Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, (born July 18, 1918), was the first democratically elected President of South Africa, having previously been a prominent anti-apartheid activist there. Initially committed to non-violence, he later became involved in the planning of underground armed resistance activities, such as sabotage. Mandela's 27-year imprisonment, much of which he spent in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, became one of the most widely publicised examples of apartheid's injustices. Upon his release in 1990, the policy of reconciliation he pursued enabled a peaceful transition to a new, democratic South Africa - an enormous achievement which many South Africans believe would have been impossible without his influence.

Having received over a hundred awards over four decades, Mandela is one of the most celebrated and respected people of modern times. He is in his 80s, yet he still continues to voice his opinion on topical issues, while enjoying the prestige accorded to him as an elder statesman.

In South Africa he is known as Madiba, an honorary title adopted by elders of Mandela's clan. The title has come to be synonymous with Nelson Mandela.


Early life

A young Nelson Mandela
A young Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born to a Thembu Xhosa family on July 18, 1918 in a village near Umtata in the Transkei. At the age of seven, Rolihlahla Mandela became the first member of his family to attend school, where he was given the name "Nelson" by a Methodist teacher. His father died when he was ten, and Nelson attended a Wesleyan mission school next door to the palace of the Regent. Following Xhosa custom, he was initiated at age fourteen, and attended Clarkebury Boarding Institute, learning about Western culture. He completed his Junior Certificate in two years, instead of the usual three.

At age sixteen, in 1934, Mandela moved to the Wesleyan College in Fort Beaufort, which most Thembu royalty attended, and took an interest in boxing and running. After matriculating, he started with his B.A. at the Fort Hare University, where he met Oliver Tambo, and the two became lifelong friends and colleagues.

At the end of his first year, he became involved in a boycott of the Students' Representative Council against the university policies, and was asked to leave Fort Hare. He left for Johannesburg, where he completed his degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) via correspondence, after which he started with his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand.

Political activity

As a young student, Mandela became involved in political opposition to the white minority government's denial of political, social, and economic rights to South Africa's black majority. Joining the African National Congress in 1942, he founded its more dynamic Youth League two years later, together with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others.

After the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party with its apartheid policy of racial segregation, Mandela was prominent in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People, whose adoption of the Freedom Charter provided the fundamental program of the anti-apartheid cause. During this time, Mandela and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo operated the law firm of Mandela and Tambo, providing free or low-cost legal counsel to many blacks who would otherwise have been without legal representation.

Initially committed to non-violent mass struggle, he and 150 others were arrested on 5 December 1956, and charged with treason. The marathon Treason Trial of 195661 followed, and all were acquitted. After the Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960, coupled with the subsequent banning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups, Mandela and his colleagues decided on a course of armed action in order to effect change.

Arrest and imprisonment

Mandela, one of Time Magazine's people of the century.
Mandela, one of Time Magazine's people of the century.

In 1961, he became the leader of the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (translated as Spear of the Nation, also abbreviated MK), which he co-founded. He coordinated a sabotage campaign against military, government and civilian targets, and made plans for a possible guerrilla war if sabotage failed to end apartheid. He also raised funds for MK abroad, and arranged for paramilitary training, visiting various African governments.

On August 5, 1962, he was arrested after living on the run for seventeen months and was imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. There was some speculation, as yet unproven, that the CIA might have tipped off the police as to his whereabouts. Three days later, the charges of leading workers to strike in 1961 and leaving the country illegally were read to him during a court appearance. On October 25, 1962, Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison. Two years later on June 11, 1964, a verdict had been reached concerning his previous engagement in the African National Congress (ANC).

While Mandela was in prison, police arrested prominent ANC leaders on July 11, 1963, at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Mandela was brought in, and at the Rivonia Trial, Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Walter Mkwayi (who escaped during trial), Arthur Goldreich (who escaped from prison before trial), Dennis Goldberg and Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein were charged with sabotage and crimes equivalent to treason, but which were easier for the government to prove. Joel Joffe, Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos were part of the defense team that represented the accused. All except Rusty Bernstein were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. Charges included involvement in planning armed action, in particular sabotage, which Mandela admitted to, and a conspiracy to help other countries invade South Africa, which Mandela denied. Over the course of the next twenty-six years, Mandela became increasingly associated with opposition to apartheid to the point where the slogan "Free Nelson Mandela" became the rallying cry for all anti-apartheid campaigners around the world.

While in prison, Mandela was able to send a statement to the ANC who in turn published it on 10 June 1980, reading in part:

Unite! Mobilise! Fight on! Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle we shall crush apartheid! [1]

Refusing an offer of conditional release in return for renouncing armed struggle in February 1985, Mandela remained in prison until February 1990, when sustained ANC campaigning and international pressure led to his release on February 11, when State President F.W. de Klerk ordered his release and the ending of the ban on the ANC. He and De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He became the third of only three persons of non-Indian origin (Mother Teresa in 1980, a naturalized Indian citizen, and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in 1987, a non-Indian, being the others) to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian award, in 1990. Mandela had already been awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1988.

On the day of his release, February 11, 1990, Mandela made a speech to the nation. While declaring his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the country's white minority, he made it clear that the ANC's armed struggle was not yet over:

"Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle".

ANC presidency and presidency of South Africa

South Africa's first democratic elections were held on April 27, 1994. The ANC won a landslide victory, and Mandela, as leader of the ANC, was inaugurated as the country's first black State President, with the National party's FW de Klerk as his deputy president in the Government of National Unity.

As President, (May 1994 – June 1999), Mandela presided over the transition from minority rule and apartheid, winning international respect for his advocacy of national and international reconciliation. Some radicals were disappointed with the social achievements of his term of office, particularly the government's ineffectiveness in stemming the AIDS crisis. After his retirement, Mandela admitted that he may have failed his country by not paying more attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. He has taken many opportunities since to highlight this South African tragedy.

International diplomacy

Nelson Mandela negotiated with Muammar Gaddafi to help bring about the Lockerbie trial
Nelson Mandela negotiated with Muammar Gaddafi to help bring about the Lockerbie trial

President Mandela took a particular interest in helping to resolve the long-running dispute between Libya on the one hand, and the United States and Britain on the other, over bringing to trial the two Libyans who were accused of sabotaging Pan Am Flight 103 on December 21, 1988 with the loss of 270 lives. In November 1994, Mandela offered South Africa as a neutral venue for the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial but the offer was rejected by former British prime minister, John Major. A further three years elapsed until Mandela's offer was repeated to Major's successor, Tony Blair, when the president visited London in July 1997. Later the same year, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Edinburgh in October 1997, Mandela warned: "No one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and judge." A compromise solution was then agreed for a trial to be held at Camp Zeist, Netherlands governed by Scots law and President Mandela began negotiations with Colonel Gaddafi for the handover of the two accused (Megrahi and Fhimah) in April 1999.

At the end of their nine-month trial, the verdict was announced on January 31, 2001. Fhimah was acquitted but Megrahi was convicted and sentenced to 27 years in a Scottish jail. Megrahi's appeal was turned down in March 2002, and former president Mandela went to visit him in Barlinnie prison on June 10, 2002. "Megrahi is all alone," Mandela told a packed press conference in the prison's visitors room. "He has nobody he can talk to. It is psychological persecution that a man must stay for the length of his long sentence all alone." Mandela added: "It would be fair if he were transferred to a Muslim country - and there are Muslim countries which are trusted by the west. It will make it easier for his family to visit him if he is in a place like the kingdom of Morocco, Tunisia or Egypt." Megrahi was subsequently moved to Greenock jail and is no longer in solitary confinement. His case is currently being reviewed by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which is expected to rule that there has been a miscarriage of justice and that Megrahi's case should be referred for a fresh appeal.


Mandela has been married three times. His first marriage was to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, who was also from what later became the Transkei area of South Africa, like Mandela, although they met in Johannesburg. The couple had three children, but they broke up in 1957 after 13 years, divorcing under the multiple strains of his constant absences, devotion to revolutionary agitation, and her reliance on the Jehovah's Witnesses movement, which maintained a neutral stance to political struggle.

Mandela's second wife, Winnie Madikizela, also came from the Transkei area, although they too met in Johannesburg, where she was the city's first black social worker. Later, Winnie would be deeply torn by family discord which mirrored the country's political strife: while her husband was serving a life sentence on the Robben Island prison for terrorism and treason, her father became the agriculture minister in the Transkei. The marriage ended in separation (April 1992) and divorce (March 1996), fueled by political estrangement.

On his 80th birthday, he married Graça Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the former Mozambican president and ANC ally killed in an air crash 12 years earlier.


Former United States Vice President Al Gore meets with Mandela.
Former United States Vice President Al Gore meets with Mandela.

After his retirement as President in 1999, Mandela went on to become an advocate for a variety of social and human rights organizations. He received many foreign honours, including the Order of St. John from Queen Elizabeth II and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.

As an example of his popular acclaim, in his tour of Canada in 1998, he included a speaking engagement in SkyDome in the city of Toronto where he spoke to 45,000 school children who greeted him with intense adulation. In 2001, he was the first living foreigner to be made an honourary Canadian citizen (the first, Raoul Wallenberg, was posthumously made a Canadian citizen) as well as being one of the few foreign leaders to receive the Order of Canada.

In 2003, Mandela attacked the foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration in a number of speeches, going so far as calling Bush a racist for not following the UN and its secretary-general Kofi Annan (who is African) on the issue of the War in Iraq. "Is it because the secretary-general of the United Nations is now a black man? They never did that when secretary-generals were white," Mandela said.[2] The comments caused a rare moment of controversy and criticism for Mandela, even among some supporters.

Later that same year, he lent his support to the 46664 AIDS fundraising campaign, named after his prison number.

In June 2004 at age 85, Mandela announced that he would be retiring from public life. His health had been declining, and he wanted to enjoy more time with his family. He has made an exception, however, for his commitment to the fight against AIDS. In July 2004, he flew to Bangkok to speak at the XV International AIDS Conference. His eldest son, Makgatho Mandela, died of AIDS on 6 January 2005. [3]

Mandela has also expressed his support for the ONE Campaign, which forms part of the international Make Poverty History movement.

On July 23, 2004, the city of Johannesburg bestowed its highest honour on Mandela by granting him the freedom of the city at a ceremony in Orlando, Soweto.

In 2005, Mandela became embroiled in a legal dispute with his former lawyer, Ismail Ayob, and others, who were accused of exploiting Mandela's name and reputation. The dispute revolves around the promotion and sale of allegedly fraudulent artworks bearing Mandela's name. The works commanded high prices on the international art market, but they are now widely regarded as being devoid of any real value.

Today, Mandela remains a key figure to strong educational organizations that hold his ideals strongly of international understanding and peace, like the United World Colleges and the Round Square.

Orders and decorations

See also the List of awards bestowed on Nelson Mandela.


Mandela is known for his fondness of Batik textiles. He is often seen wearing Batik, even on formal occasions. Shirts in this style are fondly known as "Madiba shirts" in South Africa.

In 2003, Mandela's death was incorrectly announced by CNN when his pre-written obituary (along with those of several other famous figures) was inadvertently published on CNN's web site due to a lapse in password protection.

The Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, wants a statue of Nelson Mandela installed on the north terrace of Trafalgar Square, although thus far he has run into opposition

Courtroom quotes

"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
"Why is it that in this courtroom I am facing a white magistrate, confronted by a white prosecutor, escorted by white orderlies? Can anybody honestly and seriously suggest that in this type of atmosphere the scales of justice are evenly balanced? Why is it that no African in the history of this country has ever had the honor of being tried by his own kind, by his own flesh and blood?...I am a black man in a white man's court. This should not be." (Finlayson 84).
"Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud... We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another... The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement."

Further reading

  • Anthony Sampson; Mandela: the authorized biography; ISBN 0-6797-8178-1 (1999)
  • Nelson Mandela; Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela; Little Brown & Co; ISBN 0-3165-4818-9 (paperback, 1995)
  • Mary Benson; Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement
  • Martin Meredith; Nelson Mandela: A Biography
  • Barry Denenberg; Nelson Mandela: No Easy Walk To Freedom


See also

External links

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Preceded by:
Frederik Willem de Klerk
(State President of South Africa)
President of South Africa
Succeeded by:
Thabo Mbeki
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