Nelson Mandela Author of the rainbow nation

Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo , Transkei, on 18 July 1918. He attended primary school in Qunu where his teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him the name Nelson, in accordance with the custom of giving all schoolchildren “Christian” names.

village of Mvezo , Transkei

He completed his Junior Certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute and went on to Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school. Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare but did not complete the degree there as he was expelled for joining in a student protest.

University College of Fort Hare

The King of his home tribe was furious with him for getting kicked out of school. He told him he must go back and finish or The King would set Mandela up with wives and put him to work with a job he would not like. He completed his BA through the University of South Africa and went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943. He began studying for a law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. By his own admission he was a poor student and left the university in 1952 without graduating. He only started studying again through the University of London after his imprisonment in 1962 but also did not complete that degree. In 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, he obtained an LLB through the University of South Africa. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.

group that Mandela (top left) worked with at the University of the Witwatersrand

Life in Politics and Prison

Nelson Mandela disagreed with the political situation in South Africa during the 1930s and 40s. The majority of the population, over 80% where black South Africans, called Afrikaners. The minority white population however controlled the government, owned the land, controlled education, and held all of the better jobs in the country. In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), a black-led political party.

Mandela moved up in the ranks of the party quickly because of his leadership and willingness to take action. He formed a youth branch of the ANC called the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). By 1949 Mandela had convinced the ANC they needed to be more aggressive and he helped them establish the Programme of Action, a more radical approach to civil disobedience. By 1952 he was put in charge of the Defiance Campaign where he began a campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws. He was arrested for the first time for his involvements and sentenced to 9 months of hard labor, which was suspended for 2 years.

Mandela at age 36 in 1953

After this sentence Nelson Mandela and a partner, Oliver Tambo, started the first black law firm in South Africa in 1952 called Mandela and Tambo. However his law practice was short lived because of his continued political protests. From 1953 to 1962 Mandela participated in several protests and served a few light punishments including being banned from the country for a short period of time. Mandela was put on trial for treason in 1956 but was later acquitted in March of 1961.

The protests became more violent including the December 1961 bombings of several public venues that killed at least 6 people. Mandela was labeled a terrorist by the government of South Africa and became a wanted man again. On January 11, 1962, using the adopted name David Motsamayi, Mandela secretly left South Africa. He traveled around Africa and visited England to gain support for the armed struggle. He received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa in July 1962. He was arrested in August of that year for leaving the country without the proper paperwork. He was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years in prison. While in prison the government raided an ANC headquarters where they discovered plans for a revolt against the nation's government. 11 men, including Mandela were charged with sabotage and were convicted by an improperly convened court. They avoided the death penalty and instead were sentenced to life in prison.

Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town, where he was confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing and compelled to do hard labor in a lime quarry.

As a black political prisoner, he received scantier rations and fewer privileges than other inmates. Mandela and his fellow prisoners were routinely subjected to inhumane punishments for the slightest of offenses; among other atrocities, there were reports of guards burying inmates in the ground up to their necks and urinating on them.

While in confinement Mandela earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of London and served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to seek better treatment through nonviolent resistance. He also smuggled out political statements and a draft of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” published five years after his release.

Mandela continued to speak out against apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid was a system of legal, government sponsored segregation of blacks and whites in South Africa from 1948-1991. These laws intentionally kept blacks and whites apart throughout the nation in every part of society. Blacks were restricted to certain areas, public places, transportation, streets they could travel on, places to eat, etc... Blacks movement was even restricted in their own country. They had to stay in "homelands" and could not travel outside of those areas without special permission from the white-led government.

Despite his forced retreat from the spotlight, Mandela remained the symbolic leader of the antiapartheid movement. In 1980 Oliver Tambo introduced a “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign that made the jailed leader a household name and fueled the growing international outcry against South Africa’s racist regime.

In 1982 Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, and in 1988 he was placed under house arrest on the grounds of a minimum-security correctional facility. The following year, newly elected president F. W. de Klerk called for a nonracist South Africa, breaking with the conservatives in his party. On February 11, 1990, he ordered Mandela’s release.

Mandela and de Klerk began working to end apartheid in South Africa and bring and end to the white-led government. Apartheid policies officially ended in 1991 and both Mandela and de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in bringing down apartheid. On April 26, 1994, more than 22 million South Africans turned out to cast ballots in the country’s first multiracial parliamentary elections in history. An overwhelming majority chose the ANC to lead the country, and on May 10 Mandela was sworn in as the first black president of South Africa, with de Klerk serving as his first deputy.

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.

Improving race relations, discouraging blacks from retaliating against the white minority and building a new international image of a united South Africa were central to President Mandela’s agenda. To these ends, he formed a multiracial “Government of National Unity” and proclaimed the country a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

The 1995 World Cup Soccer tournament was held in South Africa and used by Nelson Mandela as a tool to help unite blacks and whites in South Africa. The Hollywood movie, Invictus tells this story.

In a gesture seen as a major step toward reconciliation, he encouraged blacks and whites alike to rally around the predominantly white national rugby team when South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup.


Created with images by Public_Domain_Photography - "south africa south africa" • kishyr - "Qunu - Madiba's Hometown" • freedom-studios - "Cell Door" • kudumomo - "Mandela's cell" • - "Prison Room of Nelson Mandela Robben Island 4th Window" • Capisc - "Nelson mandela" • K. Kendall - "Great Moments in History" • @sebastian1906 - "RSA vs USA 64:0"

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