Nelson Mandela: Never Give Up

“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up.”

After spending 27 years of his life in prison, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became the first President of South Africa and the country’s first black head of state, a role he won in the nation’s first democratic election – an achievement that gives real meaning to his belief that a winner is a dreamer who never gives up.

Narrowly escaping the death penalty for conspiring to overthrow the government, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. Prior to sentencing, he made his now famous I Am Prepared to Die speech in the dock of the court which ended with the words: “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.”

On arrival at Robben Island prison, a warder’s first words to Nelson and the other ANC (African National Congress) members sentenced with him were, “This is the Island. Here you will die.” As political prisoners, they faced a life sentence of hard labor breaking rocks into gravel, living in individual cells no bigger than eight foot by seven foot, and furnished only with a sleeping mat and slop bucket.

Harsh Conditions

In the early years, there were no privileges. Nelson was allowed only one visitor for just 30 minutes each year, and one letter every six months. The daily routine was harsh and his eyesight was permanently damaged by the glare of the sun on the limestone rocks. Food supplies were limited and there was no hot water for washing, but complaints about conditions were guaranteed to result in even greater hardships. However, Nelson continued to stand up for himself and his fellow inmates by protesting over ill-treatment, stating in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom:

“In those early years, isolation became a habit. We were routinely charged for the smallest infractions and sentenced to isolation. The authorities believed that isolation was the cure for our defiance and rebelliousness. I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks.”

Leadership Skills

Nelson’s leadership skills soon became evident to his fellow inmates and the prison authorities. The warders would often hurry the men as they made their way to the quarry each morning until one day Nelson said, “Comrades, let’s be slower than ever.” In so doing, he slowed progress to a virtual standstill, thereby forcing the authorities into negotiations.

Over time, privileges such as reading materials were given and Robben Island was dubbed the “university behind bars” as inmates were granted permission to study a variety of courses. Nelson urged his fellow ANC inmates to join him in studying Afrikaans. They were reluctant to do so as this was the language of their oppressor, but he persuaded them by stating that they were in for a “protracted war” and what better way to learn how to ambush the enemy than by getting into the mind of the commanding general with an understanding of his culture.

War of Attrition

Nelson was a flawed man, he made mistakes, and he took responsibility for them, saying of himself, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying” – and try he did. Having endured a prison sentence of nearly three decades, he was right in his belief that it was to be a “protracted war” and a fellow inmate tells a tale of a game of chess that suggests Nelson fought a war of attrition in everything he did:

“They played for many hours in one day and they had to ask the warders to lock the chessboard up in the cell next door. They continued the next day and each move was so slow, this was a war of attrition. After a few hours, the young chap said, ‘Look, you win. Just take your victory.’ He wins.”

Nelson Mandela was finally freed by President F.W. de Klerk in 1990 and the pair won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 after negotiating an end to apartheid in South Africa. His anti-apartheid struggle was long and hard – but he never gave up.

A winner is a dreamer who never gives up. In the fast-paced, highly competitive world we live in today, are we a little too quick to give up?