the dock on April 20, 1964. In it, he explained the history and motives on the ANC and MK, admitting to many of the charges against him and defending his use of violence.

He concluded, “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 with 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.”

Mandela was found guilty on four charges of sabotage on June 11. The following day, he and seven on his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, avoiding the death sentence. Mandela and the other six non-white defendants were sent to the prison on Robben Island, a former leper colony located off the coast of Cape Town.

Mandela’s Prison Term and Release

Sources in this Story

  • PBS: The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela
  • Aluka: Rivonia Trial Papers
  • Time: Avoiding Martyrdom
  • Nelson Mandela Foundation: Biography
  • The Nobel Foundation: Nelson Mandela
  • The New York Times: South Africa’s New Era: The Overview; South Africans Hail President Mandela; First Black Leader Pledges Racial Unity

On the notorious Robben Island, Mandela lived in a tiny cell, received meager rations and performed hard labor in a lime quarry. “But Robben Island became the crucible which transformed him,” writes PBS. “Through his intelligence, charm and dignified defiance, Mandela eventually bent even the most brutal prison officials to his will, assumed leadership over his jailed comrades and became the master of his own prison.”

In the 1980s, exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo, Mandela’s former law partner, led an international movement to free Mandela. Many countries imposed sanctions on South Africa for its apartheid policies.

In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered to release Mandela, who had been moved to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, on the condition that he renounced violence, writes the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Mandela refused, saying, “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate.”

F.W. de Klerk became president in 1989 and began to dismantle the policies of apartheid and release the ANC prisoners. On Feb. 12, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison.

He was named president of the ANC and in 1993 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, the ANC emerged victorious in South Africa’s first democratic elections with universal suffrage. Mandela was named the first president of the post-apartheid South Africa.

Biography: Nelson Mandela

Read the full findingDulcinea profile of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Background: Apartheid

South Africa Content

After winning the 1948 elections, the white Afrikaner National Party moved to consolidate its hold on power with the introduction of racially discriminatory measures known collectively as apartheid. Learn more about the history of apartheid with the Apartheid Museum’s Understanding Apartheid page for teachers and students.

Reference: Mandela and ANC documents

The African National Congress’ Mandela Page has a collection of Mandela’s speeches and writings, as well as biographies from other sources, an excerpt from Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” and links to other Mandela resources.

The ANC Web site also has a collection of documents about the history of the ANC and MK, and the international struggle against apartheid.

Charles Eames

Denis Cummings is a history enthusiast and author, with a passion for uncovering the stories of the past. Through his writing, he seeks to share his love of history with others and provide a unique perspective on the events that have shaped our world.

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