Biography of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Name: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
Bith Date: 1918
Death Date:
Place of Birth:
Nationality: South African
Gender: Male
Occupations: president, leader
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (born 1918) was a South African resistance leader who, after years of imprisonment for opposing apartheid, emerged to become the first president of a black-majority-ruled South Africa and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The father of Nelson Mandela was a Xhosa chief in the Transkei, where Mandela was born. He studied law at Witwatersrand University and set up practice in Johannesburg in 1952. The years between 1951 and 1960 were marked by turbulence. The younger nationalists, led by Mandela and others, were coming to the view that nonviolent demonstrations against apartheid invited state violence against the Africans. There was also criticism of the type of collaboration with the non-Africans which the African National Congress (ANC) practiced. These nationalists were not unanimous on the alternative to nonviolence.

Unlike the young leaders with whom he grew up, Mandela was ready to try every possible technique to destroy apartheid peacefully, though he, too, realized the futility of nonviolence in view of the conditions which prevailed in his country. His attitude enabled him to support Albert Luthuli when some of the militants walked out of the ANC.

Mandela had joined the ANC in 1944, at a time of crisis for the movement. Its younger members had opposed African participation in World War II and had demanded the declaration of South Africa's war aims for the black people. The Old Guard, led by Dr. Alfred Batini Xuma, was reluctant to embarrass the Jan Smuts government by pressing the African people's demands for the abolition of segregation. The militants, led by Anton M. Lembede, formed the ANC Youth League in 1943. Mandela was elected its president in 1951 and campaigned extensively for the repeal of discriminatory laws. He was appointed volunteer in chief in the resistance movement which the ANC led in 1951-1952, and he was subsequently banned for 6 months and later sentenced to 9 months for his leadership of the defiance campaign.

Mandela was one of the leaders arrested with Luthuli and charged with treason in 1956. The case against him and others collapsed in 1961. He was arrested again during the state of emergency which followed the Sharpeville shootings in 1960. Both the Pan-Africanist Congress, which had organized the demonstrations which led to the shootings, and the ANC were banned.

Sharpeville had made it clear that the days of nonviolent resistance were over. A semi-underground movement, the All-African National Action Council, came into being in 1961. Mandela was appointed its honorary secretary and later became head of Umkhonto weSizwe (the Spear of the Nation), which used sabotage in its fight against apartheid.

Mandela traveled for a while in free Africa. On his return he was arrested for leaving the country illegally and for inciting the Africans to strike in protest against the establishment of the Republic of South Africa. He was sentenced to 5 years in jail. At the trial, he told the court, "I want at once to make it clear that I am not a racialist and do not support any racialism of any kind, because to me racialism is a barbaric thing whether it comes from a black man or a white man."

Mandela subsequently figured in the Rivonia trial with other leaders of Umkhonto weSizwe on a charge of high treason and was given a life sentence, which he began serving on Robben Island.

During the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison, hidden from the eyes of the world while he quarried limestome and harvested seaweed, his example of quiet suffering was just one of numerous pressures on the apartheid government. Public discussion of Mandela was illegal, and he was allowed few visitors. But as the years dragged on, he assumed the mantle of a martyr. In 1982 Mandela was moved to the maximum security Pollsmoor Prison outside Cape Town. This move apparently stemmed from fears by the South African authorities that Mandela was exerting too great an influence on the other prisons at Robben Island. Mandela spent much of the next six years in solitary confinement, during which he was allowed a weekly 30-minute visit by his wife, Winnie. He was offered a conditional freedom in 1984 on the condition that he settle in the officially designated black "homeland" of Transkei, an offer Mandela refused with an affirmation of his allegiance to the African National Congress. In 1988, Mandela was hospitalized with tuberculosis, and after his recovery he was returned to prison under somewhat less stringent circumstances. By this time, the situation within South Africa was becoming desperate for the ruling powers. Civil unrest had spread, and international boycotts and diplomatic pressures were increasing. More and more, South Africa was isolated as a racist state. It was against this backdrop that F.W. de Klerk, the President of South Africa and leader of the white-dominated National party, finally heeded the calls from around the world to release Mandela.

On Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela, grey and thin but standing erect and appearing in surprisingly good health, walked out of Verster Prison. He received tumultuous welcomes wherever he went. He visited the United States in July 1990 to raise funds for his cause and received overwhelming acclaim at every turn. In 1991 Mandela assumed the presidency of the African National Congress, by then restored to legal status by the government. Both Mandela and deKlerk realized that only a compromise between whites and blacks could avert a disastrous civil war in South Africa. In late 1991 a multiparty Convention for a Democratic South Africa convened to establish a Democratic government. Mandela and deKlerk led the negotiations, and their efforts later won them the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In September 1992 the two leaders signed a Record of Understanding that created a freely elected constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution and act as a transition government. On April 27, 1994, the first free elections open to all South African citizens were held. The ANC won over 62 percent of the popular vote and Mandela was elected president.

Mandela's agenda as president consisted of defusing the still dangerous political differences and building up the South African economy. The former he attempted to achieve by forming a coalition cabinet with representatives of different groups included. The latter he attempted to attain by inviting new investment from abroad, setting aside some government contracts for black entrepreneurs, and initiating action to return to blacks land seized in 1913. Mandela ran into some personal sorrow during this period in the downfall of his wife, Winnie. After all his years of imprisonment, the Mandelas were separated in 1993 and divorced in 1996. Mandela had appointed his then-wife to his cabinet, but she was forced to exit in 1995 after evidence of her complicity in civil violence was revealed.

However, Mandela's presidency for the most part was successful to a remarkable degree. Mandela's skill as a consensus builder, plus his enormous personal authority, helped him lead the transition to a majority democracy and what promised to be a peaceful future. He backed the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered amnesty to those who had committed crimes during the apartheid era in the interests of clearing up the historical record. The elderly statesman even gave rise to a new style of dress in South Africa known as "Madiba smart." "Madiba" was Mandela's Xhosa clan title, by which he was informally known. And "smart" was local slang for nicely turned out. The style became popular after Mandela traded his business suits for brightly patterned silk shirts, carefully buttoned at the neck and wrists, worn with dress slacks and shoes.

Mandela without question was both the leading political prisoner of the late 20th century and one of Africa's most important reformers. The man who spent nearly three decades in prison out of dedication to his cause became an international symbol of human rights. That he proved to be an effective negotiator and practical politician as well only added to his reputation and proved a blessing to his nation. Mandela retired from the presidency in June 1999, choosing not to challenge Thabo Mbeki, his vice president, in elections. Mbeki won the election in another strong showing for the ANC and was inaugurated as president on June 16, 1999. Mandela quickly took on the role of statesman after leaving office, acting as mediator in the peace process in Burundi in 1999, and in negotiations to end a stalemate between Libya and Western powers over the 1988 Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing in 2000.

Mandela also proved to be a man of surprises on his 80th birthday in 1998. He appeared at his birthday party with his new wife Graca Machel, whom he had married that very day.

Mandela's office announced on July 16, 2000, that a power-sharing agreement aimed at ending the conflict between the Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebels in Burundi would be signed by the end of August. Mandela was facilitating negotiations to try to end Burundi's seven-year civil war.

On December 2, 2000, Mandela received a lifetime achievement award from the Congress of South African Trade Unions. The organization is the largest trade federation in South Africa. Mandela was honored for his contribution to the struggle of workers. During his presidency, the government introduced legislation requiring workplace safety, overtime pay and minimum wages.

In 2002, the 84-year-old Mandela was in the news after he condemned the United State's attitude toward Iraq, referred to the U.S. vice-president as a dinosaur, and accused the U.S. of threatening world peace. On President George W. Bush's war of terrorism, Mandela said, "If you look at these matters, you will come to the conclusion that the attitude of the United States of America is a threat to world peace." Although U.S. Vice-President recommended against releasing Mandela from jail in 1986 on the grounds that the South African supported terrorism, Mandela insisted he was not motivated by any sense of revenge when he said, "Quite clearly we are dealing with an arch-conservative in Dick Cheney ... my impression of the president is that this is a man with whom you can do business. But it is the men around him who are dinosaurs, who do not want him to belong to the modern age."

In late 2002, a group of South African businessmen announced a plan to build a 210-ft statue of Mandela--larger than the Statue of Liberty--in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The project was expected to create 9,000 jobs, and plans were to use melted-down guns in the statue's steel frame.

Further Reading

  • Mandela's address to the court when he was tried for leaving the country without the necessary documents remains an important statement of his views on South Africa's race question. Marion Friedmann reproduced parts of the address in her book, I Will Still Be Moved: Reports from South Africa (1963). Additional statements of Mandela are in No Easy Walk to Freedom: Articles, Speeches and Trial Addresses (1965), edited by Ruth First. For further background see Mary Benson, Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement (1986); Ronald Harwood, Mandela (1988); Sheridan Johns and R. Hunt Davis, Jr., editors, Mandela, Tambo, & the African National Congress: The Struggle Against Apartheid, 1948-1990: A Documentary Study (1991); Nelson Mandela, Mandela: An Illustrated Autobiography (1996); Leo Kuper, Passive Resistance in South Africa (1957); Mary Benson, The African Patriots: The Story of the African National Congress in South Africa (1963); and Martin Meredith, Nelson Mandela: A Biography (1998).

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