Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013)

Nelson Mandela was the first black President of South Africa and has dedicated his life to fighting racism.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in southern Transkei, in southeastern South Africa. His family was of the Tembu tribe, which spoke a language called Xhosa.

After finishing school, Mandela went to the African Native College to study for an arts degree. He joined a student protest and was suspended. He moved to Soweto, outside Johannesburg, and completed his degree by correspondence. He enrolled to study law at the University of South Africa, where he joined the African National Congress, or ANC. With friends Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, William Nkomo and others, he helped make the ANC a bigger, more active organisation, reaching and involving millions of Africans all over the country. In 1944 he and his friends started the ANC Youth League.

In 1948 a new South African government introduced apartheid (say apart-hite) to totally separate the different races in South Africa.

What was apartheid?
Under apartheid all South Africans were grouped according to race: white, which was the main group; coloured people (who had one white parent and one dark) and Asians; and finally black people.   Groups had separate living areas and separate amenities such as toilets, parks and beaches, schools and jobs. Signs enforcing the separation were erected. Only white South Africans had full political rights. Marriage between the groups was not allowed. Black Africans could not belong to trade unions, and education was provided only to a level that the government decided was appropriate for their colour. Police had enormous power. From the1960s to the 1980s the government moved Africans, coloureds and Asians away from areas set aside only for whites to areas in more remote places that were called 'homelands'. Over 3 million were relocated. Blacks were not allowed to move about without a pass.

The ANC adopted the Youth League's 'Programme of Action', using non-violent actions such as boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and non-cooperation as a way of protesting against apartheid. The aim was to get full citizenship and full parliamentary representation for all South Africans, regardless of race, and fair sharing of wealth and land, equal education and employment opportunities.

Mandela  travelled around the country organising resistance to the unjust laws. Huge rallies and strikes attracted thousands of supporters. The government introduced harsh punishments, and many thousands were arrested, including Mandela. He was banned for six months from leaving Johannesburg and from attending any gatherings. He used the time to work out a way the ANC could reach more Africans. It was called the 'M Plan', after him, and it grew the membership of the ANC from 7,000 to almost 10,000 that year. At this time he became a barrister and, with Tambo, opened the first black legal practice.

In 1955 the ANC created the 'Freedom Charter' which said that South Africa belonged to all people living there, regardless of race, and that all South Africans should be treated equally by law, and the country's wealth should be spread fairly.  Police raided a charter meeting in Soweto and took the names of everyone there. As a result, Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and 153 others were arrested for treason, which means acting against the government.  Mandela conducted his own defence at the trial and they were all acquitted of the charges.

In 1959 in Sharpeville a group of Africans assembled peacefully without their passes. This  was against the law because it was illegal for them to be without passes.  The police shot at the crowd and killed or wounded many Africans.   After this massacre Mandela and other ANC leaders publicly burned their passes and urged others to do so also.  About 18,000 protesters were arrested, including the leaders of the ANC, which was banned. The ANC continued to work secretly, and Mandela would wear disguises to avoid being caught as he went about doing his work.

All over the world there were protests against apartheid and South Africa was expelled from British Commonwealth in 1961.

On 31 May 1961, the whites voted to make South Africa a republic. Mandela organised a national strike in protest, so the government introduced even harsher new laws . Mandela knew this meant the ANC had to give up its way of peaceful protests, and together with other ANC leaders, launched a campaign of sabotage.

In 1962 Mandela left South Africa illegally to attend a freedom conference in Algeria and to raise funds from other African and overseas countries. When he returned, he was arrested for leaving the country illegally, was convicted and jailed for five years with hard labour. While he was in jail he was charged with sabotage, and in court he made one of his most famous speeches. In this speech he said he was against domination by any group, either white or black , and his ideal was a society in which everyone can live peacefully and enjoy equal opportunities. This, he said, was an ideal for which he was prepared to die.

On 11 June 1964  Mandela was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island Prison, 7 km off the coast near Cape Town. 

Robben Island Prison is now closed

Mandela constantly refused to give up his political beliefs in exchange for freedom and in doing so he became the symbol of the struggle of black South Africans, and the focus of world attention. In 1984 he was moved to a prison in Cape Town and in 1988 to another prison from which he was eventually released, on 11 February 1990, at the age of 71. He had been in prison for 27 years.  

He immediately continued his life’s work. The ban on the ANC was lifted, and Mandela was elected its President, and Oliver Tambo the National Chairperson. Mandela and the South African President, F.W de Klerk, worked together to make South Africa democratic. In 1991 the laws of apartheid were gradually removed as the country moved towards equality for all citizens.

In 1993 Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work together to end apartheid and laying the foundations for a democratic country.

In 1994 the ANC won the country's first all-race elections and the National Assembly unanimously elected Mandela as President of South Africa. De Klerk was elected as one of the two Deputy Presidents. The ministry of the new government included people of all races and religions. In his speech when he became President Mandela said, "We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free.Their dreams have become reality."

Former prisoner 46664 Nelson Mandela visited his old cell in Robben Island Prison many years later

Mandela remained President until 1999, when he retired and returned to live in his birthplace. However, he remained part of public life and spoke out in particular about issues such as the huge problem of people in Africa infected with HIV-AIDS, more than in any other continent.  Mandela set up an HIV-AIDS awareness campaign called 46664 – his number in Robben Island Prison. He also campaigned strongly to end poverty.

In 2013 Nelson Mandela was very ill and frail for some months. He died peacefully at his home on December 5 at the age of 95. He has been acclaimed as a world hero, and 'Africa's greatest son'. He was mourned by people all around the world.

Go here to read some of the tributes people made about him on his death:

Go here to find out some facts about South Africa
If you use any part of this in your own work, acknowledge this source in your bibliography like this:
Sydenham, S. & Thomas, R. Nelson Mandela [Online] [2010]

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Updated December 2013 ©kidcyber