Nelson Mandela, who passed away late last year, spent more than a quarter of his life in prisons. For the first twenty years, beginning with his 1962 incarceration in Johannesburg’s Marshall Square Prison when Mandela was 44 years old, there was little hope of clemency from the apartheid regime. By the 1980s, however, international pressure was bearing down on the reigning National Party. Multinational banks stopped investing in South Africa, and several of them, alongside British PM Margaret Thatcher, demanded that Mandela be released. Internally, the country’s tensions were becoming difficult to control, and the regime attempted to enforce order by declaring a state of emergency. The crackdown resulted in further anti-government attacks by the anti-apartheid African National Congress. Eventually, the pressure proved insurmountable, and the 72 year old Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison in 1990.
Upon walking out of Victor Verster, Mandela received the personal property he had relinquished during his time in jail. Above is a photograph of the handwritten list of his personal effects. (Click the image to read it in a larger format.) Our resident Afrikaans expert (i.e., Google Translate) provides an English translation below:
Property Mr. Mandela
21 +1 boxes
1 Reisegers* Bag
1 Surf Board
4 Rattan Baskets
1 Large Birthday Card
1 White Cardboard Hat
2 Big Umbrellas
1 Set Weights
1 Exercise Bike
Correct Ontavang:* [illegible]
Urns and rattan baskets are all well and good, but I was most impressed that the great anti-apartheid leader counted an exercise bike and a set of weights among his possessions. Don't even get me started on the surfboard. Then again, Mandela took his fitness more seriously than most during his lifetime, as he noted in his autobiography:
“I enjoyed the discipline and solitariness of long-distance running, which allowed me to escape from the hurly-burly of school life.”
“On Monday through Thursday, I would do stationary running in my cell in the morning for up to forty-five minutes. I would also perform one hundred fingertip push-ups, two hundred sit-ups, fifty deep knee-bends, and various other calisthenics.”
“Exercise was unusual for African men of my age and generation… I know that some of my younger comrades looked at me and said to themselves, ‘if that old man can do it, why can’t I?’ They too began to exercise.”
“I attended the gym for one and a half hours each evening from Monday through Thursday… We did an hour of exercise, some combination of roadwork, skipping rope, calisthenics, or shadow boxing, followed by fifteen minutes of body work, some weight lifting, and then sparring.”
And if you can help us figure out what “Reisegers bag” and “Correct Ontavang” mean and write the translation in the comment section, we’d appreciate it!
Ilia Blinderman is a Montreal-based culture and science writer. Follow him at @iliablinderman.