Nelson Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born July 18, 1918, at the Cape of Good Hope, in South Africa. He became a militant activist who fought for black rights against the white-controlled South African government. He spent twenty-eight years in prison, but eventually was freed and became the country’s first black president, an office he retained until 1999.

For most of Mandela’s life, South Africa had been ruled under a system called apartheid. Apartheid—which means “apartness” in Afrikaans, the language of most white South Africans—required that whites, blacks, and other racial groups be separated as much as possible. In practice, apartheid meant that blacks, who made up the vast majority of the population, would be forced to be subservient, and whites, who made up less than 20 percent of the population, would have the best land, jobs, and lives. Mandela came from a prominent Xhosa family (the Xhosa comprise one of South Africa’s largest black ethnic groups) and was able to go to college and law school—a privilege most black South Africans could only dream of. Mandela, however, did not allow his privileged position to blind him to the injustice that characterized his country. He was determined to fight against it. In 1943, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), a black civil rights group dedicated to ending racial discrimination in South Africa. Although he supported ANC goals, its approach was too moderate for Mandela and other young activists. In 1944, they formed the ANC Youth League, which had a more confrontational approach than the parent body. By 1947 Mandela and his allies were pushing the ANC to follow their more aggressive style. In 1960, responding to ANC-inspired antiapartheid protests, South African police fired on hundreds of unarmed demonstrators at the township of Sharpeville. The resulting uproar of protest led the whitecontrolled government to ban the ANC.

Mandela was transformed into a rebel. In 1962 he was charged with treason. At his trial he made a moving four-hour speech criticizing apartheid; the white court ignored his speech and ordered him imprisoned. He stayed in prison for the next twenty-eight years.

Mandela spent most of his prison time in Robben Island Prison, a dreary prison located off the coast of South Africa. In his memoirs, Mandela said: “Robben Island was without question the harshest, most iron-fisted outpost in the South African penal system. It was a hardship station not only for the prisoners but for the prison staff. Gone were the Coloured warders who had supplied cigarettes and sympathy. The warders were white and overwhelmingly Afrikaans-speaking, and they demanded a master-servant relationship. They ordered us to call them ‘baas,’ which we refused. The racial divide on Robben Island was absolute: there were no black warders, and no white prisoners. . . . Robben Island was like going to another country. Its isolation made it not simply another prison, but a world of its own, far removed from the one we had come from.”

During his twenty-eight years of captivity, Mandela became one of the most famous prisoners in the world. The South African government tried to portray him as a communist revolutionary and troublemaker, but most of the world grew to see him as a dedicated man fighting for justice and imprisoned for political reasons. “Free Nelson Mandela” signs, posters, and bumper stickers became commonplace in many parts of the industrialized world. The prominence of Mandela as a prisoner helped to make many people aware of the evils of apartheid and prompted them to support economic sanctions against South Africa. After 1985, the white regime, recognizing Mandela’s growing influence, tried to defuse his importance by repeatedly offering him a freedom in return for a promise to cease his political activities.

Mandela, not wishing to compromise his principles, refused these offers. Facing growing opposition from both inside and outside the country, the South African government finally recognized that apartheid had to end, and that apartheid’s most famous prisoner had to be released. President F. W. de Klerk released Mandela from prison on February 11, 1990. Mandela was chosen to be the leader of the ANC, and during the next few years he worked closely with de Klerk, his former enemy, to bring about a peaceful end to apartheid. The transition from apartheid to true democracy was marred by violence, much of it white on black, but Mandela consistently and continuously worked to calm tensions and avoid violent confrontations. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Price. In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa. As president, Mandela worked to heal the wounds caused by apartheid. Rather than seeking revenge, he organized the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job it was to investigate the crimes that occurred under apartheid, but not to punish them. Mandela recognized that seeking justice for past crimes might have led to continued violence in South Africa; it also might have alienated many white South Africans, whose education and technical skills were required if the country were to prosper economically. In 1999 he ended his term as president and retired from political life.

Mandela’s determination, even after years of imprisonment, and his magnanimity upon his release, marks him as unique among those who have fought for human rights. Many observers expected South Africa to explode into violence as apartheid ended; it is probably Mandela’s efforts, motivated by his respect for human life, that kept this from happening. For most of his life he was one of the oppressed; when he gained power, he refused to become an oppressor. He believed in human rights, not only for his people, but for all people.

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