Mandela’s Stitch in Time

Nelson Mandela – we think of him as superman, an inspirational leader. Surrounded by packs of admirers. A global icon, larger than life. After all, he changed the world.


What I find affecting is another Mandela, the one sewing prison clothes in 1966 in a prison yard. Yes, sewing.


The picture was taken at Robben Island Prison, near Cape Town, in 1966. Mandela wrote in his memoir:

“I was assigned a cell at the head of the corridor. It overlooked the courtyard and had a small eye-level window. I could walk the length of my cell in three paces. When I lay down, I could feel the wall with my feet and my head grazed the concrete at the other side. The width was about six feet, and the walls were at least two feet thick. Each cell had a white card posted outside of it with our name and our prison service number. Mine read, “N Mandela 466/64,” which meant I was the 466th prisoner admitted to the island in 1964. I was forty-six years old, a political prisoner with a life sentence, and that small cramped space was to be my home for I knew not how long.”

Mandela spent most of his 27 years in jail imprisoned on Robben Island along with other ANC activists. A bout of tuberculosis and recurring lung infections were probably due to the work he was forced to do in the prison’s lime quarry. Other aspects of his stay: crushing stones to gravel, food strikes, smuggling out messages on toilet paper. Horrendous conditions survived by a superman.

I like the image of Mandela in the prison yard because it shows him as just a man. There is super strength in a man nurturing himself through sewing.


Filed under Culture, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Publishing, Writing

5 responses to “Mandela’s Stitch in Time

  1. Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.
    —Nelson Mandela.


    OH! I’d never hear of the Robben Island Bible… and I’m GLAD to know, NOW ! Here’s a video about the making of a play about it:

  3. Jennifer

    Yes, beautiful, Jean. The Robben Island Bible was in London a few years ago: the collected Shakespeare that Mandela and the other ANC prisoners shared. They were especially moved by Julius Caesar and Brutus’s patriotism: Let us be sacrificers, but not butchers. Great photo to share, Jean.


    Your tribute is more moving than any that I’ve seen and heard on TV. Very moving.

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