HistoryHero Portrait Nelson Mandela.png

Would you dedicate your life to ending racial injustice even at the risk of your life or your freedom?

Nelson Mandela fought against injustice for decades. Even from jail. 

Mandela spent the prime of his life as a political prisoner. Yet when he stepped into the light after 27 years a captive, he refused to choke on bitterness for the wrongs that were done to him. Instead, he practiced reconciliation. And with it, he changed the world...

Born in the small South African village of Mvezo on July 18, 1918, the foster son of a Thembu tribal chief, Rolihlahla Mandela was raised to lead. He was the first of his family to receive a formal education and proved a gifted student and athlete. While a schoolboy, a teacher called him Nelson, and it stuck.

Nelson took an interest in activism from the first. While a young man at the prestigious University of Fort Hare, he spent so much time protesting against unjust university policies that it eventually cost him his place. He fled to Johannesburg and finished his degree while working as a law clerk and night watchman. He then went on to study law at the University of Witwatersrand, continuing to stoke his passion for social justice.

In 1944, at the age of 24, Nelson joined the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa's national liberation movement. The ANC was founded in 1912 with the dual mission of ending socially enforced separation of black South Africans from other races and obtaining voting rights then denied to black and mixed race Africans. Straight away, Nelson founded the ANC's Youth League with several other party members, thus committing himself openly to fight for the rights of non-white South African citizens under the white minority government.

In 1948, the white Afrikaner-dominated National Party won South Africa’s election. As only whites were then allowed to vote in South Africa, this came as no surprise. But the National Party stepped up government-enforced racial separation with a hardline policy it called apartheid. The word comes from the Dutch "heid," meaning "hood" for "apart-hood," and is pronounced "apart-hate," which is an apt description for a policy that brutally oppressed an entire people based solely on their color of their skin. During South African apartheid, more than three million black citizens were forced to move from their homes to segregated neighborhoods. In 1952, Mandela and the ANC fought back with their “Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws.” That's also when Mandela and fellow ANC member, Oliver Tambo opened a law firm to provide low-cost to free legal aid to those unjustly affected by apartheid.

Nelson Mandela and the Congressional Black Caucus

To this point, the ANC drew upon nonviolent methods, such as boycotts, civil disobedience, and legal process, to protest injustice. But as the brutality of the apartheid regime escalated, so too did tensions within the ANC.

In 1959, some members split off to form the more militant Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Then, when white police massacred 69 peaceful black protestors in 1960, even Mandela realized that nonviolent methods were not working.

He co-founded a new branch of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe or Spear of the Nation, also known as "MK," which sought to undermine the apartheid government through acts of sabotage. He traveled illegally to Ethiopia for a conference of African nationalist leaders and then to Algeria to receive guerrilla training. Shortly after returning to South Africa, Mandela was arrested for leaving the country, and for leading an earlier workers' strike. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

In 1963, the police raided an ANC hideout in Johannesburg and arrested seven ANC leaders on charges of treason, sabotage, and violent conspiracy. Mandela was included on these charges, and admitted to them in the now-famous eight-month Rivonia Trial. That's when he declared to the courtroom and to the world:

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela and hisPredecessor

Mandela was not sentenced to death, but to life imprisonment on Robben Island, a kind of Purgatory in plain sight for those the white regime feared most. He spent the next 27 years in a tiny cell without a bed or plumbing. He was forced to perform backbreaking work in a lime quarry for hours at a time. As a black prisoner, he received smaller portions of food. And inmates were known to suffer egregious punishments, such as guards burying them in the ground up to their necks then urinating on them.

Nonetheless, Mandela "matured" there (his own words); rather than go mad, he continued to hone his mind and his tactics, eventually winning the respect of his captors. He earned a law degree from the University of London, and instructed fellow inmates in methods of nonviolent resistance. He wrote political statements and the first draft of his no famous autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

In 1980, Tambo organized the "Free Nelson Mandela" campaign, which sparked the world's imagination. Mandela became the figure of the anti-apartheid movement; people and governments everywhere rallied for his release. In response, the apartheid government offered Mandela his freedom in exchange for his renunciation of violence and loyalty to the state. True to his goals, Mandela refused. He remained in prison until 1990, when then-President F. W. de Klerk called for his release and appealed to the 71-year-old black leader to help him steer the country toward a negotiated political settlement between whites and blacks. De Klerk's plea underscored the extraordinary influence that Mr. Mandela exerted, even from prison.

Once free, Mandela reconnected with the ANC, taking the lead in negotiations to end the apartheid system. Apartheid legislation was abolished in mid-1991, and the country's first multiracial elections were set for April 1994. Mandela's life's work was recognized in 1993 when he on the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, in 1994, all South Africans, white and black, met at the polls. They elected an ANC government with Nelson Mandela as President.

Naseem #HistoryHero Mandela

While in office, Mandela worked tirelessly to improve race relations. He created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid years. He enacted new socioeconomic programs to help improve the quality of life for black South Africans. He helped to create a new national constitution prohibiting discrimination against minorities. He was instrumental in moving a racist nation governed by the minority toward a multiracial government ruled by the majority.

In 1999, Mandela left his career in politics. He died in 2013, leaving behind a legacy that will forever inspire. He is revered everywhere as a vital force in the ongoing fight for human rights and racial equality.

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As president of the African National Congress, head of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, and President, Nelson Mandela fought for equal rights for everyone, even as his own were taken away or compromised. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to both Naseem of Silver Spring, MD, USA, and James Hertling of London, England, for nominating him.

Were he still alive, Mandela would be 99 years today.

FUN FACT:  Nelson Mandela's birth name, Rolihlahla, translates as "one who shapes the branches of the trees," which is a more poetic way of calling him a 'trouble-maker,'
but in a good way. Kind of fitting, right?


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when we feature him or her on this blog. 


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