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Nelson Mandela
1918 -



As the world's most famous prisoner and, now, his country's leader, he exemplifies a moral integrity that shines far beyond South Africa


In a recent television broadcast BBC commentator Brian Walden argued that Nelson Mandela, "perhaps the most generally admired figure of our age, falls short of the giants of the past." Mandela himself argues that "I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances." Clearly, a changing world demands redefinition of old concepts.

In the revolution led by Mandela to transform a model of racial division and oppression into an open democracy, he demonstrated that he didn't flinch from taking up arms, but his real qualities came to the fore after his time as an activist — during his 27 years in prison and in the eight years since his release, when he had to negotiate the challenge of turning a myth into a man.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born deep in the black homeland of Transkei on July 18, 1918. His first name could be interpreted, prophetically, as "troublemaker." The Nelson was added later, by a primary school teacher with delusions of imperial splendour.

Mandela's boyhood was peaceful enough, spent on cattle herding and other rural pursuits, until the death of his father landed him in the care of a powerful relative, the acting regent of the Thembu people. But it was only after he left the missionary College of Fort Hare, where he had become involved in student protests against the white colonial rule of the institution, that he set out on the long walk toward personal and national liberation.

Having run away from his guardian to avoid an arranged marriage, he joined a law firm in Johannesburg as an apprentice. Years of daily exposure to the inhumanities of apartheid, where being black reduced one to the status of a non-person, kindled in him a kind of absurd courage to change the world. It meant that instead of the easy life in a rural setting he'd been brought up for, or even a modest measure of success as a lawyer, his only future certainties would be sacrifice and suffering, with little hope of success in a country in which centuries of colonial rule had concentrated all political and military power, all access to education, and most of the wealth in the hands of the white minority. The classic conditions for a successful revolution were almost wholly absent: the great mass of have-nots had been humbled into docile collusion, the geographic expanse of the country hampered communication and mobility, and the prospects of a race war were not only unrealistic but also horrendous.

In these circumstances Mandela opted for non-violence as a strategy. He joined the Youth League of the African National Congress and became involved in programs of passive resistance against the laws that forced blacks to carry passes and kept them in a position of permanent servility.

Exasperated, the government mounted a massive treason trial against its main opponents, Mandela among them. It dragged on for five years, until 1961, ending in the acquittal of all 156 accused. But by that time the country had been convulsed by the massacre of peaceful black demonstrators at Sharpeville in March 1960, and the government was intent on crushing all opposition. Most liberation movements, including the A.N.C., were banned. Earning a reputation as the Black Pimpernel, Mandela went underground for more than a year and traveled abroad to enlist support for the A.N.C.

Soon after his return, he was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island for five years; within months practically all the leaders of the A.N.C. were arrested. Mandela was hauled from prison to face with them an almost certain death sentence. His statement from the dock was destined to smolder in the homes and servant quarters, the shacks and shebeens and huts and hovels of the oppressed, and to burn in the conscience of the world: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. 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."

Without any attempt to find a legal way out, Mandela assumed his full responsibility. This conferred a new status of moral dignity on his leadership, which became evident from the moment he was returned to Robben Island. Even on his first arrival, two years before, he had set an example by refusing to obey an order to jog from the harbour, where the ferry docked, to the prison gates. The warden in charge warned him bluntly that unless he started obeying, he might quite simply be killed and that no one on the mainland would ever be the wiser. Whereupon Mandela quietly retorted, "If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse." Amazingly, the warden backed off. "Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose," Mandela later wrote in notes smuggled out by friends.

His major response to the indignities of the prison was a creative denial of victimhood, expressed most remarkably by a system of self-education, which earned the prison the appellation of "Island University." As the prisoners left their cells in the morning to toil in the extremes of summer and winter, buffeted by the merciless southeaster or broiled by the African sun (whose glare in the limestone quarry permanently impaired Mandela's vision), each team was assigned an instructor — in history, economics, politics, philosophy, whatever. Previously barren recreation hours were filled with cultural activities, and Mandela recalls with pride his acting in the role of Creon in Sophocles' Antigone.

After more than two decades in prison, confident that on some crucial issues a leader must make decisions on his own, Mandela decided on a new approach. And after painstaking preliminaries, the most famous prisoner in the world was escorted, in the greatest secrecy, to the State President's office to start negotiating not only his own release but also the nation's transition from apartheid to democracy. On Feb. 2, 1990, President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the A.N.C. and announced Mandela's imminent release.

Then began the real test. Every inch of the way, Mandela had to win the support of his own followers. More difficult still was the process of allaying white fears. But the patience, the wisdom, the visionary quality Mandela brought to his struggle, and above all the moral integrity with which he set about to unify a divided people, resulted in the country's first democratic elections and his selection as President.

The road since then has not been easy. Tormented by the scandals that pursued his wife Winnie, from whom he finally parted; plagued by corruption among his followers; dogged by worries about delivering on programs of job creation and housing in a country devastated by white greed, he has become a sadder, wiser man.

In the process he has undeniably made mistakes, based on a stubborn belief in himself. Yet his stature and integrity remain such that these failings tend to enhance rather than diminish his humanity. Camus once said one man's chains imply that we are all enslaved; Mandela proves through his own example that faith, hope and charity are qualities attainable by humanity as a whole. Through his willingness to walk the road of sacrifice, he has reaffirmed our common potential to move toward a new age.

And he is not deluded by the adulation of the world. Asked to comment on the BBC's unflattering verdict on his performance as a leader, Mandela said with a smile, "It helps to make you human."


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 non-violent 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 we Sizwe (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 we Sizwe 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 disasterous 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 former 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. Indeed, the question as Mandela's term drew near its end and Mandela neared his 80th birthday was ever more pointedly, "After Mandela, who?"


Personal Information

Full name, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela; born in 1918 in Umtata, Transkei, South Africa; son of Henry (a Tembu tribal chief) Mandela; married Evelyn Ntoko Mase (a nurse), 1944, divorced, 1956; married Nomzamo Winnie Madikileza (a social worker and political activist), June 14, 1958, divorced; married Graca Machel (lawyer), 1998; children: (first marriage) Thembi (a son; deceased), Makgatho (son), Makaziwe (daughter); (second marriage) Zenani (daughter), Zindziswa (daughter).
Education: Attended University College of Fort Hare and Witwatersrand University; University of South Africa, law degree, 1942.


Lawyer, political activist, and leader of the African National Congress, beginning in 1944. Joined African National Congress, 1944, became secretary and president of the Congress Youth League, 1944, and president of the Youth League, 1951-52; helped to draft ANC's Freedom Charter, 1955. Appointed honorary secretary of the All-African National Action Council, 1961; became head of Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), an underground paramilitary wing of the ANC, 1961. Sentenced to five years in prison for inciting Africans to strike and for leaving South Africa without a valid travel document, 1962; sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and treason, 1964; incarcerated in various penal institutions in South Africa, including Robben Island and Pollsmoor prison, 1962-90; released February 11, 1990; elected ANC president, 1991; elected president of South Africa, April 27, 1994; inaugurated, May 12, 1994. Left office, June 1999.

Life's Work

Nelson Mandela has spent a lifetime fighting for the rights of black South Africans, enduring trial and incarceration for his principles. A political prisoner in his native South Africa for more than 25 years, the eloquent and statesman-like Mandela became the human embodiment of the struggle against government-mandated discrimination. His courage and determination through decades of imprisonment galvanized not only South African blacks, but also concerned citizens on every continent. After his release from prison in 1990, Mandela reclaimed his position in the once-banned African National Congress (ANC) and fought tirelessly for democratic reform in his troubled homeland.

With his magnetic personality and calm demeanor, Mandela was widely regarded as the last best hope for conciliating a peaceful transition to a South African government that would enfranchise all of its citizens. "For whites," wrote John F. Burns in the New York Times, "a man once presented to them as a threat to everything they prize is now widely viewed as the best hope for a political settlement that will guarantee them a future. For blacks, Mr. Mandela has achieved a legendary stature, towering above most other leaders in the way that [Communist leader Vladimir] Lenin dominated the revolutionary cause in Russia, and [Prime Minister Winston] Churchill the fight for England's survival in World War II."

Time magazine contributor Richard Lacayo characterized Mandela as a figure who is "unique among heroes because he is a living embodiment of black liberation.... His soft-spoken manner and unflappable dignity bespeak his background as a lawyer, a single-minded political organizer and a longtime prisoner still blinking a bit in the spotlight." Lacayo continued: "For the many blacks who have begun to call themselves African Americans, [Mandela] is a flesh-and-blood exemplar of what an African can be. For Americans of all colors, weary of their nation's perennial racial standoffs, [he] offers the opportunity for a full-throated expression of their no less perennial hope for reconciliation."

Nelson Mandela could have lived a relatively comfortable life in obscurity had he wished. In 1918, he was born the son of a highly-placed tribal advisor in rural Umtata (later the black homeland of Transkei). As a youth Mandela spent his days farming and herding cattle. After the death of his father in 1930, the 12-year-old was sent to live with the chief of the Tembu tribe. There he impressed his elders with his quick intelligence and maturity. Many thought he would someday become chief himself.

Mandela's tribal name, Rolihlahla, means "one who brings trouble upon himself"--quite descriptive of the difficult path the young man chose when he reached adulthood. In his late teens Mandela renounced his hereditary right to the tribal chiefdom and entered college in pursuit of a law degree. He became a political activist in short order, and, in 1940, was expelled from University College at Fort Hare for leading a student strike. Soon thereafter, he moved closer to the commercial capital of Johannesburg, where he worked in the gold mines and studied law by correspondence course. He earned his law degree from the University of South Africa in 1942.

Mandela was 24 when he joined the ANC, a group that sought to establish social and political rights for blacks in South Africa. In 1944, Mandela and several friends founded a sub-group, the Congress Youth League, and adopted a platform calling for nonviolent protest and black African self-reliance and self-determination. The country Mandela and his Youth League comrades lived in was then, as it is now, populated primarily by blacks but governed completely by whites. Black citizens were legally discriminated against in housing, education, and economic opportunity; they could not vote, and they were subjected to numerous white-authored laws and restrictions. The Youth League responded to this racist political climate by calling for civil disobedience--nonviolent strikes and "stay-at-home" days in protest of no less than 600 apartheid laws.

From his position as a leader of the Youth League, Mandela helped to coordinate labor strikes and campaigns to defy the unjust laws. Unfortunately, the ANC protest rallies were often met by police brutality. In 1950, 18 blacks were killed during a labor walkout, and again, in 1952, a great number of protesters--including Mandela--were beaten and jailed for opposing the South African government. On that occasion Mandela received a nine-month suspended jail sentence and was ordered to resign from the ANC leadership. Refusing, he moved into underground work because he was forbidden to attend public meetings.

By the time Mandela reappeared in public in 1955, apartheid-- meaning "apartness" in the derivative dutch language spoken by South African whites known as Afrikaans--had been taken to extreme ends in South Africa. The government continued to tighten restrictions on its black non-citizens, creating segregated townships and "homelands" where blacks were forced to settle. Late in 1956, Mandela was arrested with 155 other anti-apartheid leaders and was charged with treason under a convenient anti-Communist statute. Freed on bail, Mandela mounted his own defense and practiced law on the side as the infamous "Treason Trial" dragged on and on. Although he was again banned from political activity, he persisted in his efforts for the cause of the ANC. He also found time to marry his second wife, a social worker named Nomzamo Winnie Madikileza. She too was a dedicated activist who supported her husband's efforts to end apartheid, and would later be jailed herself throughout much of his decades-long prison term.

Early in 1960, a demonstration in the Johannesburg suburb of Sharpeville turned violent when police killed 69 unarmed protesters. The massacre sparked nationwide outrage, and the government acted quickly to ban the ANC and some of its splinter groups. Mandela once again found himself detained by police without being charged with a crime. Sickened by the failure of the nonviolent protests, he quietly decided that more extreme measures needed to be taken against the white supremacist government. In a 1961 speech before the Pan-Africanist Conference in Ethiopia, he said: "Peace in our country must be considered already broken when a minority government maintains its authority over the majority by force and violence."

Meanwhile, the Treason Trial entered its final stages and proved to be an effective forum for Mandela's views. As his own defense attorney, Mandela mounted a spirited justification of the ANC's goals and methods. He insisted that his organization sought the franchise and equal rights for South Africans of all races, and he maintained that nonviolent disruptive tactics were the only means by which South African blacks could air their discontent. Mandela and his co-defendants were acquitted in 1961, but their ANC had been declared illegal. Although he was free to go about his business, Mandela realized that he could no longer conduct his "business" without breaking the law.

Forced underground, Mandela founded a new group, Umkonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), a guerrilla organization that directed sabotage actions against government installations and other symbols of apartheid. Mandela traveled throughout Africa seeking funds for his cause, at every turn eluding capture by South African security police. The hardships he faced affected his family as well, as Winnie Mandela remembered in People magazine. "He told me to anticipate a life physically without him, that there would never be a normal situation where he would be head of the family," Mrs. Mandela said. "He told me this in great pain. I was completely shattered."

The mass protests continued in South Africa, and the Spear of the Nation claimed responsibility for more than 70 acts of sabotage. On August 4, 1962, Mandela was arrested by South African police and charged with organizing illegal demonstrations. Once again he used his courtroom appearance as an opportunity to challenge the legality of South Africa's minority rule. His defense was masterful and eloquent, but he was nevertheless convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. While he was serving this sentence, the police connected him to Spear of the Nation and charged him with the more serious crimes of treason and sabotage. After yet another trial, he was sentenced to life in prison in June of 1964.

Mandela was sent to Robben Island, a prison seven miles off the coast of Cape Town. There he endured years of hard labor quarrying limestone and harvesting seaweed, while his wife faced almost constant police harassment at home. In the eyes of the South African government, Nelson Mandela had effectively ceased to exist. Mere discussions of his views or questions about his health were illegal, and he was allowed no contact with the outside world and few visitors. Mandela never lost faith in his cause, however--and the black people of South Africa never forgot their fearless hero. As his years of imprisonment dragged on, he assumed the mantle of martyrdom and became a symbol of a government's desperate efforts to maintain minority rule.

In 1982 Mandela was moved from Robben Island to the maximum security Pollsmoor Prison outside Cape Town. The authorities offered official administrative reasons for the move, but most observers agree that Mandela was simply exerting a powerful influence over the other inmates of Robben Island. Mandela spent much of the next six years in solitary confinement, bolstered by a weekly 30-minute visit with his wife. He was offered a conditional freedom in 1984--provided that he would settle in the black "homeland" of Transkei--but he absolutely refused this option, affirming his allegiance to the ANC. And the New York Times Biographical Service reported that P. W. Botha, then president of South Africa, offered Mandela complete freedom in 1985 in return for his renunciation of violence, "but he refused to do so until the government granted blacks full political rights."

Inevitably, Mandela's health deteriorated. In 1988 he was hospitalized with tuberculosis. After he recovered he returned to prison, but under somewhat more benign circumstances. By the late 1980s, social conditions in South Africa had become even more desperate, with violent confrontations between young blacks and government forces. The international tide was also turning against South Africa. Many private enterprises and national governments withdrew financial support for the beleaguered nation, and the resulting economic downturn literally forced the South African government to reconsider its dedication to apartheid. Finally, after 27 years, the white leadership heeded the calls from citizens of numerous nations to release the most important political prisoner of the late twentieth century, Nelson Mandela.

The winds of change were also spurred by the ascension of F. W. de Klerk to the presidency of South Africa after Botha suffered a mild stroke. Named as acting state president, de Klerk was elected to a five-year term as president in September of 1989. A reformer, de Klerk released several anti-apartheid leaders. According the New York Times Biographical Service, de Klerk then legalized the ANC and 60 other formerly banned organizations, "clearing the way for Mr. Mandela's release. Though apartheid and security laws remained in place, he said he was accepting freedom to work for peace."

In what was one of the most notable events of the year, the entire world watched on February 11, 1990, as Mandela--thin and gray but unbowed--walked out of Verster Prison. Writing about Mandela's release for the New York Times Biographical Service, Robert D. McFadden noted that "anyone could see that the years of prison had ravaged only the body, not the spirit; they had, if anything, solidified his resolve and raised his stature as the embodiment of black liberation." Indeed, cheering crowds met him at every turn in South Africa. Mandela told People, "I was completely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm. It is something I did not expect." In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he later added, "I saw a tremendous commotion and a great crowd of people, hundreds of photographers and television cameras and news people as well as thousands of well wishers. I was astounded and a bit alarmed. I had truly not expected such a scene."

Upon his release, Mandela quickly assumed a leadership position in the ANC, restored to legal status by the government. Within weeks he and his wife were traveling across their nation, calling for a truce in the armed struggle and open negotiations toward equal rights in South Africa. Before releasing him from prison, the South African government had repeatedly asked Mandela to renounce violence as a condition of his freedom whereupon he would always respond that he would not separate his freedom from that of his people. However, within six months of his release, Mandela officially suspended the ANC's armed struggle. This move alienated him from some of his previously most ardent supporters, forcing him to depend on the degree of cooperation he could both muster and maintain among the country's black majority.

The Mandelas also embarked on a world tour, during which Nelson was welcomed as a hero and a world leader. In July of 1990, Mandela brought his message to the United States, where he toured a series of big cities raising funds for his cause. He also asked the American government to continue imposing economic sanctions against South Africa until the complete dismantlement of apartheid.

Meanwhile, Mandela and the ANC continued to face enormous problems in South Africa, some of which involved murderous feuds between black factions and terrorist actions in the townships. During apartheid, blacks had absolutely no rights to organize or to vote. As most exiled leaders continued returning to South Africa, the ANC, under Mandela, began the enormous task of negotiating for a democratic, multi-party, non-racial government. It was during these negotiations that South Africa experienced one of the bloodiest crisis in a short period of time.

Clashes between ANC supporters and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, led by Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, escalated and more than 6,000 people were killed between 1990 and 1991. The turmoil was compounded by hardliner whites within the Defense Force, the police, and the Afrikaner Resistance Movement--militant white right wing supremacists led by Eugene Terreblanche. Terreblanche believed President de Klerk was selling out to the blacks. His group demanded their own Afrikaner state or volkstaat within the borders of South Africa.

Time correspondent Michael S. Serrill noted that the violence in his nation forced Mandela to face a sobering reality: "he may have wielded more moral authority as the world's most famous prisoner than he does as a political leader in his ... freedom." Serrill continued: "To some South African blacks ... Mandela out of prison has become an irrelevant figurehead, a dignified gentleman with utopian socialist ideas that have little to do with their daily lives.... Mandela's damaged stature has achieved an important aim of [the] white government: to demystify the ANC and make clear that Mandela is only one of many black players."

Those who figured Mandela, an amateur heavyweight boxer in his youth, was down and out for the count were vastly mistaken, however. In July of 1991, the ANC held its first full convention in South Africa, and Mandela was elected president of the organization. By the end of the year, a number of the political parties--except the militant white right wing, which still insisted on a separate state--took part in a Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA). Despite a pact to end factional fighting endorsed by the government, the ANC, and Inkatha, killing continued and on several occasions talks broke down. At one point, the ANC even withdrew from CODESA. A breakthrough came a few weeks later when Mandela and de Klerk signed the "Record of Understanding," stipulating that a single, freely elected constitutional assembly would serve as a transitional legislature and would draft a new constitution. Though the agreement met several key ANC demands, Buthelezi withdrew his Inkatha Freedom Party from negotiations.

Major hurdles were overcome by the end of 1993, moving the nation close to free and fair elections. Notable progress included the formation of a transitional Executive Council, which was charged with overseeing some aspects of government, including security. Meanwhile, April 27, 1994, was selected as the date for the much anticipated, first-ever democratic elections. A few days before the elections, the Inkatha Party agreed to participate after Buthelezi's appeal to delay the elections was rejected by all concerned parties, clearly leaving Inkatha very little time to campaign. In the meantime, Mandela officially entered the race and campaigned freely.

As polls opened on election day, long lines of people were scattered throughout the country. In the black townships, some waited for several hours in order to exercise the right to vote for the first time in their lives. When the final tally was assessed, the ANC had picked up 62.6 percent of the vote, de klerk earned 20.3 percent, and the Inkatha Party garnered 10.5 percent, with the rest divided amongst smaller factions. Nelson Mandela had unanimously won the presidency of the Republic of South Africa, a nation whose racist government he had opposed and fought most of his life.

On May 12, 1994, after de Klerk's graceful concession speech, Mandela addressed a cheering crowd with Coretta Scott King on stage with him. Echoing the sentiments of her slain husband, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela's proclamation was reprinted in Ebony: "This is one of the most important moments in the life of our country. I stand here before you filled with deep pride and joy-- pride in the ordinary, humble people of this country. You have shown such calm, patient determination to reclaim this country as your own, and now the joy that we can loudly proclaim from the rooftops: `Free at last! Free at last.' I stand before you humbled by your courage, with a heart full of love for all of you." Mandela went on to state, "I am your servant. It is not the individuals that matter, but the collective. This is the time to heal the old wounds and build a new South Africa."

Following his inauguration, Mandela appointed a cabinet that included members of the Inkatha Freedom Party and the National (white) Party. Government officials also held discussions with the right wing Conservative Party and the fascist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, prompting Patrick Laurence to write in Africa Report, "Even if Mandela achieves little more before he retires, he will have won a special niche in South African history as the dignified, white-haired patriarch who won the respect of his political enemies." Still, in 1996, de Klerk and members of his party resigned their cabinet positions to allow themselves time to organize as an effective opposition party.

Mandela's national unity government began drafting a program of reconstruction and development aimed at meeting some of the concerns of the long disenfranchised black population. Mandela, cognizant that many years and generations would pass before the deep wounds of apartheid were remedied, cautioned his people not to expect change overnight. Ebony quoted him as saying, "You won't be driving a Mercedes ... or swimming in your own backyard pool [anytime soon]." Instead the statesman was focused on such issues as health, housing, education, and the development of public utilities, economic stability.

Social conditions in South Africa also screamed for attention. Detroit News reporter Jeffrey Herbst suggested that "one of the greatest tragedies of apartheid--the presence of an entire generation uneducated during the 1980s--further aggravates criminality." He went on to report that the South African crime rate had soared, particularly in Johannesburg, where a wave of violent assaults and carjackings affected business and scared tourists away. The same article noted that South Africa's murder rate was estimated to be 10 times that of the United States, and an increase in money laundering and drug shipments had occurred. Crime and affirmative action spurred "white flight;" unemployment skyrocketed, and the value of the rand (South African currency) plunged. In July of 1996, a poll showed support for the ANC dropping from 60 percent in 1994 to 53 percent in July of 1996. But in 1999, the ANC won 66% of the popular vote in the National Assembly.

Since 1955, when the ANC published its Freedom Charter, the group's aims have changed little. Its political objectives include a unified South Africa with no artificial homelands, a black representation along with all other races in a central parliament, and a one-man, one-vote democracy in a multi-party system. That much has been accomplished.

Before becoming president, Mandela was much criticized for embracing and expressing his support for such notorious international figures as the Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasir Arafat, Cuba's Fidel Castro, and Libya's Muamar Qaddafi. According to the New York Times Biographical Service, Mandela retorted to his detractors on this issue, "What concerns me is the foreign policy of those countries, especially in so far as it relates to us [South Africa]. Those countries who are committed to assisting the anti-apartheid forces in our country are our friends."

In keeping with that criteria, Mandela's cabinet passed a provisional approval of arms sales to Syria, prompting to the Clinton administration, in 1997, to threaten suspending U.S. aid to South Africa. Without question, relations between the United States and Mandela's South Africa were important to both sides. In a speech in New York City during the summer of 1990, Mandela thanked the American people for taking such an interest in him and his struggle. "You, the people, never abandoned us," he said." From behind the granite walls, political prisoners could hear loud and clear your voice of solidarity.... We are winning because you made it possible."

Mandela proved himself to be a good negotiator and his presidency was considered successful. Mandela retired from office in June 1999 to make way for his vice-president, Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki won the election and was inaugurated as president on June 16, 1999.

Mandela did not ease into a quiet retirement after leaving office. He instead proved himself an influential statesman by acting as mediator in peace talks in Burundi in 1999, and in negotiations in 2000 between Libya and Western powers over the 1988 Lockerbie, Scotland, bombing, resulting in an end to a seven-year stalemate. Mandela divorced Winnie in 1996 after her part in civil violence was made know, but remarried on his 80th birthday in 1998 to Graca Machel.

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 should 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." And although U.S. Vice-President Cheney had recommended against releasing Mandela from jail in 1986 on the grounds that the South African leader 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. In 2005, Mandela faced perhaps his greatest tragedy when his son, Makgatho, died of AIDS.

Mandela announced his son's death in a press conference and urged South Africans to be more open about the disease. In March of 2005 Mandela hosted a concert in George, South Africa, to raise money for South African women with HIV. Performers at the concert, which was called "46664" after Mandela's number while he was in prison, included Will Smith, Annie Lennox, and Queen. In 2005 Mandela made his fifth trip to the White House where he was received by President George Bush. While he was in America, on May 12, 2005, Mandela, addressed Amherst College students and faculty in New York. He discussed the importance of U.S. universities improving their methods of educating talented students of modest means. He received an honorary degree from the college at St. Bartholomew's Church in New York.


Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding from the government of India, 1980; Bruno Kreisky Prize for Human Rights from the government of Austria, 1981; named an honorary citizen of Rome, 1983; Simon Bolivar International Prize from UNESCO, 1983; W. E. B. DuBois Medal, 1986; Nobel Peace Prize, 1987; Liberty Medal, 1987; Sakharov Prize, 1988; Gaddaff Human Rights Prize, 1989; Houphouet Prize, 1991; Nobel Peace Prize, 1993; numerous international honorary degrees, including honorary doctorate degree, Open University, Cape Town, 2004; honorary degree, Amherst College, New York, 2005.


Selected Writings

* No Easy Walk to Freedom, Basic Books, 1965.
* The Struggle Is My Life, Pathfinder Press, 1986.
* Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela, Little, 1994.










This web page was last updated on: 13 December, 2008