Nelson Mandela: leader among leaders
Mandela as presidentAs South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994, Mandela tackled the challenge of uniting both the country's racial groupings and a fragmented public service whose delivery mandate was skewed in favour of the white population. A significant milestone of his presidency was the exemplary constitution-making process, which delivered a document that is the envy of the democratic world. Mandela is equally known for taking a strong stand against the giant world powers especially in defence of Africa. As president, he was unrestrained in embracing the ANC's former allies, such as Libya's Muammar Gadaffi and Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, in spite of criticism from the United States. His position also made for fluid relationships with Russia and China, former communist allies of the ANC. After handing over the reigns of the presidency to Thabo Mbeki in 1999, Mandela played a key role as middleman in crisis-hit areas such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Besides campaigning globally for peace, Mandela focused his still prodigious energies increasingly on empowering disadvantaged children and fighting against HIV/Aids. In June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. His parting gift a R1-billion endowment to South Africa, to be raised by the three charitable organisations that bear his name: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Nelson Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
Early lifeNelson Mandela, whose second name is Rolihlahla, was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo, near Qunu. He was the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela, chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Tembu. He spent his early childhood in the Transkei, being groomed to become a chief. Mandela matriculated at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School and enrolled at Fort Hare University College, where he met Oliver Tambo. It was at Fort Hare that he first became involved in student politics, and he was expelled in 1940 after participating in a student protest. Mandela left the Transkei, partly to avoid an arranged marriage, and moved to Johannesburg where he was employed as a mine policeman. Shortly after this he met Walter Sisulu, who helped him obtain articles with a legal firm. Completing a BA degree by correspondence in 1941, he then began studying for a law degree, which he didn't complete. In December 1952, Mandela and Tambo opened the first African legal partnership in the country.
Youth League founderTogether with Sisulu and Tambo, Mandela participated in the founding of the African National Congress Youth League in 1944. The Youth League invigorated the ANC. Its Programme of Action was adopted by the ANC in 1949, and it provided much of the impetus that led to mass protests and later, the formation of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe.
- Visit the ANC's archive: African National Congress Youth League
First arrest and banningIn December of the same year, Mandela and 19 others were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their participation in the Defiance Campaign, a national protest against laws curtailing the freedoms of blacks, Indians and coloureds. The campaign was significant for Mandela. Whereas previously he was wary of working with non-black Africans, the campaign convinced him to move towards co-ordinating an interracial and united front to fight apartheid. Mandela was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years. He was later served with a six-month banning order prohibiting him from attending meetings, or from leaving the Johannesburg magisterial district. For the following nine years his banning orders were continually renewed. In December 1956 Mandela was one of 156 political activists arrested and charged with high treason for the campaign leading to the adoption of The Freedom Charter in 1955. The trial lasted four-and-a-half years. On 25 March 1961, Mandela and 29 others were found not guilty.
- Visit the ANC's archive: The Freedom Charter
Family lifeMandela married Evelyn Mase, a nurse, in 1944. The couple had met through Sisulu, Mases cousin. The lived in Soweto and had four children, including Makgatho Mandela and Makaziwe Mandela. The divorced in 1958, and taking the children, Mase moved to Cofimvaba in what is today Eastern Cape. In the same year he divorced his first wife, Mandela married Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela. They had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi. It was a turbulent marriage. During Mandela's imprisonment on Robben Island, Winnie spearheaded the struggle outside prison. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings some three decades later, she was linked to the deaths of several young ANC activists. They divorced in 1996. Mandela and Mases third child, Thembi, was killed in a car accident in 1969, while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island. Their other son, Makgatho Lewanika Mandela Mandela's last surviving son died on 6 January 2005, aged 54.
- Read more: My son died of Aids: Mandela
Armed struggleWhen the apartheid government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress in 1960, Mandela led the campaign to launch an underground struggle. He emerged as a leading figure in the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC's armed wing, becoming its first commander-in-chief. After working outside South Africa for a period a time that included military training in Algeria Mandela returned to the country in July 1962. On 5 August 1962 the police finally captured the elusive "Black Pimpernel" near Howick in what was then Natal province. He was tried and sentenced to five years' imprisonment for incitement to strike and illegally leaving the country.
Rivonia TrialWhile Mandela was in prison, police raided the ANC's underground headquarters at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, and arrested several ANC leaders. Police found documents relating to the manufacture of explosives, Mandela's diary and copies of a draft memorandum Operation Mayibuye which outlined a possible strategy for guerrilla struggle.
- Read more: Liliesleaf: one day back in '63
- Visit the ANC's archive: Mandela's statement from the dock
Robben IslandMandela spent the next 18 years on Robben Island, before being transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and then to Victor Verster Prison, where it was discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis. On Robben Island, Mandela, who was kept in isolation along with other senior leaders, continued to play an important role as a political leader behind bars, maintaining contact with the ANC leadership in exile. From July 1986 onwards, he initiated contact with government representatives, which led eventually to his July 1989 meeting with President PW Botha at Tuynhuys. In December 1989 he met De Klerk.
Freedom!Mandela was released from jail on Sunday, 11 February 1990. The first images of the president-to-be walking out of prison were relayed live via satellite to ecstatic audiences across the globe. Mandela led the ANC in negotiations with the South African government which culminated in the adoption of the interim constitution in November 1993. In 1994 the ANC won the country's first multiracial elections with an overwhelming majority.
- Read more: 72 days that shaped South Africa
Retirement and legacyIn June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. His parting gift a R1-billion endowment to South Africa, to be raised by the three charitable organisations that bear his name: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Nelson Mandela Rhodes Foundation.
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Selected Mandela speeches
"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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." From Nelson Mandela's statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, 20 April 1964.