fb-pixel Skip to main content
Farah Stockman

Power in prison

The silver lining of leaders’ long prison sentences

Nelson Mandela visited his former prison cell on Robben Island in South Africa in 2003.
Nelson Mandela visited his former prison cell on Robben Island in South Africa in 2003.REUTERS

The 27 years that Nelson Mandela spent in prison were marked by hard labor, barely edible porridge, and limited access to the outside world. At one point, he could only receive a single visitor each year, for just 30 minutes.

But, somehow, Mandela and his fellow political prisoners managed to turn their captivity into an advantage. They studied. They strategized. They mastered self-discipline. Through the shared experience of prison, they bridged the dangerous divide between the African National Congress and the Pan Africanist Congress, two rival liberation movements.

The more you read about how Mandela, the ANC, and others survived Robben Island, the more you wonder whether they succeeded, in part, because of their long imprisonment, rather than in spite of it.

“Despite the injustice of it, they used prison as an opportunity to deepen their education and commitment to their members, and chart the route forward for their movement,’’ said Fran Buntman, author of “Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid.’’


Serving time gives fighters extraordinary credibility in the eyes of their people. It makes them potent, unifying symbols. Prison can also protect leaders from rumors of corruption and criticism over unpopular decisions. In some especially violent conflicts, prison is what keeps members of the resistance alive.

So it is no surprise that prison played a role in the lives of a number of transformative leaders: from Vaclav Havel (the Czech Republic) to Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) to Kim Dae-jung (South Korea) and Martin McGuinness (Northern Ireland).

A founding member of the ANC’s increasingly militant Youth League, Mandela went into prison as a young firebrand. He emerged much older and wiser. Sentenced to life for plotting sabotage and the use of explosives, he never lost faith that he would eventually be set free. He spent those decades preparing. He learned Afrikaans, the language of his captors. He read biographies of revolutionary leaders. He studied constitutional law.

Are the prisoners of today’s intractable conflicts following his example? Supporters of Marwan Barghouti, the popular Palestinian figure, say that he is. Barghouti, a leader of the second Intifada, was sentenced to five life terms for his militia’s role in a deadly attack on a seafood market in Tel Aviv. In prison, he has studied Hebrew and earned a doctorate in political science. He has also tried to bridge the gulf between Hamas (which openly advocates the use of violence) and Fatah (which doesn’t).


In 2006, Barghouti got the imprisoned leaders of both groups to agree to cease attacks on civilians inside Israel, and limit their violent actions to the occupied territories. Although the deal fell apart outside the prison walls, he still appears to be a rare unifying figure for Palestinians. When Hamas negotiated a prison exchange with Israel, it asked for Barghouti, even though he’s a member of Fatah. (Israel freed others, but declined to free him.)

Barghouti’s supporters have gone the extra mile to make a connection with Mandela. His lawyer begged Mandela to attend his trial. Recently, supporters held a “free Barghouti” event at Robben Island with Ahmed Kathrada, who served in prison alongside Mandela.

While the parallel is flawed — Barghouti seems to have embraced violence to a far greater extent than Mandela did — the lessons of Mandela’s imprisonment remain. Sometimes the effort to discredit a man by throwing him in prison accomplishes just the opposite. Prison can turn a mortal into a mythical figure.

By the mid-1970s, South Africa’s government wanted to free Mandela. Officials offered to let him out if he renounced violence, agreed to live in exile. He refused. When he finally did walk free, it was on his own terms. Ultimately, the white government in South Africa realized that apartheid had to end.


In a strange way, Mandela’s captors began to prepare him for the presidency. They moved him to a nicer prison. They employed a personal chef for him. They negotiated with him in prison, and secretly drove him around Cape Town to show him how the country had changed. They understood that — far from disqualifying him for leadership — Mandela’s crimes and his long imprisonment were a crucial prerequisite. Who, after all, is better placed than a warrior to convince his people to make peace?

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com.