The Prisoner’s Nightmare

One gray day not so long ago, I found myself wandering around an airport bookstore. I suspect you are familiar with the kind of place; it was one of those brightly lit kiosks with tiered banks of magazines and pocket-sized paperbacks that are designed to capture the attention of the jet-lagged traveler. I browsed for a while and was about to leave empty-handed when Nelson Mandela’s smiling face caught my eye. I had wanted to read his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, for some time, and when the venerable leader died at the end of 2013, the desire was revived. I purchased the hefty volume and headed off to my departure gate.

Mandela’s autobiography begins, predictably enough, with the story of his childhood. Places and names are significant to his narrative. He was given the name Rolihlahla at his birth (which means “pulling the branches off the tree,” read “troublemaker”). When he was sent away to school at age seven, he acquired a clan name, Madiba, and his first teacher, in accordance with colonial custom, gave him a Christian name, Nelson. After a rebellious youth, Mandela eventually made his way to the University of the Witwatersrand, where he slowly worked toward a degree (repeatedly failing his qualifying exams) as the only black law student.

You probably know the basic outline of what happened next: as a young lawyer practicing in Johannesburg in the 1940s, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) Party. In 1951, after the National Party took power, he helped organize the Defiance Campaign in response to the new apartheid laws. When the ANC’s nonviolent tactics were met with violent reprisals from the Afrikaner government, Mandela began advocating for a different strategy. In 1961, he publicly stated, “If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to reconsider our tactics.”1 The young leader suffered a series of bans, served several jail sentences, and eventually cofounded the militant wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe (or MK). He went underground and undertook guerrilla warfare training but was eventually captured and tried at the infamous Rivonia Trial, in which he and seven other ANC members were found guilty of a series of charges related to sabotage. Narrowly escaping the death penalty, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison on June 12, 1964. He did not see freedom again for twenty-seven years. When he was released on February 11, 1990, he went on to lead the transitional government and became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, serving just one term, from 1994 to 1999.

What enthralled me most about the autobiography was the section called “The Dark Years.” The section’s title refers to the years Mandela spent imprisoned on Robben Island. It reads like a training manual for surviving dark times. Madiba describes the various hardships imposed at the newly designed prison: a discriminatory dress code and segregated diet that the government created for each of the four racial classes that they had invented, brutal forced labor at the island’s lime quarry, and harsh restrictions on visitors and letters (one visitor and one letter were permitted every six months, always censored, often denied altogether). There is a sparse account of Mandela’s devastation at the news his mother’s death in 1968. This grief was deepened less than a year later when he received a telegram informing him of his eldest son’s death as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash. Each of these experiences imposed a distinct psychological pressure: “The challenge for every prisoner, particularly every political prisoner,” Mandela counsels, “is how to survive prison intact, how to emerge from prison undiminished, how to conserve and even replenish one’s beliefs.”2

It was not, however, these soul-rending accounts or the leader’s startling capacity for perseverance that brought me up short on that long flight. What jolted me awake was, in fact, a dream. Or to be more precise, a nightmare, which Mandela reports returned repeatedly to haunt him during his twenty-seven-year imprisonment:

I had one recurring nightmare. In the dream, I had just been released from prison—only it was not Robben Island, but a jail in Johannesburg. I walked outside the gates into the city and found no one there to meet me. In fact, there was no one there at all, no people, no cars, no taxis. I would then set out on foot toward Soweto. I walked for many hours before arriving in Orlando West, and then turned the corner toward 8115. Finally, I would see my home, but it turned out to be empty, a ghost house, with all the doors and windows open, but no one at all there.3

I can still remember my sense of astonishment in coming across this passage. It was the middle of the night and I was cramped, reading by that single, sharp light that beams down from the bulkhead. I felt seized by a powerful urge to wake the passenger next to me so I could share the moment with someone. Mandela’s nightmare seemed just as dramatic and important as his famous speech from the Rivonia Trial in which he named apartheid’s injustice and defined the ideal for which he was prepared to die: a democratic and free society.4 His nightmare seemed to attest something similarly poignant about his experience of prison, offering both a private account of his emotional state and a profound testimony about the political conditions of his unfreedom.

But then came the questions: exactly what kind of statement was this? What does a dream manage to say—or rather to show—that is not legible otherwise? Indeed, what does this recurring dream manage to show of Mandela’s experience of prison? Can this disclosure be understood as a form of political avowal? To what, exactly, does a dream attest? And to whom?