Awakened at University
Rolihlahla Mandela was born and raised in the Transkei region, where he was educated in a local missionary school and given the English name, “Nelson”. When Nelson was only 12, his father died, but his father’s family supported his entry to the all-black University of Fort Hare. It was at university that Mandela met lifetime friend and colleague Oliver Tambo, and first awakened his political consciousness. Distributing flyers and delivering political speeches in criticism of 1930s pre-apartheid policies became as important as their studies in law, earning Mandela and Tambo expulsion from the college.
Mandela greets schoolchildren from his home village (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
Founded the Youth League
Leaving the village for Johannesburg with his mother, Mandela worked while finishing his degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA). His politics led him to another lifelong friend and colleague, Walter Sisulu, and to the African National Congress (ANC). Finding the ANC leadership to be ineffective and out-of-touch with the needs of a new generation, Mandela, Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and others founded the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). The Youth League revitalized and reconceived the ANC as a mass social movement for change – willing to work within the law, but encouraging people to defy the law when it was unjust. Mandela became president of the Youth League in 1951, shortly before opening South Africa’s first black law firm – Mandela & Tambo.
Mandela center, with fellow ANCYL leaders Walter Sisulu, left, and Harrison Motlana (AP Photo)
The Freedom Charter
The Youth League and its proactive policies came to dominate ANC politics in the early 1950s, and people responded well to the ANC’s message of freedom, equality and unity. But government retaliation against the leadership was swift and widespread, with routine raids, trials, and injunctions against political assembly, calculated to kill the movement in the cradle. Mandela found his movements restricted and under surveillance, but he nonetheless managed to join a massive ANC rally in Kliptown that hailed a bold declaration of justice – the Freedom Charter. Codifying the key principles that the ANC was fighting for, the Freedom Charter gave the people of South Africa a mantra that would strengthen their resolve in the difficult years ahead.
Freedom Charter monument in Kliptown, Soweto (Photographer: Joonasl)
The Treason Trial
Under the Suppression of Communism Act, the South African government arrested and tried the leaderships of every active anti-apartheid political group, including the ANC and Nelson Mandela, as conspirators against the government, a treasonous offense punishable by death. While most of the charges were dismissed from this first Treason Trial in 1952, the deteriorating political situation led to mobilization of armed insurgence, which Mandela supported, even as he toured Africa and Europe incognito seeking support for the prevailing ANC policy of non-violent resistance. The government responded with a second treason trial, the Rivonia Trial, which directly led to the incarceration or execution of several top ANC leaders, including Mandela and Sisulu. At the opening of his defense, Mandela made a now-famous speech that referenced the long years of injustice and thwarted ambitions, concluding that equality “is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela, right, and two others incarcerated during the 1958 Rivonia Trial
Nelson and Winnie
While the rigors of political activism led to a divorce from his first wife, Evelyn Mace, Mandela met and married Nomzamo “Winnie” Madikizela during the first Treason Trial, and she became his support and voice during the long incarceration. In addition to being a mother to his five children (including three from his previous marriage), Winnie continued the struggle against the government and helped hold the ANC together even while the party itself was declared illegal. Unfailing in her loyalty, she never let the world forget that her husband and many others were suffering in prison under the tyranny of an unjust state. To many people in South Africa and abroad, Winnie Mandela is the ‘Mother of a Nation’ as much as Nelson Mandela is the Father.
Winnie Mandela visiting her husband at Cape Town’s maximum security Pollsmoor prison, 1986 (AP Photo/Greg English)
Imprisoned and isolated, Mandela was subject to political manipulation even in prison. He and his fellow ANC leaders were consistently denied access to lawyers, families, and the press, while the government attempted numerous tactics to force them to publicly renounce their principles and quell the rising discontent among the populace. Controversial prime minister, later president, P.W. Botha famously offered Mandela release in exchange for his repudiation of the ANC, which Mandela steadfastly refused. Holding tightly to his principles even in the most adverse of situations, Mandela spent nearly 28 years in prison.
Daughter Zindzi Mandela reads her father’s refusal of P.W. Botha’s offer, 1985 (AP Photo/Peters)
After decades of struggle in South Africa and abroad, shifting geopolitics and economic sanctions led to a new government regime under President F.W. de Klerk that avoided the hard-line, militaristic tactics of previous generations. The ban on political opposition was lifted, and the ANC leadership was invited to the negotiation table for the first time in the country’s history. Nelson Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990 and hailed as a national hero amid outpourings of emotion and hope for the future.
120,000 supporters pack Soweto’s Soccer City stadium to greet Mandela days after his release (AP Photo/Udo Weitz, file)
Thanking the World
The same year of his release, Nelson Mandela undertook a sweeping world tour, becoming directly acquainted with many of the social and political changes wrought during his long imprisonment, and thanking the millions worldwide whose support aided his cause. Stops in New York City and Atlanta, among others, were particularly poignant for illustrating the parallel struggles of American and South African blacks to claim freedom and equality in their respective nations. The tour was also instrumental in establishing Mandela as a world leader representing the new South Africa on the world stage.
Mandela is lauded by a Joint Meeting of Congress, behind him are House Speaker Tom Foley (D-WA) and Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), 1990 (AP Photo/Doug Mills, file)
Changing of the Guard
Opening the government to full political participation for all citizens, South Africa held its first all-race national election in 1994. As the recently-elected President of the ANC, Mandela ran against incumbent F.W. de Klerk in a hotly contested race that tested the nation’s newly forged unity. On May 10, 1994, viewers worldwide watched as Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, a momentous event that would be echoed 14 years later with the election of Barack Obama.
A Soweto family watches the long-awaited inauguration of President Nelson Mandela (AP Photo/Joao Silva)
Among Mandela’s reforms as president was the adoption of a new constitution implementing representative democracy including all of South Africa’s racially-diverse citizens. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to investigate and address human rights abuses committed under the apartheid regime, by public entities and private individuals alike. However, Mandela’s over-arching strategy for the ANC-controlled government was to repair the tattered nation after years of strife and sanctions, and build a unified South Africa.
President Mandela dances as he delivers a victory address in Johannesburg (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
Following his single term as president, Mandela chose to semi-retire from political life and permit new ranks of ANC leaders to shine. However, he is using his prestige to bring attention to numerous issues that still plague the region, including childhood poverty and education, disease treatment and prevention, and the need for community renewal. Under the auspices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Nelson Mandela Institute, Mandela has brought millions to the causes that he personally believes in, and raised awareness of these challenges within South Africa and throughout the world. His birthday, July 18, is recognized in many nations as Mandela Day, an opportunity to inform and assist in our local communities.
(AP Photo/Debbi Yazbek/Zinc Media/HO)
The division between Winnie & Nelson Mandela extends far beyond their personal separation and divorce in 1996, and has resonated to the very core of the ANC. Despite accusations of influence-peddling and unseemly behavior, the voting public continues to support Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s bids for office, keeping her in the political arena. Recently, she has been quoted as positioning herself as an agitator against the party leadership, claiming that the ANC could do more to help the people of South Africa. Regardless of these political differences, Nelson still considers her part of his extended family.
Nelson Mandela, center, with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, left, and his current wife Graça Machel (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydaml, File)
World Cup 2010
Among his accomplishments in private life, Mandela successfully shepherded South Africa’s bid to host the FIFA World Cup in 2010, becoming the first African nation to host the games. Worldwide attention was focused on the country, and many were worried about potential security issues with the massive influx of foreign visitors. However, at the close of the games the majority of the reported crimes were low-level thefts and muggings commonly associated with any large sporting event. Mandela has been noted for his love of the game, and has frequently expressed his pride in the nation’s largely safe and successful handling of the incredible challenge.
Mandela cradles the FIFA World Cup trophy (AP Photo/Mandela Foundation, ho)
Even as his ability to overcome political tragedy has come to define Mandela’s life, personal tragedy has been an ongoing private struggle. Mandela has lost two of his five adult children to disease and the savagery of apartheid. His eldest son died in a car accident while he was in prison, and he was not allowed to attend the funeral, even in custody. A younger son died in 2005 of complications related to AIDS, fueling Mandela’s passion to stop the spread of HIV. Most recently, he lost a treasured great-granddaughter to a car accident at the too-young age of 13.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel at his great-granddaughter’s funeral (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, POOL)
South Africa and the World
On former president Mandela’s 92nd birthday, while his homeland celebrates his legacy and achievements, uncertainty wars with hope for the future of South Africa in the global community. Mandela’s steadfast refusal to capitulate in the face of injustice, tempered by his commitment to achieving unity and prosperity for his country is inspirational in its own right, but also offers insight for our current political situation. As global citizens, we can only hope that our current generation of leaders will take heed of the hard-won lessons that Mandela’s life has to offer.
Then-Senator Obama explores Mandela’s former prison cell in Robben Island, Cape Town (AP Photo/Obed Zilwa)
In this photo supplied by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, former South African president Nelson Mandela is surrounded by children, with his grandson Mandla Mandela, back 3rd from right, at his home in Johannesburg Saturday July 17, 2010. Mandela celebrates his 92nd birthday tomorrow.
(AP Photo/Debbie Yazbek-Nelson Mandela Foundation)
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In honor of Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday, theGrio invites you on an emotional journey through Mandela’s great life and accomplishments.
An unlikely world leader, Mandela’s sense of justice and incredible resolve carried him from humble beginnings in a village mission school to the forefront of a revolution and beyond.
Facing down personal crises and enduring suffering and humiliation, Mandela’s indomitable spirit offers insight and inspiration to those struggling to survive a world away.
Through seven decades of political activism, despite crushing oppression and wrenching sacrifice, Nelson Mandela has held onto his nobility and his unshakable belief in the ability of South Africans to rise to power through unity.