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.

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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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