A comparison of prison experiences and conditions of
Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in South Africa(1)
By Nelson Mandela
Gandhi threatened the South African Government during the first and second
decades of our century as no other man did. He established the first
anti-colonial political organisation in the country, if not in the world,
founding the Natal Indian Congress in 1894. The African People's Organisation (APO) was established in 1902, the ANC in 1912, so that both were witnesses to
and highly influenced by Gandhi's militant satyagraha which began in 1907 and
reached its climax in 1913 with the epic march of 5,000 workers indentured on
the coal mines of Natal. That march evoked a massive response from the Indian
women who in turn, provoked the Indian workers to come out on strike. That was
the beginning of the marches to freedom and mass stay-away-from-work which
became so characteristic of our freedom struggle in the apartheid era. Our
Defiance Campaign of 1952, too, followed very much on the lines that Gandhi had
So the Indian struggle, in a sense, is rooted in the African. M.K. Gandhi and
John Dube, first President of the African National Congress, were neighbours in
Inanda, and each influenced the other, for both men established, at about the
same time, two monuments to human development within a stone's throw of each
other, the Ohlange Institute and the Phoenix Settlement. Both institutions
suffer today the trauma of the violence that has overtaken that region;
hopefully, both will rise again, phoenix-like, to lead us to undreamed heights.
During his twenty-one years in South Africa, Gandhi was sentenced to four
terms of imprisonment, the first, on January 10, 1908 to two months, the second,
on October 7, 1908 to three months, the third, on February 25, also to three
months, and the fourth, on November 11, 1913 to nine months hard labour. He
actually served seven months and ten days of those sentences. On two occasions,
the first and the last, he was released within weeks because the Government of
the day, represented by General Smuts, rather than face satyagraha and the
international opprobrium it was bringing the regime, offered to settle the
problems through negotiation.
On all four occasions, Gandhi was arrested in his time and at his insistence
- there were no midnight raids, the police did not swoop on him - there were no
charges of conspiracy to overthrow the state, of promoting the activities of
banned organisations or instigating inter-race violence. The State had not yet
invented the vast repertoire of so-called "security laws", that we had to
contend with in our time. There was no Terrorism Act, no "Communism Act", no
Internal Security Act, or detentions without trial. The control of the State was
not as complete; the Nationalist police of State and Nationalist ideology of
apartheid were yet to be born. Gandhi was arrested for deliberately breaching
laws that were unjust because they discriminated against Indians and violated
their dignity and their freedom. He was imprisoned because he refused to take
out a registration certificate, or a pass in terms of the Transvaal Asiatic
Registration Act (TARA), and "instigated" others to do likewise.
When apartheid was still in its infancy, we too, like Gandhi, organised
arrests in our own time through the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign, but by the
end of the sixties, the violence of the State had reached such intensity that
passive resistance appeared futile. We were literally pulled out of our beds and
dragged into prison. Our Defiance, instead of bringing relief, provoked the
Government into passing the so-called security laws in a bid to dam up all
resistance. This should not mislead the reader into thinking that Gandhi's
resistance did not provoke harsh measures against him and his followers. The
Indians suffered terrible reprisal - they were deported to India and several
groups spent time navigating back and forth, between the ports of Bombay and
Durban in third class steerage because they refused to disembark in India,
insisting they would only do so on their mother soil, South Africa.
Most of those deportees had in fact been born in South Africa and India was
for them, a foreign country. Others like Ahmed Cachalia and E.I. Asvat lost
their lucrative businesses and were forced into insolvency by their white
creditors, not because their businesses were not doing well, but because they
resented their 'defiance' and forced them to liquidate their assets and pay them
back. Others had their property auctioned, just so that the government could
extract the fines the satyagrahis refused to pay for defying unjust laws. Gandhi
himself was treated with utmost indignity on several occasions, the like of
which was not heaped on us. On two occasions, while being moved from Volksrust
to Johannesburg and Pretoria respectively, he was marched from the gaol to the
station in prison garb, handcuffed, with his prison kit on his head. Those who
saw him were moved to anger and tears. For Gandhi, it was part of his suffering,
part of the struggle against inhumanity.
There is great similarity in the conditions of imprisonment during our days
and Gandhi's. Prison conditions changed dramatically only in the 1980s, despite
the pressures exerted at the beginning of the century by Gandhi and his
colleagues, and in the latter decades by my colleagues and myself. Access to
newspapers, radio and television were allowed, in stages, only in the last
decade as, too, were beds. In a sense, I was eased into the prison routine.
My first time in a lock-up was on June 26th, 1952 while I was organising the
Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. I was held for a few days in a police cell
before being released on bail. Gandhi's first imprisonment was without hard
labour, in January 1908, and though sentenced to two months, he was released
within 19 days. General Smuts, fearful of the momentum the passive resistance
struggle was gathering, had him brought by train, from Johannesburg, to his
offices in Pretoria to work out a settlement.
I too, was called out with a view to a settlement by the then head of state,
Mr. P.W. Botha. They drove me to Groote Schuur, but that was in my twenty-sixth
year of imprisonment - when the Nationalist Government saw that they could no
longer govern the country on their own. Gandhi spent his first term of
imprisonment in the Fort in Johannesburg, so did I - in the hospital section as
an awaiting trial prisoner in 1962.
Gandhi describes his apprehension on being first convicted: "Was I to be
specially treated as a political prisoner? Was I to be separated from my fellow
prisoners?" he soliloquized. He was facing imprisonment in a British Colony
in 1908, and he still, at the time, harboured a residue of belief in British
justice. My colleagues and I faced imprisonment in the cells of apartheid; we
had no expectations that we would be given privileges because we were political
prisoners. We expected the reverse - greater brutality because we were political
prisoners. My first conviction was for five years in 1962, following my
incognito African "tour". I began serving in Pretoria. Like Gandhi, we
experienced the insides of the major Transvaal prisons. Gandhi, however, was
never on Robben Island in the Cape, and we were never in Volksrust in the
Gandhi's approach was to accommodate to the prison conditions since, as a
satyagrahi, suffering in the path of freedom and justice was part of his creed:
We were never satyagrahis in that sense. We did not accept suffering, we reacted
against it. I was as uncooperative on my first day of prison as I possibly
could be. I refused to wear the prison shorts and I refused to eat the prison
food. They gave me long trousers, and food that was somewhat more palatable, but
at a heavy price. I was placed in solitary confinement where I discovered that
human company was infinitely more valuable than any material advantage.
Clothing and Food
There was practically no difference in the issue of clothing given to us in
1962 and that given to Gandhi in 1908. He records, that "After being
stripped, we were given prison uniforms. We were supplied, each with a pair of
short breeches, a shirt of coarse cloth, a jumper, a cap, a towel and a pair of
socks and sandals." (Indian Opinion, 02-01-1909) Our issue was
Neither was there any difference in the diet, basically porridge, save that
we were given a teaspoon of sugar; Gandhi's porridge had no sugar. At lunch, we
were served mealies, sometimes mixed with beans. He spent one and a half months
on a one-meal-a-day diet of beans.
He did not think it proper to complain, writing:
"How can we complain when there are hundreds who accept these things. A
complaint must have only one object - to secure relief for other prisoners.
How would it mend matters if I were occasionally to complain to the warder
about the small quantity of potatoes and so get him to serve me a little more?
I once observed him giving me an additional helping from a portion meant for
another, and thereafter I gave up complaining altogether."
He declined any favours offered to him exclusively but accepted improvements
when these were shared with his fellow political prisoners. On Robben Island, we
observed the same principle.
We took up issues on behalf of all the prisoners, political and
non-political, never on behalf of an individual, except when an individual was
personally discriminated against. In prison, one's material needs are so
straitened that they are reduced to almost nothing, and if in that condition one
can still think of one's fellowmen, one's humanity excels and passes all tests
for fellow feeling. Gandhi passed that test superbly. I am grateful that I
maintained my humanity throughout my internment as did too my immediate
The cells in 1962 were comparable to those during the early 1900s. Gandhi
describes his cell in Volksrust:
"It had fair ventilation, with two small windows at the top of the cell,
half open apertures in the opposite wall. There was no electric light. The
cell contained a dim lamp, a bucket of water and a tin tumbler. For natural
convenience, a bucket in a tray with disinfectant fluid in it, was placed in a
corner. Our bedding consisted of two planks, fixed to three inch legs, two
blankets, an apology for a pillow, and matting." (Indian Opinion,
We were similarly locked up with a bucket for a commode and drinking water in
a plastic bottle. Though we had electricity, the lights, controlled from
outside, remained on throughout the night. We had no raised planks for sleeping.
We slept on a mat, on the floor. Communal cells, in Gandhi's time and ours,
usually accommodated 15-20 prisoners, but that varied. The worst Gandhi
experienced was sharing a cell, with accommodation for 50, with 150 prisoners.
(Indian Opinion, 28-03-1908)
The ablution facilities in Gandhi's time were worse than in ours, two large
stone basins and two spouts that served as a shower, two buckets for defecation
and two for urine - all in the open, since prison regulations did not allow
privacy. The one grilling routine that some of his compatriots suffered was
absent from ours. Ahmed Cachalia, for instance, was left in a cold bath with
other prisoners for hours and developed pneumonia as a consequence.
Our prison routine and Gandhi's were remarkably similar, but then why
wouldn't they be? In prison everything stands still. There is one way to treat
prisoners, and that way doesn't change. During my first decade of imprisonment,
we were up at 5.30 a.m., we rushed through our ablutions, folded our bedding and
lined it against the wall and stood to attention for inspection.
Once counted, we filed for our breakfast, and then filed to be counted again
before being sent to work. Work stopped at 4.30 p.m., when there was further
counting; when we reached the compound, we were stripped naked and searched. By
5.30 p.m. we had had our supper and were locked up for the night.
Now let us look at Gandhi's account of his prison routine:
"The prisoners are counted when they are locked in and when they are let
out. A bell is rung at half-past five in the morning to wake up the prisoners.
Everyone must then get up, roll up his bedding and wash. The door of the cell
is opened at six when each prisoner must stand up with his arms crossed and
his bedding rolled up beside him. A sentry then calls the roll. By a similar
rule, every prisoner is required to stand beside his bed, while he is being
locked up [at night]. When the officials come to inspect the prisoners, they
must take off their caps and salute him. All the prisoners wore caps, and it
was not difficult to take them off, for there was a rule that they must be
taken off, and this was only proper. The order to line up was given by
shouting the command fall in whenever an official came. The words fall in therefore became our daily diet. They meant that the
prisoners should fall in line and stand to attention. This happened four or
five times a day. The prisoners are locked up at half-past five in the
afternoon. They read or converse in the cell up to eight in the evening. At
eight, everyone must go to bed, meaning that even if one cannot sleep, one
must get into bed. Talking among prisoners after eight constitutes a breach of
Gaol Regulations. The Native prisoners do not observe this rule too strictly.
The warders on night duty, therefore, try to silence them by knocking against
the walls with their truncheons and shouting, Thula! Thula!"
(Indian Opinion, 21-03-1908).
Hard labour is hard, and made infinitely harder by the warder who stands over
you and forces you to work beyond your endurance, beyond human endurance.
Gandhi, like us, had plenty of hard labour, and both his comrades and mine,
survived to tell our tales. He describes a particular day in Volksrust prison.
"The day was very hot, all the Indians set to work with great energy. The
warder was rather short of temper. He shouted at the prisoners all the time to
keep on working. The more he shouted, the more nervous the Indians became. I
even saw some of them in tears. One, I noticed, had a swollen foot. I went on
urging everyone to ignore the warder and carry on as best he could. I too, got
exhausted. There were large blisters on my palms and the lymph was oozing out
of them. I was praying to God all the time to save my honour so that I might
not break down. The warder started rebuking me. He did so because I was
resting. Just then I observed Mr. Jhinabhai Desai fainting away. I paused a
little, not being allowed to leave the place of work. The warder went to the
spot. I found that I too must go and I ran." (Indian Opinion,
They splashed water on the fainted Jhinabhai and revived him. Jhinabhai was
taken to his cell by cab. That hot day repeated itself on Robben Island in the
We, like Gandhi's Indians, had been working at a brisk pace for three hours
one day, when fatigue set in and some of us stopped to stretch our bodies. The
warder was on to us, swearing and shouting. Then he turned to Steven Tefu, old
enough to be his grandfather, very erudite, highly educated, and shouted at him,
"Get on boy!"
Tefu drew together his dignity and reprimanded the warder in high Dutch,
thoroughly confusing him. The outcome for Tefu was better than that for
As was the experience of Gandhi, we were marched off to work in groups of 30.
"At seven, work starts. On the first day, we had to dig up the soil in a
field near the main road for purposes of cultivation." (Indian
They quarried stones and carried them on their heads. We worked on the lime
quarries, and the sun shining on the whiteness blinded our eyes. There were
times when Gandhi agonised and wondered whether he had done the right thing by
exposing his compatriots to the pain and indignity, but his firm conviction came
to his rescue.
"If to bear suffering is in itself a kind of happiness, there is no need to
be worried by it. Seeing that our sole duty was to break free from our fetters
by enduring every hardship rather than remaining bound for life, I felt light
in the heart and tried to instill courage in the others."
During his imprisonment in Pretoria, all his fellow prisoners were Africans
(Natives as they were then referred to, even by ourselves), and they, seeing him
so different from them, were curious to know what he was doing in prison. Had he
stolen, or dealt in liquor?
He explained that he had refused to carry a pass. They understood that
perfectly well. "Quite right," they said to him, "the white people are bad."
Gandhi had been initially shocked that Indians were classified with Natives in
prison; his prejudices were quite obvious, but he was reacting not to "Natives",
but criminalised Natives.
He believed that Indians should have been kept separately. However, there was
an ambivalence in his attitude for he stated,
"It was, however, as well that we were classed with the Natives. It was a
welcome opportunity to see the treatment meted out to Natives, their
conditions (of life in gaol), and their habits."
All in all, Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the
context of the time and the circumstances. We are looking here at the young
Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice, save
that in favour of truth and justice.
Political prisoners are prisoners of conscience, and as such, very different
from other prisoners. The two are bound to meet and mix and the experience can
have unpleasant consequences. Gandhi had such experiences, so did I. After my
first conviction, I was transported to Pretoria prison in a closed van with a
member of the notorious Msomi Gang and as the van reeled and lurched, I was
swung against him. I could not trust the man for I feared he was a police plant.
Gandhi writes about a night he spent in Johannesburg prison in 1909. His
fellow prisoners appeared to be wild and murderous and given to "unnatural
ways". "Two of them tried to engage him in conversation. When he couldn't
understand them, they jeered and laughed at him. Then the one retreated to a bed
where another prisoner was lying. The two exchanged obscene jokes, uncovering
each other's genitals." (Indian Opinion, 1909)
On another occasion, he was assaulted by a prisoner in a lavatory.
"The lavatories have open access. There are no doors. As soon as I had
occupied one of them, there came along a strong, heavily-built,
fearful-looking Native. He asked me to get out and started abusing me. I said
I would leave very soon. Instantly, he lifted me up in his arms and threw me
out. Fortunately, I caught hold of the door frame and saved myself from a
fall." (Indian Opinion, 1909)
Gandhi and I shared one great good fortune - we were very much in the public
eye and once it got out that some undue suffering or indignity was heaped on us,
there was public reaction. The assault on Gandhi became an issue of protest in
India and the British parliament and from some liberal white quarters in South
Gandhi suffered solitary confinement in Johannesburg in 1908 and in Pretoria
in 1909, not because he was defiant and uncooperative: Gandhi was a model
prisoner; but because the authorities wanted to separate him from his comrades:
they feared his influence upon them. His cell was 70 square feet, the floor was
covered with pitch, at night there was a constant dim light and the warders
switched it on and off four to six times as a warning that they were around. The
cell was completely bare. He paced the floor, up and down, and the warder
shouted at him, "Gandhi, stop walking about like that, my floor is being
spoilt." "Even when I went for evacuation, a warder stood by to keep watch. If
by chance he did not know me, he would shout, Sam come out now." Every
Indian man was referred to as Sam, or Sammy in those days and much after, even
as every African male was John: every African woman was Annie and every Indian
I recall my own periods in solitary confinement and they were no different.
The worst aspect of solitary confinement, apart from being cut off from human
company is the deprivation of exercise and fresh air. It tells on your health.
You are given hard labour in your cell, instead of going out with the prison
gang. Gandhi's hard labour was sewing together worn out blankets and being the
person he was, he tackled it with meticulous care, sitting on the floor and
bending over his work, week after week. He developed severe neuralgia and his
lungs were infected, but he never shirked his duty.
Gandhi taught himself Tamil in prison, I taught myself Afrikaans. Gandhi
writes that one of the most important benefits he derived from being in prison
was that he got the opportunity to read books. He read voraciously, whenever he
could, even standing below the dim globe, snatching whatever light he could. In
three months, he read 30 books, ranging from works by European philosophers like
Thoreau to religious scriptures, like the Koran, Bible, Gita, and Upanishads. He
read in English and Gujarati. Books were also my refuge, when I was allowed
them. Gandhi writes that they rescued the mind from wandering off "like a
monkey" and dwelling on unpleasant thoughts. The worst punishments are those
unpleasant thoughts, concerns over families, about those who are ill and those
in want. Both Gandhi and I went through periods when our spouses were also in
prison. On several occasions, his sons, Harilal and Manilal, were also in
Gandhi's most painful experience must have been when he was told that his
wife, Kasturbai, was critically ill. He was given the option to pay his fine and
rush to her bedside. His commitment to satyagraha would not allow him to do so.
He wrote her a letter in Gujarati - it was embargoed by the prison authorities
because they couldn't read Gujarati. He had to content himself with sending her
a message in his letter to his son. My most trying times in prison were when my
son was killed in an accident and when my mother died. I mourned alone.
So endured Gandhi the prisoner at the beginning of our century. Though
separated in time, there remains a bond between us, in our shared prison
experiences, our defiance of unjust laws and in the fact that violence threatens
our aspirations for peace and reconciliation.
1. From: B. R. Nanda, ed., Mahatma Gandhi: 125 Years. New Delhi: Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 1995.
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