Nelson Mandela is a prominent South African figure who served time in prison for opposing apartheid, the system that segregated races in South Africa and gave whites control over blacks. Mandela was the first black man to lead South Africa as president after apartheid was formally abolished after his release from jail.
Mandela is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and a figure of hope for millions.
Youth and education
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the Transkei, a small hamlet in the southeast of South Africa. His father was the village’s leader and a Xhosa-speaking member of the Thembu tribe’s royal dynasty. Despite the inhumane treatment of black people in white-ruled South Africa, Mandela had a deep sense of African self-government and tradition while growing up among tribal elders and chiefs.
Mandela’s early education at Methodist church schools also had a significant impact on him.
Mandela’s teaching from that location led him away from several African tribal customs, such as an elder-planned arranged marriage that he rejected.
Mandela earned a degree from Witwatersrand University after being dismissed from Fort Hare University College in 1940 for organizing a student strike. He graduated from the University of South Africa with a law degree in 1942.
Joining the ANC
Mandela joined the South African political organization known as the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944. The ANC’s principal objective had been to work to improve conditions ever since its founding and in South Africa, rights for persons of color. However, some of its members have called for less circumspect action due to its generally conservative posture. As a member of the ANC Youth League, Mandela developed into one of the organization’s more youthful and radical leaders. In 1951, he was elected league president.
Between 1951 and 1960, both South Africa and the ANC had difficult times. Younger anti-apartheid activists (protesters), like Mandela, were beginning to believe that peaceful protests against the system were ineffective since they gave the South African government license to retaliate violently against Africans.
Mandela was prepared to use every tactic at his disposal to end apartheid peacefully, but he grew to believe that nonviolent resistance would not result in any changes to the situation in end.
Mandela received a nine-month prison sentence in 1952 for organizing ANC protests.
Later, in 1956, he and other ANC leaders were detained for advocating opposition to South Africa’s “pass laws,” which restricted blacks from traveling freely across the nation.
Mandela was accused of treason, a crime against one’s country, but the case against him and the other defendants was dropped in 1961. But by this point, the ANC had been declared illegal by the South African government. This action was in response to the Sharpeville incident in 1960, in which police opened fire on a gathering of unarmed demonstrators.
The days of peaceful protest have ended, according to Sharpeville. The All-African National Action Council was founded in 1961 by anti-apartheid activists and operated illegally. Mandela served as its honorary secretary before going on to lead Umkhonto weSizwe (the Spear of the Nation), a militant ANC group that engaged in sabotage (destroying property and other forms of violence).
Mandela was once more detained in 1962, this time for fleeing South Africa without authorization and for encouraging strikes. He received a five-year prison term. Following a government raid on the organization’s covert headquarters, he and other Umkhonto weSizwe officials were tried on a charge of high treason the following year. Mandela received a life sentence, which he started to carry out in the Robben Island prison on Robben Island in South Africa.
Mandela’s example of peaceful suffering was just one of several pressures on South Africa’s apartheid government throughout his twenty-seven years in prison.
Mandela was not allowed many visitors, and it was against the law to mention him in public. But as the years passed, he came to be seen more and more as a martyr—someone who suffers for a cause—both in South Africa and internationally, becoming a stand-in for worldwide demonstrations against apartheid.
Mandela was hospitalized in 1988 for a medical ailment, and after he recovered, he was sent back to prison under slightly less oppressive circumstances. For the reigning white powers, the situation in South Africa by this point had reached an impasse. International pressure to abolish apartheid was growing as a result of the growing protest movement. South Africa was becoming marginalized as a racist nation. In light of this, F. W. de Klerk (1936-), the president of South Africa, finally heeded the international calls for Mandela’s release.
In 1990, on February 11, Mandela was released from jail. Everywhere he went in the globe, he was greeted with joy. He took over as ANC president in 1991 after the government once more granted it legal standing.
Only a deal between whites and blacks could stop a civil war in South Africa, both Mandela and deKlerk understood. As a result, a multiparty Convention for a Democratic South Africa convened in late 1991 to set up a new, democratic government that offered people of all races the ability to shape the future of their nation. The negotiations were led by Mandela and deKlerk, whose efforts earned them the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
The two presidents agreed to sign a treaty in September 1992 that established a democratically elected constitutional assembly to write a new constitution and serve as a transitional government (one that governs while a new one is being constituted). The first free elections for all South African citizens were held on April 27, 1994. Mandela was elected president when the ANC received more than 62% of the vote.
Presidency and retirement
In his capacity as president, Mandela tried to tame the volatile political divisions in his nation and to strengthen the South African economy. He was remarkably successful in achieving his goals. Mandela oversaw the transition to democracy thanks to his talent for reaching compromises and his tremendous personal influence. He also supported the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that gave amnesty (exemption from criminal prosecution) to persons who had committed crimes during the apartheid era in an effort to aid in the healing of the nation. The discussion of the nation’s history was aided by this action.
In June 1999, Mandela announced his retirement and decided not to run against Thabo Mbeki, his vice president, in elections. Mbeki won the election for the ANC, and on June 16, 1999, he took office as president. After leaving government, Mandela swiftly assumed the position of statesman, serving that year as a peace mediator in Burundi, where a civil conflict had resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.
When he voiced his support for American bombing of Afghanistan following terrorist strikes against the United States on September 11, 2001, Mandela joined the anti-terrorist movement in late 2001. But by January 2002, Mandela had changed his position significantly in response to criticism from South African Muslims who felt he appeared to be indifferent to the suffering of the Afghan people. According to the Associated Press, Mandela labeled his prior statements endorsing the bombings “overstatements” and cautioned against hastily designating the man accused of masterminding the attacks, Osama bin Laden, as a terrorist.
For More Information
Benson, Mary. Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement. New York: W. W. Norton
& Company, 1986.
Harwood, Ronald. Mandela. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Hughes, Libby. Nelson Mandela: Voice of Freedom. New York: Dillon Press, 1992.
Johns, Sheridan, and R. Hunt Davis Jr., eds. Mandela, Tambo, & the African National
Congress: The Struggle Against Apartheid, 1948–1990: A Documentary Study. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.
Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.
Nelson Mandela Timeline
This History Timeline has been developed to provide a ‘snapshot’ of the famous people and
events during this historical time period. Important dates in a fast, comprehensive,
chronological, or date order providing an actual sequence of important
past events which were of considerable significance to the
famous people involved in this time period.
A full History Timeline…
Short Biography of Nelson Mandela
Date of Birth: Born on July 18, 1918
Place of Birth : Eastern Cape of South Africa
Parents: Father – Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa
Mother: Nosekeni Fanny
1918 July 18: Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela is born a member of the Madiba clan. His tribal name,
“Rolihalah,” means “troublemaker.” He is later given his English name, Nelson, by a teacher at
1919 His father is dispossessed of his land and money on the orders of a white magistrate
1927 His father dies. The acting chief of the Thembu clan, Jongintaba Dalindyebo becomes his
guardian and ensures he receives an excellent education
1937 Moves to Healdtown attending the Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort.
Fort Hare University: Studied for a B.A. and met his lifelong friend Oliver Tambo
1939 Asked to leave Fort Hare due to his involvement in a boycott of the Students’ Representative
Council against the university policies
Moves to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage and experiences the system of
apartheid which forbade the black population to vote, travel without permission or own land
Worked as a guard at a mine and then clerk at a law firm
Completed his degree via a correspondence course at the University of South Africa
Studies Law at the University of Witwatersrand whilst living in Alexandra
1943 Joins the African National Congress (ANC) as an activist.
1944 Forms the Youth League of the ANC with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sislu
Marries his first wife Evelyn Ntoko Mase. The couple had three children but the marriage
breaks up in 1957
1948 South African government (Afrikaner-dominated National Party) limits the freedom of black
Africans even more when the apartheid policy of racial segregation is introduced across the
1952 Opens the first black legal firm in South Africa with fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo providing
free or low-cost legal counsel to many blacks who would otherwise have been without legal
Mandela was prominent in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign
1955 Freedom Charter adopted at the Congress of the People calling for equal rights and a program
of the anti-apartheid cause
1956 December 5: Accused of conspiring to overthrow the South African state by violent means
with 155 other political activists and charged with high treason. The Treason Trial of 1956–61
follows and all were acquitted
1957 His marriage of 13 years to his first wife Evelyn Ntoko Mase breaks up
1958 Marries Nomzamo “Winnie” Madikizela, a social worker, and the couple have two children.
Their marriage ended in separation in April 1992 and divorce in March 1996
1959 Parliament passes new laws extending racial segregation by creating separate homelands for
major black groups in South Africa
The ANC loses most of its financial and militant support when members break away to form
the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) under Potlako Leballo and Robert Sobukwe
1960 Sharpeville Massacre: Police kill 69 peaceful protestors and the ANC is banned
Mandela goes into hiding and forms an underground military group with armed resistance
1961 Issues a call to arms and becomes the ANC leader of the newly formed Umkhontoat guerrilla
movement at the All-In African Conference
1962 August 5: Arrested after living on the run for seventeen months and was imprisoned in the
25 October 25: Nelson Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison but again goes on the
1964 June 12: Captured and convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life imprisonment
at the age of 46, initially on Robben island where he would be kept for 18 years
1965 Rhodesia gains its independence and only whites are represented in the new government
1968 His mother dies and his eldest son is killed in a car crash but he not allowed to attend either of
1974 Rhodesia expelled from united nations due to the policy of apartheid
1976 Over 600 students killed in protests at Soweto and Sharpeville
1977 Steve Biko, the leader of the protests, is killed whilst in police custody.
1980 The exiled Oliver Tambo launches an international campaign for the release of his friend
Zimbabwe gains its independence
1983 The government allows farmers to re-arm and protect themselves from black dissidents.
1984 Governement sources state that declared that since 1983 black dissidents have murdered 120,
mutilated 25, raped 47 and committed 284 robberies
1986 Sanctions against South Africa tightened costing millions in revenue
1988 Amnesty is announced for all dissidents – 122 surrender.
1990 February 11: Nelson Mandela is released from prison after 27 years
President De Klerk lifts the ban on the African National Congress (ANC)
The ANC and the white National Party begin talks on forming a multi-racial democracy for
1991 Becomes President of the African National Congress ( ANC )
The International Olympics Committee lift a 21 year ban on South African athletes competing
in the Olympic Games.
1992 April: Separates from Winnie Mandela after she is convicted of kidnapping and being an
accessory to assault.
1993 March: Divorces Winnie Mandela
Nelson Mandela and Mr de Klerk are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
1994 April 26: Free Elections where black South Africans are allowed to vote for the first time.
Nelson Mandela runs for President
The ANC won 252 of the 400 seats in the national assembly
May: Inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. He appoints de Klerk as deputy
president and forms as racially mixed Government of National Unity.
1995 South Africa hosts the 1995 Rugby World Cup and South Africa wins. Nelson Mandela wears
a Springbok shirt when he presents the trophy to Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar. This
gesture was seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans.
1998 Marries Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, on his 80th
Tour of Canada
1999 Relinquishes presidency in favor of Thabo Mbeki, who was nominated ANC president in 1997.
Toured the world as a global statesman
2000 Appointed as mediator in the civil war in Burundi
2001 Nelson Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer with radiation
Made an honorary Canadian citizen
2003 Attacked the foreign policy of the George W. Bush
Later that same year, he lent his support to the 46664 AIDS fundraising campaign. The
initiative was named after his prison number
2004 June: Nelson Mandela announced that he would be retiring from public life at the age of 85
July: Flew to Bangkok to speak at the XV International AIDS Conference.
23 July: Johannesburg bestowed its highest honour by granting Nelson Mandela the freedom of
2005 6 January: His son, Makgatho Mandela died of AIDS
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