At Robben Island, the political prisoners met harsh treatment and hard labor in the lime quarry. At the quarry, however, where work was done in groups, they could talk with each other the cream of the anti-apartheid movement improvised seminars, carried on debates for weeks, and practiced a system of self-education including liberation strategy. In notes smuggled out, Mandela would write, "Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose."
One of the most difficult punishments for the activists was the restriction of news and communication. They were allowed only one visit in six months and only one letter in and out in the same period and no newspapers. Guards did, however, leave newspaper clippings under Mandela's door that reminded him his family was being targeted and harassed in his absence.
South African President P. W. Botha introduced reforms to racial policy, in reaction to anti-apartheid pressure. Mandela and three other Rivonia prisoners were moved in 1984 to less harsh conditions at Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. But Botha needed more to appease the Mandela constituency and, in January 1985, he told the House of Assembly that the government would consider freeing Mandela if he would renounce violence.
Mandela's response to the government's proposed offer was immediate. His daughter Zindzi read it to a mass rally celebrating Bishop Desmond Tutu's Nobel Peace Prize in Soweto on February 10. "What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? ... when I may be arrested on a pass offence? ... when my very South African citizenship is not respected? Only free men can negotiate." They were the first words heard from Mandela since he addressed the Supreme Court in Pretoria 20 years before.
In his biography, Mandela wrote he was wary of the government offers to talk but nevertheless thought "negotiation, not war, was the path to a solution." Mandela sent P.W. Botha a long memorandum to clarify the terms for negotiation, and the two men finally met in secret on July 5, 1989. Botha was cordial but no policy matters were discussed. Six weeks later, amid social unrest and friction within his cabinet, Botha resigned his office and Frederik Willem de Klerk was chosen to succeed him.
Exiled leaders of the ANC in Europe, Africa and the United States also engaged secretly with the South African government. In August 1989, the ailing Oliver Tambo presided over the drafting of the Harare Declaration, which defined conditions for ANC-government negotiations to end apartheid. The public statement of willingness to compromise caused rifts with those in the movement who wanted to seize power. Mandela now occupied a house isolated from other prisoners at the Victor Verster prison farm.
Mandela drafted a letter to President de Klerk similar to the one he had prepared for Botha. After their first meeting, Mandela would say that de Klerk seemed to be making a real attempt to listen and understand. On February 2, 1990, in an unprecedented speech at the traditional opening of parliament, President de Klerk began to dismantle the apartheid system and lay the groundwork for a democratic South Africa. Among other dramatic reforms, he announced the lifting of bans on the ANC and 33 other illegal organizations; the release of political prisoners not held for violent crimes; and the release of Nelson Mandela for February 11, 1990, with no conditions.
The challenges were immense. Racial reconciliation for a society he had not lived in for three decades. Revising an economy built to benefit the minority into one of opportunity for millions excluded for 350 years yet preserving what was the strongest economy on the African continent. In addition the movement faced a huge black generation gap. The ANC leadership, returned from exile or prison, had not met together for decades. The new younger members had very different perspective and experiences and often were more inclined to ally themselves with Mandela's far more radical wife, Winnie, who had spend the previous decades in the active struggle.
Four months after his release from prison, Mandela appeared before both Houses of the all-white South African Congress stating the goals for negotiations. Mandela took the high road. He forgave his jailers. He read the legislators a poem in Afrikaans, which he had taught himself in prison.
Addressing a multi-party constitutional convention
attended by leaders of all races, in December 1991, President de Klerk made the dramatic proposal that the black majority join the white minority in forming an elected interim government to run the country and draw up a non-racial constitution. Two years later, the new interim constitution designed to eliminate institutionalized racism was approved by South Africa's last apartheid congress. The elaborately balanced package, which included the nation's first-ever bill of rights, also called for a transitional coalition government that would last for five years after the democratic election set for 1994.
Just two years after his release, Nelson made a short statement to the press that he and Winnie had mutually acknowledged serious differences and agreed to separate.
In October, the Nobel Committee
awarded Nelson Mandela and President F. W. de Klerk the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in dismantling South Africa's system of racial separation. The committee called the South Africans' commitment to negotiations a model for resolving racial and ethnic conflicts around the world.