Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was the first black President of South Africa, besides being an extremely honored statesman and an inspiration to people all over the world.

Full Name: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Born: 18 July 1918, Mvezo, Cape Province, Union of South Africa

Parents: Nosekeni Fanny (Mother), Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (Father)

Education: University of Fort Hare; UoL External Programme, University of South Africa; University of the Witwatersrand

Occupation: Activist, Politician, Philanthropist, Freedom Fighter, Lawyer

Spouse(s): Evelyn Ntoko Mase (m. 1944–1957; divorced), Winnie Madikizela (m. 1958–1996; divorced), Graça Machel (m. 1998–2013; his death)

Children: Thembekile Mandela, Makaziwe Mandela, Makgatho Mandela, Makaziwe Mandela, Zenani Mandela, Zindziswa Mandela

Key Achievements: Elected as the first black president of South Africa, Was the driving force in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, and freedom from it.

Awards: Nobel peace Prize (1993), Bharat Ratna (India), Order of Lenin (Russia), Presidential Medal of Freedom (United States), Order of Merit (United Kingdom), Order of Australia, Order of Canada, Order of Jamaica, Venerable Order of Saint John, Queen’s Counsel, Order of Prince Henry (Portugal), Royal Order of Seraphim (Sweden), Nishan-e-Pakistan.

Words would fall short of describing Nelson Mandela and his contribution to the world, especially South Africa. For most parts of the 95 years that he lived, he was a living legend and an inspiration to one and all around him. He is most known for becoming the first black president of South Africa, after his long struggle for the country’s freedom from apartheid. Mandela spent a hair-raising 27 years in prison, so that his countrymen and the rest of the world would share his dream of people belonging to all communities, caste, religion, race, and skin color, living together in harmony.

Birth and Early Life

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918, to his mother Nosekeni Fanny, and father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa. At the time of Mandela’s birth, the family lived in the Mvezo village of Cape Province, South Africa, as his father was the local chief and councilor to the Monarch of the Royal Tembu Family living there. Mandela’s father died when he was just 12 years old, after which, he was brought up by Jongintaba Dalindyebu, the acting chief of the Tembu clan located at Mqhekezweni.

Mandela’s elementary education and schooling took place at a Methodist mission school that was located near the Tembu Royal Family palace in Mqhekezweni. When he was old enough for college, Mandela opted to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Fort Hare. However, he left the University without receiving the degree, following a spat with the authorities as part of the Students’ Representative Council (SRC), regarding the quality of food distributed among the students.

Johannesburg Stint and Law Education

On his return to Mqhekezweni, he found out that Jongintaba had arranged marriages for Mandela and his cousin Justice. The duo fled the scene and landed in Johannesburg, in the year 1941. Here, Mandela first worked as a night watchman at crown mines, until he was sacked by his boss, who found out that he was a runaway. After this, Mandela lived with one of his cousins in a nearby township, where he met an African National Congress (ANC) activist. The activist secured him a job as an articled clerk at law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, which he pursued alongside his Bachelor’s degree, via a correspondence course from the University of South Africa.

During his stay in Johannesburg, Mandela was once visited by Jongintaba, who told him that he had forgiven Mandela and cousin Justice for fleeing from their respective weddings. The regent of the Tembu died a year later in 1942, when Mandela and Justice visited Mqhekezweni to pay their last respects and attend his funeral. Though Mandela was expected to become the next councilor to the Tembu, he returned to Johannesburg in 1943 to study law and become a political lawyer. He passed his BA exams in the same year as well.                      

When Mandela began his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand, he discovered that he was the only native African in the University. The students who studied there belonged to various ethnic communities such as European, Jewish and Indian. This is where Mandela got his first taste of racism and color-based discrimination. While pursuing his law studies and articles simultaneously, Mandela also got married to Evelyn Mase, who was an ANC activist herself. Their first child Thembekile Mandela was born in February 1995. Mandela pretty much enjoyed being a family man and even got his mother and sister Leabie to stay with him. Post the completion of his three years of articles at Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman in 1947, Mandela became a full time law student who was sponsored by the Bantu Welfare Trust.

Plunge into Politics against Apartheid in South Africa

In 1947 itself, Mandela was made the secretary of African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). Following this move, Mandela increasingly forayed in to politics and escalated swiftly through the ANC ranks. He was also elected to the executive committee of the Transvaal ANC, where he forced the resignation of regional President C.S. Ramohanoe. Reportedly, Ramohanoe had acted against the party’s wishes by co-operating with Indians and some other communists.

The year 1948 was very unfortunate for the people of South Africa, including Nelson Mandela, as its government decided to adopt the apartheid rule of governance. Apartheid means the racial segregation of people, or discrimination on the basis of the color of a person. It was basically a system devised to keep the white people and black people apart, but the system was way more biased towards the white people than it was toward the blacks. Most of the restrictions and limitations were imposed on the blacks instead of being equally imposed on both races. The native black people of South Africa came directly under the hammer, as a consequence of apartheid.

Adoption of apartheid in South Africa meant that white people and black people couldn’t co-exist. They couldn’t live in the same neighborhood, their children couldn’t study in the same schools, they couldn’t receive treatments in the same hospitals, they couldn’t share a table in a restaurant, they couldn’t board the same public transport, etc. Apartheid was imposed to such an extent that a white person and a black person couldn’t even get married according to their will. Moreover, sports and games also weren’t spared the brunt of apartheid, with teams constituting either only of white players or black players, but never a combination of both.

Though Nelson Mandela was going great guns at this time personally, he couldn’t find a cause for celebration, as people all around him were crippled by apartheid. In the year 1950, Mandela was elected as the National President of the ANCYL. During this period, Mandela was deeply influenced by personalities such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Their revolutionary ideas and methods had ignited quite a spark in young Mandela. His speeches at various rallies and protests were a clear evidence of this fact.

Defiance Campaign and Founding of Law Firm

Two years later, i.e. in 1952, the ANC prepared to launch a nationwide ‘Defiance Campaign’ against apartheid, and the incumbent government. Mandela showed glimpses of Gandhi’s influence at this time, as he advocated for an approach of nonviolent resistance against the opposition. He addressed many rallies and protest marches as part of the defiance campaign, where large number of people came out in ANC’s support. At a rally organized in Durban on June 22, 1952, as much as 10,000 people thronged the venue, which was record public attendance at the time. Further protest marches and rallies like these, increased party membership from 20,000 to 100,000. Mandela was soon elected as the regional president of the ANC after these events.

Mandela and his good friend Oliver Tambo soon started their own law firm as well. The firm was named Mandela and Tambo, which provided to take public grievances to court and fight the government by way of doing this. Astonishingly, the pair found out that theirs was the only African-run law firm in the entire nation. Which is probably why, native Africans suffering from the imposition of apartheid often came to Mandela and Tambo for help. Cases of these kinds mostly included police brutalities against the blacks and native black Africans.

Come the year 1955, Mandela decided that the ANC had to organize an armed and violent protest, to get the government to give into the demand of abolishing apartheid. Through the years of 1955 and 1956, Mandela tried to organize a widely desired rebellion by requesting arms from the People’s Republic of China. Though, the ANC were denied this provision as China thought that the Anti-Apartheid movement was insufficiently prepared for full fledged guerilla warfare. Mandela also called for support from other congress groups such as the South African Indian Congress, the Colored People's Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions and the Congress of Democrats, for staging a movement against the government.

Arrest, Unrest and Imprisonment

However, on December 5, 1956, Mandela and 155 other ANC members and activists were arrested by the South African Police for allegedly committing treason. The trials in this case went on till 1961, when the concerned court adjudged that the allegations were baseless and the accused were not guilty. This verdict embarrassed the Government of South Africa publicly, but before that, the government gave the public a major reason of condemnation, when the South African police shot dead 69 protesters in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960.

The Africans that weren’t satisfied with the plan of action that ANC had taken up against apartheid, decided to form their own political party in April 1959. The party was called as the Pan African Congress (PAC). Though these two parties didn’t always see eye to eye, they both actively campaigned for an anti-pass movement in 1960. As part of the campaign, the activists burnt the passes that they were allotted by the South African government. At one such anti-pass demonstration at Sharpeville in May 1960, the local police opened fire on the PAC protesters seeing that their antics were going out of control. This led to the deaths of 69 protesters. As an immediate retaliation to this incident, Mandela publicly burned his allotted pass as well, after which riots broke out all over South Africa. Mandela and other activists were purposely imprisoned in unsanitary conditions, and the ANC and PAC were banned.

Shortly after the Sharpeville massacre, South Africa quit the Commonwealth group of nations. Following this move, most of the Commonwealth nations turned away from South Africa. Many of them didn’t even send their sporting teams to the country for various sports events and competitions. Furthermore, entertainers and public performers as well denied visiting the country. People all over the world belonging to various countries expressed their dissent against the South African Government’s rigid stance concerning apartheid.

Regardless of these events, the Government of South Africa didn’t budge even a bit. Instead, in the year 1962, the government gave out the instructions of arresting Nelson Mandela on the charges of willful sabotage, and staging a coup to overthrow the government. Two years later, in 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life, in what was seen as a disgraceful move on the government’s part, by the people of Africa, those in support of the ANC, those supporting the Anti-Apartheid movement, and those in favor of Mandela.

Life in Prison

For the next 18 years, Mandela lived inside the prison walls of Robben Island. He had to do all his chores himself, and was allowed only one visitor per 6 months. He had fellow ANC activist Walter Sisulu for company in prison, after good friend Oliver Tambo had left South Africa to live abroad. Mandela had to perform hard labor work during his time at the prison, such as breaking stones at the Robben island limestone quarry. Mandela was later moved to the Pollsmoor prison in the year 1982.

Mandela was visited by several high profile persons during his time at the Pollsmoor prison. Outside the prison, President P.W. Botha and his national party had permitted Indians and other colored citizens to vote for their own parliaments, which had control over education, health, and housing, but black Africans were excluded from the system. Mandela and the rest of the native Africans saw this as an apartheid inclined move. The country was once again under unrest and on the verge of a civil war. There was also an economic crisis, because of which several international banks and British PM Margaret Thatcher tried to convince Botha into releasing Mandela. The president did inform Mandela about the decision of granting him freedom, but only under that condition that ANC would remain banned. Mandela refused to acknowledge the offer by saying that “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people [ANC] remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts”.

Being imprisoned in the Pollsmoor prison, Mandela had contracted tuberculosis. In order for him to recover from the disease, Mandela was transferred to the Victor Verster Prison near the town of Paarl. Here, Mandela was made available a personal cook and imprisonment in the prison warder’s house. He was also allowed to complete his LLB degree during this time. As usual, he was also visited by many friends, relatives and dignitaries as well. In 1989, Botha was replaced by F.W. de Klerk as the President of South Africa, following a bout of illness.

Freedom and Legalization of ANC

The new President had expressed his views on apartheid, stating that it was simply unsustainable. He promptly ordered the release of all the ANC activities, except Mandela. After the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, de Klerk called a cabinet meeting to discuss the legalization of ANC and freedom of Mandela. Though he met with opposition in the cabinet, de Klerk went ahead and participated in a meeting with Mandela in December. Finally, on February 2, 1990, it was announced that banned political parties like the PAC and ANC would be legalized, and more importantly, Nelson Mandela would be freed.

On 11 February 1990, the whole world witnessed a man’s 27 year old turmoil turning into his triumph, as pictures of Nelson Mandela leaving the Victor Verster prison were broadcasted all over the world. Following his release, Mandela said that the struggle was not over yet, and that the real goal is to defeat apartheid by bringing about its abolishment. Mandela became the leader of the ANC in 1991, and continued to urge the government to hold negotiations for ending apartheid in South Africa.

Presidency and Abolition of Apartheid

The 1994 elections of South Africa were the first instance in the country’s history where black people were allowed to vote. The ANC participated in the elections under the leadership of Nelson Mandela. And as expected, the ANC won the elections with an overwhelming response from the masses. Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa and established the system of multiracial democracy in the country, by abolishing apartheid. A nation had won, and a man had finally achieved his cherished dream.

Mandela retired as President in 1999 and gave up politics in 2004 to enjoy the rest of his live with his family and loved ones. As a senior statesman of the world, Mandela was fiercely revered all around the globe. He was the ideal that the world looked up to. He was fondly called as ‘Madiba’ by his followers. Mandela too shared the ‘Rainbow Nation’ vision for South Africa, along with another great African personality Desmond Tutu. Nelson Mandela died of a chronic lung illness on December 5, 2013. The world shall always remember Mandela, not for his 27-year long imprisonment and struggle, but his amazing 27-year long will and determination.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave    man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”


- Nelson Mandela

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