Born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist, who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
Mandela was born in a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo, where his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (1880-1928), served as chief. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third of Mphakanyiswa’s four wives, who together bore him nine daughters and four sons.
The first in his family to receive a formal education, Mandela completed his primary studies at a local missionary school. There, a teacher dubbed him Nelson as part of a common practice of giving African students English names. He went on to attend the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Healdtown, a Methodist secondary school, where he excelled in boxing and track as well as academics. In 1939 Mandela entered the elite University of Fort Hare, the only Western-style higher learning institute for South African blacks at the time. The following year, he and several other students, including his friend and future business partner Oliver Tambo (1917-1993), were sent home for participating in a boycott against university policies.
Nelson was a good student and qualified with a law degree in 1942. During his time at University, Nelson Mandela became increasingly aware of the racial inequality and injustice faced by non-white people. In 1943, he decided to join the ANC and actively take part in the struggle against apartheid.
As one of the few qualified lawyers, Nelson Mandela was in great demand; also his commitment to the cause saw him promoted through the ranks of the ANC. In 1956, Nelson Mandela, along with several other members of the ANC were arrested and charged with treason. After a lengthy and protracted court case the defendants were finally acquitted in 1961. However, with the ANC now banned, Nelson Mandela suggested an active armed resistance to the apartheid regime. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which would act as a guerilla resistance movement. Receiving training in other African countries, the Umkhonto we Sizwe took part in active sabotage.
In 1963, Mandela was again arrested and put on trial for treason. This time the State succeeded in convicting Mandela of plotting to overthrow the government. However, the case received considerable international attention and the apartheid regime of South Africa became under the glare of the international community. At the end of his trial, Nelson Mandela made a long speech, in which he was able to affirm his commitment to the ideals of democracy.
“We believe that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, and not to one group, be it black or white. We did not want an interracial war, and tried to avoid it to the last minute.”
– Nelson Mandela, Supreme court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20 1964
YEARS IN CONFINEMENT
Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison. Confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing, he was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He could write and receive a letter once every six months, and once a year he was allowed to meet with a visitor for 30 minutes. However, Mandela’s resolve remained unbroken, and while remaining the symbolic leader of the anti-apartheid movement, he led a movement of civil disobedience at the prison that coerced South African officials into drastically improving conditions on Robben Island. He was later moved to another location, where he lived under house arrest.
During his time in prison, Mandela became increasingly well known throughout the world. Mandela became the best known black leader and opposition to the apartheid regime. Largely unbeknown to Mandela, his continued imprisonment led to world wide pressure for his release. Many countries implemented sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Due to international pressure, from the mid 1980s, the apartheid regime increasingly began to negotiate with the ANC and Nelson Mandela in particular. On many occasions, Mandela was offered a conditional freedom. However, he always refused to put the political ideals of the ANC above his own freedom.
FREEDOM AND PRESIDENCY
In 1989, F.W. de Klerk became South African president and set about dismantling apartheid. De Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, suspended executions, and in February 1990 ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.
Shortly after his release, Mandela was chosen deputy president of the ANC; he became president of the party in July 1991. Mandela led the ANC in negotiations with de Klerk to end apartheid and bring about a peaceful transition to nonracial democracy in South Africa.
In April 1994 the Mandela-led ANC won South Africa’s first elections by universal suffrage, and on May 10 Mandela was sworn in as president of the country’s first multiethnic government. He established in 1995 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which investigated human rights violations under apartheid, and he introduced housing, education, and economic development initiatives designed to improve the living standards of the country’s black population. In 1996 he oversaw the enactment of a new democratic constitution. Mandela resigned his post with the ANC in December 1997, transferring leadership of the party to his designated successor, Thabo Mbeki.
RETIREMENT AND AFTER
Mandela did not seek a second term as South African president and was succeeded by Mbeki in 1999. After leaving office Mandela retired from active politics but maintained a strong international presence as an advocate of peace, reconciliation, and social justice, often through the work of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, established in 1999. He was a founding member of the Elders, a group of international leaders established in 2007 for the promotion of conflict resolution and problem solving throughout the world.
In his later years, ill health curtailed his public life. However, he did speak out on certain issues. He was very critical of the Bush led invasion of Iraq during 2003. He has also campaigned to highlight the issue of HIV / AIDS in South Africa.
Often referred to as Madiba – his Xhosa clan name, Nelson Mandela died on 5 December, 2013 after a long illness with his family at his side. He was 95.
Mandela’s writings and speeches were collected in I Am Prepared to Die (1964), No Easy Walk to Freedom (1965), The Struggle Is My Life (1978), and In His Own Words (2003). His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was published in 1994.