Press Centre

Mandela: The Prison Years

  • Episode: 

    1 of 1

  • Transmission (TX): 

    Sun 15 Dec 2013
  • TX Confirmed: 

  • Time: 

    10.45pm - 11.40pm
  • Week: 

    Week 51 2013 : Sat 14 Dec - Fri 20 Dec
  • Channel: 

  • Status: 

Photo: Ed Stoppard (Richard Stengel) and Clarke Peters (Nelson Mandela)
“Once you have rid yourself of the fear of the oppressor and his prisons, his police, his army, there is nothing he can do. You are liberated.” Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela’s prison years are brought to life through dramatised interviews between him and journalist Richard Stengel in this new factual documentary. 
Stengel collaborated with Mandela for three years on his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom and in this programme unpublished recordings from their talks are brought to the screen for the first time. 
Mandela spoke candidly about his time in Robben Island and Stengel believed prison was the crucible that transformed Mandela to become a ‘measured statesman’. 
Stengel says: “We worked together for nearly three years and I saw him almost every day. I travelled with him, ate with him, tied his shoes, straightened his tie and spent hours in conversation with him.”
Further details of his time in prison are revealed through intimate letters he wrote to his wife Winnie. 
Directed by Emmy and BAFTA award winning director Tom Roberts, Mandela: The Prison Years features The Wire’s Clarke Peters as the older Mandela, Nicholas Pinnock as the younger Mandela, Ed Stoppard as Richard Stengel and is narrated by British actress Sophie Okonedo.
The programme charts Mandela’s sentencing in 1963, his arrival at Robben Island through to his release on 11th February 1990.
Speaking about arriving at Robben Island, Mandela says: “It was really very difficult. We never thought we would die in jail, the morale was too high for that. Far from breaking our spirits, prison made us more determined to continue with this battle until victory was won.”
Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison in a tiny cell and was not allowed to leave to attend his mother’s funeral or even when his son was tragically killed in a car accident.
At first he was only allowed to send one letter to his wife and children every six months and this was his only contact with the outside world. 
In one letter to Winnie, he writes: “Your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my right shoulder. As I write this, I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling I am caressing you as in the old days.”
Through his interviews with Mandela, Stengel suggests that Robben Island transformed Mandela into a peaceful activist and to the person who was able to negotiate with the government.
Stengel explains: “As a young man Mandela was impatient and wanted change yesterday, prison taught him to slow down and it reinforced his sense that haste leads to error and misjudgment. Above all he learnt to postpone gratification.”
Mandela agreed to some extent that prison had changed him; he described it as a liberating experience. 
He says: “Prison is a process of liberating yourself because one of the things that paralyses a movement is to fear the oppressor. You don’t want to go to prison - you don’t want to be arrested. And by going to jail you rid yourself of that fear then there is nothing the authorities can do.  Once you have rid yourself of the fear of the oppressor and his prisons, his police, his army, there is nothing he can do. You are liberated.”
Mandela was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor and put into a cell on his own. It was here that he began negotiating with president Frederik Willem de Klerk, the leader of the national party before his eventual release from prison.  
Stengel says: “Nothing Mandela ever did had quite the risks of the secret talks he initiated with the white government in 1985. He could have been branded a traitor and become a pariah in his own movement but he knew he had to take action. How did this passionate revolutionary become a measured statesman? Over and over I used to ask him how prison had changed him. This question annoyed him, he either ignored it, went straight to a policy answer or denied the premise.”
Mandela: The Prison Years was written and directed by Tom Roberts. Executive Producer is Ollie Tait.