Mandela, Nelson Rolihlahla

Mandela, Nelson Rolihlahla (1918-), former president of South Africa, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and former head of the African National Congress.

The first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela became a worldwide symbol of resistance to the injustice of his country's apartheid system. Imprisoned for more than 27 years, and before that banned from all public activity and hounded by police for nearly a decade, Mandela led a struggle for freedom that mirrored that of his black compatriots. After his 1990 release from Victor Verster prison, his work to end apartheid won him the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize (which he shared with South African president F. W. de Klerk) and then the presidency itself a year later.

Mandela's father, Chief Henry Mandela, was a member of the Thembu people's royal lineage; his mother was one of the chief's four wives. Mandela was born in Mvezo, Umtata, but grew up in Qunu, a small village in what is now Eastern Cape Province. At the age of seven, he became the first member of his family to attend school. When his father died two years later, Nelson—the Christian name he had acquired at school—was sent to live with Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the regent, or supreme leader, of the Thembu people. From the regent, Mandela said, he learned that "a leader ... is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

Mandela finished his secondary education at Healdtown, a missionary school where an emphasis on English traditions molded students into "Black Englishmen." Only as a student at the University of Fort Hare did Mandela begin to question the injustices he and all black South Africans faced. Fort Hare was considered an oasis of black scholarship; it was also a training ground for future leaders (lawyer and antiapartheid activist Oliver Tambo was Mandela's classmate, and Freedom Charter originator Z. K. Matthews taught there). But a dispute with the administration over students' rights caused Mandela to leave Fort Hare in his second year. At the same time, he broke with the regent rather than accept an arranged marriage.

Jobless when he arrived in Johannesburg in 1941, Mandela found work assisting a lawyer—a job arranged by activist Walter Sisulu—while finishing his bachelor's degree by correspondence from the University of South Africa. He also attended the University of Witwatersrand and studied law. His political education continued as well, as he met members of the Communist Party of South Africa and, more important, the African National Congress (ANC). Of his decision to join the ANC in 1944, Mandela later wrote that he was motivated by "no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights." That same year Mandela and a group of fellow ANC members, including Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo (with whom Mandela later formed South Africa's first black-run law firm), founded the ANC Youth League.

Mandela also worked as the volunteer-in-chief of ANC's Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, in which about 9,000 volunteers defied selected laws and consequently were imprisoned. As a result, the National Party government banned him from all public gatherings in 1952 and again from 1953 to 1955. When, in 1960, the government banned the ANC outright in the wake of the police massacre of demonstrators in Sharpeville township, Mandela and several thousand apartheid opponents were detained. A consistent voice for nonviolence, Mandela at this point decided that "it was wrong and immoral to subject [his] people to armed attacks by the state without offering them some kind of alternative." Consequently in 1961 he went underground and helped create the ANC's paramilitary wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which carried out acts of sabotage against the government. Captured in August 1962, Mandela was charged with traveling outside the country without a passport and inciting workers to strike. At his trial he acted as his own lawyer, arguing not that he was innocent but rather that the South African government had used the law "to impose a state of outlawry" upon him. Several months into his five-year sentence, Mandela was charged with treason and in 1964 was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Until 1982 Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, South Africa's most notorious prison, located just offshore from Cape Town. Initially he lived in a cell measuring seven by seven feet, could write and receive only one letter every six months, and was forced to break rocks in the prison yard for hours daily. By the early 1980s South Africa's apartheid government, faced with international sanctions, began to make gestures toward Mandela, its most famous political prisoner, including moving him to Pollsmoor Prison—a much less brutal environment than Robben Island—in 1982. The negotiations unfolded gradually over the next decade. In 1985 President P. W. Botha publicly stated that he would release Mandela provided he "rejected violence as a political instrument," a deal designed to alienate Mandela from other ANC leaders. Mandela rejected the offer. In 1988 he was transferred to a private facility at Victor Verster Prison, where talks continued in secret. F. W. de Klerk succeeded P. W. Botha as president in 1989, and within a few months he lifted the 30-year-long ban on the ANC. On February 2, 1990, he announced Mandela's release from prison.

Freedom brought new challenges. During his imprisonment, Mandela's wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (whom he had married in 1958 following the end of his first marriage), had been accused of crimes that included ordering the torture and murder of her enemies. In 1991 Winnie Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and accessory to assault in the death of a Soweto teenager. The couple, who have two daughters (Mandela has three older children from his first marriage), separated in 1992.

Mandela succeeded Oliver Tambo as president of the ANC in 1992. In September 1992 he and de Klerk agreed upon a framework within which to negotiate a transition to multiracial democratic rule. The Record of Understanding they signed in December 1993 provided for a new constitution and free elections to be held April 27, 1994. With black South Africans voting for the first time in their lives, the ANC won handily, and Mandela was inaugurated as president on May 10, 1994. As president, he earned a reputation as an international peacemaker, helping to mediate conflicts both in Africa and abroad. In addition, Mandela worked to strengthen South Africa's economy by pursuing international trade agreements and foreign investment. In 1997 Mandela, who had always indicated that he would not run for reelection in 1999, stepped down as ANC leader and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki. In July 1998 Mandela married Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel. In 1999 the ANC decisively won the country’s second all-race national elections, and Mbeki replaced Mandela as South Africa’s president.


Contributed By:
Kate Tuttle