Transition 116 - Featured Article

Robben Island University
by Aaron Bady

Mandela was “the world's most famous (former) prisoner.” Bady explores how prison served as a necessary prerequisite for political leadership in much of post-colonial Africa.

Full article / Issue 116

Read issue 116, "Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918-2013" on JSTOR


To remember Mandela is to remember Robben Island. In a sense, Nelson Mandela never really left his cell: when he walked to freedom in 1990, after nearly three decades of imprisonment, he would remain most famous as a (former) prisoner, the icon of a freedom struggle which his liberation seemed to bring to a close. But even before he was imprisoned, Mandela was already the subject of a story about imprisonment, the fact that he had not yet been imprisoned: when he went underground in 1961, for example, media called him the “Black Pimpernel” and his daring appearances and escapes became a romantic narrative about the revolutionary as fugitive.

And it was during the twenty-seven years of his incarceration that the story made necessary by his absence—crafted in his absence, and out of his absence—became the story of his imprisonment. When even photographs of the world’s most famous prisoner were officially proscribed and banned, it was the idea of the imprisoned nationalist leader, and what he had come to represent, that allowed him to remain present on the political stage, to signify as a potent symbol and focus of organization against apartheid. Indeed, the very absence of his picture and voice became an argument against apartheid because it marked South Africa as a state that censored and suppressed, imprisoning information as well as people.

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