The life achievements of Nelson Mandela

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The life achievements of Nelson Mandela
During his imprisonment from 1964 to 1990, Nelson Mandela became the most famous face of the anti-apartheid movement. (Getty Premium Images)

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this 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."

— Nelson Mandela, "Statement from the Dock," 1964

Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa and leader of the African National Congress (ANC), is one of Africa's best-known and most-respected political leaders. From his early days as a student protester to his decades in prison for attacking South Africa's white-only government, he rose to become the foremost symbol of the South African people's struggle for self-determination. His election as President in 1994 made him a symbol of national unity, a role he continued following the end of his term in 1999.


Although his is best known by his English name, Nelson Mandela was given the name Rolihlahla as a child. The European-style name didn't make an appearance until he went to a Methodist school. With his baptism came a new name. Although "Mandela" is his family name, he is also often called "Madiba," the name of his clan. Clan names are very important in traditional Xhosa society.

Mandela received a high-quality education in his early years; his family were hereditary royal councillors to the paramount chief of the Thembu people. After arriving at the University College of Fort Hare, however, Mandela began to show that he would take a different path. He was suspended from university for taking part in a student demonstration -- although this demonstration was about the quality of student meals rather than the rights of man.

Unwilling to go through with an arranged marriage at home, Mandela left Thembuland for Johannesburg, where he began working in a law firm. During this period, he became acquainted with other South Africans of all races who were in favour of increased rights for black South Africans. Mandela joined the African National Congress and helped to found its Youth League.

The early years of struggle

The life achievements of Nelson Mandela
(Getty Premium Images)

The 1948 South African general election was a turning point in the history of the nation. The right-wing National Party came to power, promising to crack down on the political aspirations of black South Africans, which they linked to the growing threat of Soviet Communism. Explicitly supporting a doctrine of racial separation -- "apart-ness" in Afrikaans -- the National Party imposed a series of ever more severe restrictions on the rights of black South Africans. In response, the ANC began to step up its campaign of resistance. Mandela would be at the forefront of the conflict.

In 1952, Mandela was chosen to head up the ANC's programme of protests and civil disobedience against the regime. This plan, known as the Defiance Campaign, saw small groups of volunteers publicly violating the apartheid laws by entering restricted areas, using whites-only facilities and breaking curfews. Over 8,000 volunteers were arrested during this period. Some were fined or given short prison sentences; others were whipped. Mandela was tried for his role in the campaign but given a suspended sentence. In 1952 he opened South Africa's first black law firm, together with friend and fellow ANC leader Oliver Tambo.

The South African government's efforts to suppress protests -- and violent riots which were breaking out alongside them -- did not stop, and in in 1956 Mandela was arrested together with a large number of ANC leaders. The famous 1956 Treason Trial dragged on for years; it was not until 1961 that Mandela and the other defendants were acquitted, delivering a serious blow to the government's prestige.

Following the trial, Mandela was instrumental in founding Umkhonto weSizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), an armed group associated with both the ANC and the Communist Party. Umkhonto weSizwe -- MK for short -- carried out a series of attacks against the government in 1961 and 1962. Its leaders were arrested in 1963 and, together with Mandela, who had already been jailed on a separate charge, tried.

It was during this trial that Mandela gave one of his best-known speeches, the famous "statement from the dock" in which he outlined the principles of his political thought, denied the charge that he was a communist, and defended the right of the people of South Africa to use force in their struggle for freedom. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Mandela in prison

Mandela's time in prison took him out of the immediate struggle between the ANC and the government. He and his fellow MK leaders were imprisoned in harsh conditions on Robben Island, allowed few visitors and forced to work breaking rocks or quarrying lime. Mandela's eyesight suffered permanently from the effects of this labour.

Conditions for Mandela and his fellow prisoners were bad throughout the 1960s, but as time went on he was able to exert more and more influence. During the 1970s he corresponded with other anti-apartheid leaders, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. By 1980 his imprisonment had become a worldwide scandal. As violence increased, many believed that Mandela's iconic status within the anti-apartheid movement and public commitment to racial harmony meant that he could help calm the tensions that were erupting in South Africa. Even governments which were firmly allied with the apartheid regime, like Margaret Thatcher's British government, eventually began to call on South Africa to release him.

Mandela's jail sentence had made him a living symbol of the cruelty and injustice of the apartheid regime. By the late 1980s, the government was secretly negotiating with Mandela while still imprisoning him, hoping that he could use his prestige to prevent ANC violence. Mandela refused, maintaining that the government needed also to renounce its violent methods of suppressing political protest.

By 1989, many, even within the National Party, believed that apartheid was unsustainable. When President P.W. Botha suffered a stroke, his replacement, F.W. de Klerk, began to move toward reconciliation between the government and the ANC. Mandela was released in early 1990 after 27 years in prison.

Victory at last

The life achievements of Nelson Mandela
Free at last... (Getty Premium Images)

With Mandela out of prison and the ANC legalised, the days of the apartheid regime were numbered. Mandela became head of the ANC and entered into negotiations with de Klerk regarding the end of apartheid; both men were awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their work. 1994 saw the first South African election in which people of all races could vote freely; Mandela was overwhelmingly elected President.

Prior to becoming President, Mandela had promised to serve only a single term. He kept this promise, stepping down in 1999. Mandela formed a "Government of National Unity," which included not only ANC members but also politicians from the National Party and the rival Inkatha Freedom Party. Mandela devoted his energy toward reconciliation between former enemies.

Mandela's government was also concerned with making government services more available to communities which had been excluded from them under apartheid. This meant improving access to health care, clean water, education and electricity, all amenities which the white community had taken for granted but which had been denied to black South Africans. Land reform saw the restoration of confiscated land to many. A new constitution was approved in 1996, although the National Party withdrew from the government in protest.

After completing his term in 1999, Mandela was succeeded by his deputy Thabo Mbeki. He devoted his time to charitable work. The Nelson Mandela Foundation focuses on fighting HIV and AIDS in South Africa as well as developing rural areas of the country and building schools. Mandela also lent his international prestige to the Mandela-Rodes Foundation, which provides scholarship for African postgraduate students.

In 2004, Mandela announced that he was "retiring from retirement," reducing his travel schedule and media involvement. He remains South Africa's best-loved public figure, regarded as a hero of the fight against apartheid and a statesman of great political and moral wisdom.

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