How Nelson Mandela refused freedom in 1985 before he walked out of jail in 1990

D.L. Chandler February 11, 2019
Nelson Mandela in a visit to his cell at the prison on Robben Island. Photo Credit: The Smithsonian

Nelson Mandela walked free from a South African prison in 1990, giving new hope to a nation wrecked by the racist practice of Apartheid. Mandela, however, could have walked free five years earlier, had he accepted State President P.W. Botha‘s conditions of release, which the great leader proudly refused on February 10, 1985.

On January 31, 1985, Botha offered Mandela a conditional release. The terms of the deal were that Mandela would have to publicly declare he was retiring and renounce violence and protests across South Africa.

As the leader of the African National Congress, Mandela was expected by Botha to betray the very sensibilities of his people and abandon the fight for equality that made him an iconic figure.


At a rally in Soweto, Mandela refused Botha’s demands by way of his daughter, Zinzi Mandela (pictured), who read a letter written by her father:

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers, and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them.

Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.

What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort?

What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?

Watch Zinzi Mandela deliver her father’s speech below:

This offer of release was also given to other prisoners serving time for sabotage, with 18 of them accepting the terms. The ANC, which was banned by the South African government, was pegged as a violent organization. Mandela said violence by the ANC was a means of protest, and some historians state that Botha may have overstated such occurrences.

On February 11, 1990, Mandela was unconditionally released by State President F.W. De Klerk amid much fanfare. Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president in 1994, serving in the post until 1999.

Last Edited by:Francis Akhalbey Updated: February 11, 2019


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