Not long after Mandela began serving his life sentence for sabotage, he was transferred from Pretoria Local prison to Robben Island. During his early years in this facility, Mandela and the other prisoners were forced to routinely complete hard labor. These tasks included emptying large buckets of gravel into the yard of the prison. The prisoners would put in hard work and complete the project as efficiently and effectively as possible. The next day, they would be ordered to fill the bucket back up, humiliating them. Mandela, true to form, decided the prisoners should find a way to protest this cruel and unacceptable labor. Mandela believed that the warders were “provoking” the prisoners with these orders.
As a reaction to this, Mandela and the other prisoners organized a strike.
“The next week we initiated our first go-slow strike on the island: We would work at less than half that of the speed we had before to protest the excessive and unfair demands” (Mandela 386).
The guards were visibly angry when the prisoners would stage subtle protests such as these, but the prisoners made their grievances known. Protests regarding seperate clothing among prisoners and hunger strikes continued in the prison, each resulting in small, but significant progress.
Mandela and the other political prisoners were classified as “Group D” prisoners, the lowest classification. This entitled them to only one visitor and one letter sent and received visitors every six months.
This was excruciating for Mandela, as contact with the outside world was the only thing gave him happiness and relief. During his time at Robben Island, his wife Winnie was constantly harassed and accused of secretly communicating with Mandela; a false accusation. Mandela’s early years in Robben Island were painful, both mentally and physically. After the death of his eldest son, Thembi, Mandela was weak and rundown, not knowing how his life would proceed.