Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Before his election in 1994, he was an active participant in anti-apartheid activities, serving 27 years in prison, many spent with other incarcerated freedom fighters. He devoted his life to the service of humanity as a human rights lawyer, a prisoner of conscience, an international peacemaker.
He was born on 18 July 1918 into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. His mother was Nonqaphi Nosekeni, and his father was Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, principal counsellor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Nelson was given the name by which we all know him at primary school, following the custom of giving all schoolchildren “Christian” names.
He was expelled from university for joining a student protest, and when he returned home, his father was furious and threatened to marry him and his cousin off if he did not finish his Bachelor of Arts. So, Nelson ran away to the city of Johannesburg with his cousin in 1941, finding work as a security officer and then doing his articles to become a solicitor through a firm of lawyers. He completed his BA and graduated in 1943; however, he was not a brilliant student and did not obtain an LLB until 1989, during the final months of his imprisonment.
Mandela became involved in politics from 1942, joining the African National Congress in 1944 while helping to form the ANC Youth League and moving up through its ranks. He was an organiser of the Defiance Campaign against six unjust laws, resulting from which he and 19 others were charged. As a result, Nelson received a nine-month suspended sentence. However, his qualifications allowed him to practice law, and in 1952, he and Oliver Tambo set up South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo.
He became a restricted person in 1952 and was arrested and acquitted in a countrywide swoop in 1961. Nelson Mandela was arrested on several occasions and stood trial four times, eventually spending over 27 years of his life in prison. He was never deterred. In 1964, he said from the dock, “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.”
Mandela spent the first 18 of those 27 years as a prisoner at the brutal Robben Island Prison. He was kept in a tiny cell with no bed or plumbing and was forced to do hard labour in a quarry. He was only allowed to write and receive one letter once every six months, and he was allowed to meet with a visitor for 30 minutes only once a year. As time passed and the anti-apartheid movement grew, Mandela’s invisibility only added to his mythical status and helped transform him into an international icon. Carrying the image of Mandela or being overheard saying his name could result in torture and a prison sentence. Books about Mandela were banned – unless they portrayed him as a terrorist. Media organisations were prevented from reporting on him or using his pictures. Incredibly, his determination remained unbroken, and he continued to be the symbolic leader of the anti-apartheid movement. He also led a civil disobedience movement at the prison that forced South African officials into drastically improving the standard of living on Robben Island. He was later imprisoned in another location, where he lived under house arrest.
On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela, leader of the movement to end South African apartheid, was released from prison. The evening before his release, he was ushered into a secret meeting with South African President F.W. de Klerk for an amazing conversation. Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. “I thanked Mr. de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organisation could be prepared.”
What happened next? Well, according to Greg Myre in his article The Day Nelson Mandela Walked Out Of Prison: “Difficult days lay ahead. Political violence would claim more than 10,000 lives over the next four years, almost all of them blacks. Negotiations between de Klerk’s government and Mandela’s ANC stalled and broke down on multiple occasions before the country’s first all-race election that elevated Mandela to the presidency in 1994. But on that summer’s day in 1990, South Africa entered a new era, and Nelson Mandela was the man who led the way.”
On 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela, the first President of South Africa to be elected in a fully representative democratic election, and the country’s first black head of state, died at the age of 95 after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection.
In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared 18 July as “Nelson Mandela International Day”. Resolution A/RES/64/13 recognises Mandela’s values and his dedication to the service of humanity in conflict resolution; race relations; promotion and protection of human rights; reconciliation; gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups; the fight against poverty; the promotion of social justice. The resolution acknowledges his contribution to the struggle for democracy internationally and the promotion of a culture of peace throughout the world.
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” – Nelson Mandela.
In December 2015, in resolution A/RES/70/175, the General Assembly decided was decided to extend the scope of Nelson Mandela International Day to promote humane imprisonment, raise awareness about prisoners being a continuous part of society and to value the work of prison staff as a social service of particular importance. It was decided that the rules would to be known as “the Nelson Mandela Rules” to honour the legacy of the late President of South Africa.
South Africa celebrates Nelson Mandela Month from 1 to 31 July, while the rest of the world has 18 July, his birthday, on which to honour a great man who changed the world. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, a non-profit organisation, focused on memory, dialogue, and legacy work, was founded by Mr Mandela in 1999. This year, they are focusing on two pressing concerns facing this and many other countries – food insecurity and cultures of lawlessness