UPDATED: 8:10 a.m. ET, Feb. 11, 2021:
South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela is perhaps the only politician to serve several decades in prison and come out stronger than before. In an attempt to silence the popular lawyer and African National Congress (ANC) activist, Mandela was arrested and acquitted of treason in 1961. The following year, he was arrested for illegally leaving South Africa. It was in 1964, however, that Mandela’s fortunes would turn for the worse.
Mandela 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, announcing 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.
From Nelson Mandela’s rally speech in Cape Town on the day of his release:
Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake, which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.
Mandela would then return to lead the ANC between 1990 and 1994, leading way for the first multiracial elections in the country at the end of his tenure. On April 27, 1994, Mandela would be voted in as the country’s first Black president.
Watch Mandela’s release from prison here: