Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town, where he was confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing and compelled to do hard labor in a lime quarry.
As a black political prisoner, he received scantier rations and fewer privileges than other inmates. Mandela and his fellow prisoners were routinely subjected to inhumane punishments for the slightest of offenses; among other atrocities, there were reports of guards burying inmates in the ground up to their necks and urinating on them.
While in confinement Mandela earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of London and served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to seek better treatment through nonviolent resistance. He also smuggled out political statements and a draft of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” published five years after his release.
Mandela continued to speak out against apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a system of legal, government sponsored segregation of blacks and whites in South Africa from 1948-1991. These laws intentionally kept blacks and whites apart throughout the nation in every part of society. Blacks were restricted to certain areas, public places, transportation, streets they could travel on, places to eat, etc... Blacks movement was even restricted in their own country. They had to stay in "homelands" and could not travel outside of those areas without special permission from the white-led government.
Despite his forced retreat from the spotlight, Mandela remained the symbolic leader of the antiapartheid movement. In 1980 Oliver Tambo introduced a “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign that made the jailed leader a household name and fueled the growing international outcry against South Africa’s racist regime.
In 1982 Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, and in 1988 he was placed under house arrest on the grounds of a minimum-security correctional facility. The following year, newly elected president F. W. de Klerk called for a nonracist South Africa, breaking with the conservatives in his party. On February 11, 1990, he ordered Mandela’s release.