The iconic figure of the struggle against apartheid, Nelson Mandela won the hearts of South Africa and the world. Feb. 11, 2010, marks the 20th anniversary of his release from jail, after 27 years in the grip of the racist system he helped destroy.
Born into a royal clan on July 18, 1918, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, Nelson Mandela remains to this day an enduring and emblematic leader even as he has progressively retreated from the public spotlight.
Though his birth name, Rolihlahla, means “troublemaker”, Mandela is most widely admired for leading a scarred South Africa into the post-apartheid era and for embracing the principle of racial harmony.
Mandela's historic walk re-enacted
In the 1940s, Mandela became interested in African nationalism and non-violent resistance while studying law at the University of Fort Hare. Later, while working as a law clerk, he became active in the African National Congress (ANC), eventually becoming the party’s vice president as the regime continued to enforce apartheid.
Mandela married Winnei Madikizela in 1958, and the marriage was to last about 34 years.
In 1960, after a bloody crackdown on anti-apartheid protesters, the ANC – at that point banned by the ruling government – decided that it was time to take up arms. Mandela was involved in laying out sabotage plots against government and military targets and planning a guerrilla resistance. Accused of conspiring against the South African government, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison at the Rivonia trial in 1964. Along with seven other ANC members, Mandela was dispatched to Robben Island, off Cape Town.
In his now famous “I am prepared to die” statement, which he delivered from the dock at the opening of the Rivonia Trial, Mandela said, “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.”
It was his closing lines and it was to play a critical role in rallying anti-apartheid protesters during his 27-year imprisonment.
In 1982, after spending nearly 20 years at Robben Island, from where he earned a law degree through correspondence education, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in a suburb of Cape Town, along with other ANC figures. Six years later, he was shifted to the Victor Verster Prison and would remain there until his release.
Free Nelson Mandela!
Throughout his imprisonment, local and international pressure mounted on the South African government to release him. But the late1980s, the campaign to release Mandela reached a fevered, global pitch with demonstrators across the world’s major cities rallying to the slogan, “Free Nelson Mandela!”
The dream turned into a reality in February 1990, when President Frederik De Klerk, who had succeeded from President P.W. Botha the year before, announced Mandela’s release.
Shortly after his release, Mandela entered into negotiations with the South African government. Those negotiations earned Mandela and De Klerk a joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
On April 27, 1994, Mandela emerged victorious from South Africa’s first multi-racial elections, and vowed to construct a "rainbow nation at peace with itself and with the world”. He established the “Truth and Reconciliation” commission with the aspiration of resolving the gaping wounds left by apartheid and moving towards national unity.
This absence of anger about injustices suffered personally and by many of his fellow countrymen is Mandela’s best-known characteristic.
At the end of his term in 1999, Mandela retired from political life.
Evoking the wide-reaching symbolic value of Nelson Mandela’s life and actions, South African cleric Desmond Tutu, the first black archbishop of Cape Town and a relentless opponent of racial segregation, called the man “a global icon of reconciliation”.