Today marks what would have been the 100th birthday of Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa, who also played a fundamental role in the removal of the apartheid system in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela’s life was difficult, but one which catapulted him into greatness. As a teenager studying Law at the University of Witwatersrand in the 1940s, he became enthralled with the movement against racial discrimination, so he joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944.
Mandela’s dedication to the ANC intensified following on from the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National party, which implemented racial classification and apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid restricted the rights of anyone that was not white in South Africa, from the people they could associate with to the schools they could attend. Therefore, Mandela and the ANC launched the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952. As part of the campaign, the ANC travelled across the country to organise peaceful protests and promote the Freedom Charter. The charter sought a “South Africa that belongs to all who live in it, black and white” and equality in human rights to relationships.
The passive nature of the ANC did not please some members, who created a militant faction called the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959. Mandela did not want to solicit violence, until a peaceful protest in Sharpeville, 1960, resulted in the death of 69 people by the police. The ANC and PAC were banned, resulting in their underground mission to enact change via a radical approach.
In 1960, Mandela co-founded the Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a new armed wing of the ANC, who Mandela was going to train in guerrilla tactics he learnt illegally in Algeria, two years later. The discovery of an ANC hideout in Rivonia, Johannesburg, led to the arrests of several members of the MK and the sentencing of Mandela to life imprisonment. However, Mandela was ready to spend the rest of his life behind bars, as his ideal for “a democratic and free society” was an ideal “for which [he] was prepared to die.”
Mandela served 18 of his 27 year life sentence at the Robben Island Prison, where he was subjected to violent and regular punishments and could only see his wife every 6 months, yet still encouraged fellow inmates to use non-violent methods to gain better treatment. The 1980 “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign made Mandela a household name internationally, and he was freed in 1990 by the newly elected president, F. W. de Klerk.
Mandela led negotiations with the no- longer banned ANC for an end to apartheid, and the creation of a multiracial government. His work did not go unnoticed, with de Klerk and himself earning the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993. Mandela was elected president in 1994, after an election which cast over 22 million ballots, and served in this role until 1999.
Some of Mandela’s policies as president include setting up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights and political violations, and economic and social reforms for Black citizens. The unity of Black and White South Africans at the 1995 World cup, which South Africa hosted, was symbolic of Mandela’s status as the champion of “a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
Mandela’s retirement from politics did not diminish his energy in the fight for peace and justice. In 2002, Mandela became a voice for the AIDS epidemic and set up several organisations to provide global aid. His death in December 2013 from a lung infection shocked the world, but his legacy still lives on in the hearts of many in every corner of the world.