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.
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.”