Nelson Mandela: Fighter for South Africa


By K. Levek

Mandela-1World-renowned anti-apartheid leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela passed December 5, 2013 in Houghton Estate, South Africa.  Mandela is best known for his stance against apartheid and serving 27 years in jail for fighting against the system of racial segregation.  The country’s white National Party institutionalized the system, by which the rights of the majority black inhabitants were suppressed by the Afrikaner population, or White minority.  Under this system, which was enforced from 1948 to 1994, the government segregated education, medical care, beaches, and other public services, and provided black people with services inferior to those of white people.  However, Mandela made it his life’s mission to fight against this racist system.

Born, Rolihlahla Mandela in Mvezo, Transkei on July 18, 1918, Mandela is referred by his Xhosa clan name “Madiba.” He was one of 13 children from a family with close links to the royal house of the Thembu people.  At the age of 9, Mandela’s father died of lung disease and he went on to become a ward in his tribal’s leadership, of the Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni after his father passed.  The first in his family to receive a formal education, Mandela completed his primary studies at a local missionary school in Qunu where his teacher Miss Mdingane gave him the name Nelson, in accordance with the cutom to give all school children “Christian” names.  He went on to attend the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Healdtown, a Methodist secondary school, where he excelled in boxing and track as well as academics. In 1939 Mandela entered the elite University of Fort Hare, the only Western-style higher learning institute Young+Mandela+Africa+Fightingfor South African blacks at the time. The following year, he and several other students, including his friend and future business partner Oliver Tambo (1917-1993), were sent home for participating in a boycott against university policies.  Ultimately, Tambo was expelled from school and had to return home.  Returning home from his school expulsion the King of the Great place in Mkhekezweni arranged a marriage for him, but Mandela ran away.

He settled in Johannesburg, where he worked a variety of jobs, including as a guard and a clerk, while completing his bachelor’s degree via correspondence courses. He then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.  While in Johannesburg he met Walter Sisulu, who would be an instrumental partner in his activism.  Throught Sisulu he met his first wife, Evelyn Mase, an ANC activist from Engcobo, Transkei, who was training at the time to become a nurse. They were married on 5 October 1944 and had one daughter who died nine months later of menegitis.

Soon he became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress in 1942. Within the ANC, a


small group of young Africans banded together, calling themselves the African National Congress Youth League. Their goal was to transform the ANC into a mass grassroots movement, deriving strength from millions of rural peasants and working people who had no voice under the current regime.

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a period of growing tumult in South Africa, as African nationalists allied with the South African Communist Party challenged the apartheid state.  Over the years he began coordinating and leading peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He founded the law firm Mandela and Tambo, with his partner Oliver Tambo, whom he’s met in school. The law firm provided free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks.  When protest was met with brute force, the ANC launched an armed struggle with Mandela at its head.  In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy (they were eventually acquitted). Meanwhile, Africanists were challenging the ANC, a new breed of black activists who believed that the pacifist method of the ANC was ineffective.

He was arrested and charged with treason in 1956. After a trial lasting five years, Mandela was acquitted. But by now the ANC had been banned and his comrade Oliver Tambo had gone into exile.  Nelson Mandela went underground and embarked on a secret trip to seek help from other African nations emerging from colonial rule. He also visited London to meet Tambo.

In 1961 he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerilla war tactics to end apartheid. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers’ strike. He was arrested for leading the strike the following year, and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, Mandela was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.

He began serving his life sentence on Robben Island and was there for was for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program.

133137-nelson-mandelaIn 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, allegedly to enable contact between them and the South African government. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela’s release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner flatly rejected the offer. With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the ensuing years, but no deal was made. It wasn’t until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela’s release was finally announced—on February 11, 1990.  de Klerk also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.

After his release he began fighting for the right of black South African’s to vote.  He declared that the ANC’s armed struggle would continue until the right to vote was granted.  In 1991 he was elected President to the African National Congress after his friend Oliver Tambo stepped down to serve as national chairperson.

He continued to negotiate with then President de Klerk about the rights of black South Africans.  In 1993 he and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work to end apartheid.  On April 27, 1994 South Africa held its first democratic elections. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president on May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, with de Klerk as his first deputy.

From 1994 until June 1999, Mandela worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to black majority rule. He used the nation’s enthusiasm for sports as a pivot point to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks, encouraging black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team. In 1995, South Africa came to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the young republic.

As president, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights and political violations committed by both supporters and opponents of apartheid between 1960 and 1994. He also introduced numerous social and economic programs designed to improve the living standards of South Africa’s black population. In 1996 Mandela presided over the enactment of a new South African constitution, which established a strong central government based on majority rule and prohibited discrimination against minorities, including whites.

mandela02After leaving office, Nelson Mandela remained a devoted champion for peace and social justice in his own country and around the world. He established a number of organizations, including the influential Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders, an independent group of public figures committed to addressing global problems and easing human suffering. In 2002, Mandela became a vocal advocate of AIDS awareness and treatment programs in a culture where the epidemic had been cloaked in stigma and ignorance. The disease later claimed the life of his son Makgatho (1950-2005) and is believed to affect more people in South Africa than in any other country.

In 1999, at the end of his term as president, he officially began to play a lesser role in politics, but still maintained a busy schedule speaking and raising money for various initiatives across the country.  Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001. In June 2004, at the age of 85, he announced his formal retirement from public life and returned to his native village of Qunu.

During Mandela’s funeral, over 15 heads of state attended the four-hourss-120601-mandela-tease.photoblog600


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