Barack Obama Visits Nelson Mandela’s Former Prison Cell

Published May 10, 2016
Updated January 18, 2018
Published May 10, 2016
Updated January 18, 2018
Nelson Mandela Prison Cell

Then U.S. Senator Barack Obama visits the former jail cell of Nelson Mandela on August 20, 2006. Photo: RODGER BOSCH/AFP/GettyImages

May 10 marks the anniversary of the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as South Africa’s first black president, in 1994. But before Mandela became the revered leader who helped end apartheid, he spent 27 years as a political prisoner, the victim of a racist government he couldn’t abide.

For decades, that story has inspired countless people around the world, including leaders like Barack Obama. In fact, Obama has visited Mandela’s small prison cell on Robben Island twice: Once as a senator in 2006, and again as president in 2013.

And it’s easy to see why Obama — or anyone, really — would be moved by Mandela’s cell and his story. While that story is fraught with injustice, it is ultimately one of the most profound tales of the triumph of the human spirit in history.

Mandela was sent to prison because of his activities as deputy national president of the African National Congress: he organized demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts protesting and condemning the National Party, which enacted legislation making apartheid’s racial segregation official government policy in 1948. In the early 1960s, Mandela was charged with treason, and sentenced to life in prison.

The first 18 years of Mandela’s sentence were spent in Robben Island Prison, where he was condemned to hard labor. But after Mandela led a civil disobedience demonstration at the prison demanding that conditions be improved, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison. In 1988, he was again moved, this time to a small cottage where he lived under house arrest.

Only a year later, F.W. de Klerk became South Africa’s president. His mission was to dismantle South Africa’s racist apartheid regime. He pardoned Nelson Mandela, who was released from prison on February 11, 1990, and the two worked together to pass legislation repealing apartheid as well as to introduce the first multiracial elections, which Mandela won in a landslide.

As president, Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated human rights abuses during apartheid. He and de Klerk jointly received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for successfully creating a South African democracy. In 1996, Mandela oversaw the ratification of the country’s new constitution, one that would help ensure that injustices like his never occurred again.

Next, feel the power of these inspirational Nelson Mandela quotes.

Elisabeth Sherman
Elisabeth Sherman is a writer living in Jersey City, New Jersey.