Nelson Mandela helped change unfair laws in his country.
He was put in prison because he fought for people's rights.
He was kept in prison for 27 years.
He became the first black President of South Africa.
He was given many awards and honours.
Nelson Mandela was a champion of human rights who helped free his country of its racist policy called apartheid (say uh-part-ide), a system that did not give its citizens equal rights : non-white citizens were separated from white citizens.
Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo, South Africa. His father was a tribal chief who named him Rolihlahla, which means 'trouble maker' in his Xhosa language. When he started school he had to be given a first name that was not African, and his teacher named him Nelson. After he’d finished school he went to the University College of Fort Hare, but he and his friend Oliver Tambo were made to leave after joining a student protest. In 1941 he left his village and went to Johannesburg where he worked at different jobs before completing his university Arts degree at the University of South Africa in 1943.
All through this time, Nelson Mandela became more and involved in politics and the fight for equality. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 and helped form its Youth League to get younger people involved.
In 1944 he married Evelyn Mase, a cousin of his close friend and fellow activist Walter Sisulu. They had two sons and two daughters, and later divorced in 1958.
In 1948 the South African government introduced a system of classifying people according to race and keeping those classified as non-white separate from those classified as white. This was called apartheid. The basic rights of non-whites were very restricted and they were barred from taking any part in government, including voting. The ANC wanted to win full equal citizenship for all South Africans and in 1952began a campaign of strikes, boycotts, protests and civil disobedience, which meant refusing to obey certain unjust laws in a peaceful way . Mandela was active in this campaign and travelled the country organising protests against these practices of discrimination.
In 1952 Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened South Africa’s first black law firm. They offered low cost legal advice and representation to those affected by apartheid laws.
In 1958 he married Winnie Madikizela, and together they had two daughters. They divorced in 1992.
In 1960 police fired on peaceful protesters, killing many and resulting in anger and riots that swept across the country and horrified the world. The government of South Africa banned both the ANC and Mandela, and he was not allowed to speak to more than one person at a time. He realised the fight had to change because the government had met peaceful protest with violence. He later said, “It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.” With his friends he started a new movement called ‘Spear of the Nation’.
In 1961 Nelson Mandela and other activists were arrested for sabotage, treason and conspiracy. He and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial that lasted eight months. At the trial he made a famous speech that ended with the words “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.”
They were 'political prisoners', meaning the sentence given was much more severe than the charges called for but was to keep them from being able to be among their followers, leading them in the fight against the government. Most were sent to Robben Island.
Mandela remained for 18 years on Robben Island, a brutal prison where he was alone in a tiny cell without a bed or plumbing, and having to do hard labour breaking up rocks in a lime quarry. Prisoners received very inhumane punishments for the smallest offences, but even so, white prisoners received more food and privileges than black prisoners did. Despite these difficulties, Mandela studied and completed a law degree from the University of London, wrote his autobiography 'Long Walk to Freedom' and secretly continued to write messages about fighting the injustice of apartheid. All these had to be smuggled out of the prison.
Robben Island is a small, flat island 7 km off the coast of Cape Town, a city at the foot of the famous Table Mountain. The island is no longer a prison. It is now a South African Heritage Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ferries now take visitors to the island, where they can see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, and continued his fight for human rights even from his tiny cell.
Even though he was in prison Mandela was still considered around the world to be the leader of the anti Apartheid movement and anger grew at his treatment. As a result, other countries boycotted South Africa in protest, including excluding South African teams from competing in international sporting events.
In 1980 Oliver Tambo began a campaign to free Nelson Mandela and this increased the international anger against the South African government. As pressure increased, the government offered Mandela deals that would give him his freedom, but he refused because of the conditions that were part of the deals.
In 1982 and again in 1988 he was moved to the mainland to lower security more humane prisons.
In 1989 the newly elected South African President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and broke with his party by calling for a non racist South Africa. On 11 February 1990 he ordered Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison.
The freed Nelson Mandela led the ANC in negotiations with the government and other political groups to end apartheid and establish a multiracial government.
In December 1993 both Mandela and de Klerkwere awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work together to create a united South Africa.
The first multiracial parliamentary election in South African history was held on 26 April 1994, in which the ANC won by a huge majority. More than 22 million South Africans voted. For non whites, including Nelson Mandela, it was the first time ever that they’d been able to vote in an election. Some black South Africans waited in long queues in the blazing sun for three days in order to vote.
On 10 May Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first black president of South Africa, with de Klerk as his deputy.
Mandela presided over the creation of a new constitution – a set of rules that established how the government would operate for all its citizens. It banned discrimination against any minority group, including whites.
On his 80th birthday in 1998, Nelson Mandela married Graça Machel, a politician and humanitarian. He retired from politics in 1999 at the end of his first term as president.
In the years after he left politics he established a number of organisations committed to easing human suffering and addressing global issues. He worked tirelessly for AIDS awareness and treatment programs, a disease that is believed to affect more people in South Africa than in any other country.
In his last years Mandela was plagued with ill health and reduced his public appearances.
He died on 5 December 2013, aged 95.
July 18 is the United Nations Nelson Mandela Day in recognition of his work for democracy, freedom, peace and human rights around the world. On that day people are asked to spend 67 minutes helping others – 67 minutes represent the 67 years Mandela spent in the service of his country.
During his lifetime Nelson Mandela received over 695 awards and honours, the most ever awarded to one person.