A List of Nelson Mandela’s Possessions Upon Leaving Prison: Surfboard, Exercise Bike & White Cardboard Hat


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 Urn

1 Surf Board

4 Rat­tan Bas­kets

1 foot­stool

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.” 

To learn more about Nel­son Man­dela and view oth­er orig­i­nal doc­u­ments, head over to the Nel­son Man­dela Foundation’s Dig­i­tal Archives.

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nel­son Man­de­la’s First-Ever TV Inter­view (1961)

Mor­gan Free­man Mas­ter­ful­ly Recites Nel­son Mandela’s Favorite Poem, “Invic­tus”

U2 Releas­es a Nel­son Man­dela-Inspired Song, “Ordi­nary Love”

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Comments (6)
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  • Sylvia says:

    Although I don’t speak Afrikaans, I do speak Dutch, which is sim­i­lar enough to guess the mean­ing of the items on the list.
    So here are the miss­ing ones:
    — Reisegers tas (Dutch: reiziger­stas) = trav­el­er’s bag
    — Kor­rek ont­vang (Dutch: cor­rect ont­van­gen) = received cor­rect­ly
    [Since there is a sig­na­ture behind it, this form con­firms that the items where cor­rect­ly returned.]

    The direct link to the above item is: http://archives.nelsonmandela.org/asset-viewer/inventory/zwFQ_J52-ScgCQ

  • evert thiry says:

    Hi, I live in from, the flem­ish side and south african is more or less like Dutch.
    “Reisegers bag” means a bag for trav­ellers (“reis­tas” is the word in Dutch)
    “Cor­rect Onta­vang” means cor­rect con­ceived (“cor­rect ont­van­gen” in Dutch)
    at your ser­vice.

  • hetty says:


    Mar­garet Thatch­er real­ly did not care about Man­dela and cer­tain­ly did not ask for his release…there is absolute­ly no proof for this. In fact she was by all accounts quite hap­py with his impris­on­ment. The arti­cle in the guardian here as I have linked, has some inter­est­ing info on this.

  • Robin says:

    Evert you are very close. Reisegers is spelt incor­rect­ly on the note, the cor­rect spelling is Reisigers which is trav­el­er. Cor­rect­ly trans­lat­ed it would be trav­el bag. Kor­rek ont­vang would trans­late to cor­rect­ly received.

  • David says:

    In brack­ets in the first line is spelt out the num­ber twen­ty-two, and the final illeg­i­ble appears to be the sig­na­ture of one M. Kruger, prob­a­bly a prison guard at the prison in Paarl (not on the coast) from where he was released in 1990. The surf­board I would sur­mise was flot­sam that washed up on the shore of Robben Island off Cape Town dur­ing his long incar­cer­a­tion there. It would be won­der­ful to dis­cov­er whose surf­board it orig­i­nal­ly was.

    Dit­to the pre­vi­ous com­ment about Thatch­er who was always a more-or-less sur­rep­ti­tious sup­port­er of apartheid and could not have cared less about Man­de­la’s fate, except inso­far as his ideals could be per­vert­ed to per­pet­u­ate apartheid in an eco­nom­ic form. Which was quite suc­cess­ful­ly accom­plished, sad­ly.

    As one of the large dias­po­ra of “white” South Africans raised dur­ing the polit­i­cal apartheid era, this note was easy read­ing as we were all bilin­gual to a large degree, in Eng­lish and Afrikaans.

  • Olga van der Merwe says:

    I am Afrikaans and live in Pre­to­ria, South Africa

    There are many mis­spellings on the orig­i­nal Afrikaans list

    reisegers tas should be spelt reisiger­stas and means trav­el­ling bag.

    Ont­vang means received.

    The illeg­i­ble word is a sig­na­ture of the offi­cial con­firm­ing that mr Man­dela received all the items on the list,

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