Nelson Mandela
(Created by Michelle L. Bolden, History 135, July 1998)
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Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela
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What combination of policies and events caused the previously nonviolent Nelson Mandela to reverse his position in order to gain multi-racial democracy for South Africa?

Nelson Rohihlahia (stirring up trouble) Mandela was born on 18 July 1918, near Umtata, in the Transkei region of South Africa.  His father was Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe.  Mandela was trained to become the next chief to rule his tribe, but he was also a determined student and eventually joined an all black college, Fort Hare, where he was expelled for joining a student boycott.  He later obtained an arts degree in Johannesburg and studied law at the University of Witwatersrand.
Before apartheid,  South Africa had a long history of racial segregation.  In 1910 parliamentary membership was limited to whites, and legislation was passed in 1913 to restrict ownership of land by blacks.  The African National Congress (ANC) had been formed in 1910 to fight these policies.  In 1944, the ANC President Alfred B. Xuma started recruiting younger and more outspoken members like Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela, the first members of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
In 1949, the Programme of Action was written by the ANCYL and adopted by the ANC which advocated boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and noncooperation to achieve its goals.  Mandela also co-authored the "ANCYL programme", which called for full citizenship, direct parliamentary representation, land redistribution, trade union rights, education and cultural equality for all South Africans.  This was followed by the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, calling for mass disobedience starting with volunteers and involving more and more ordinary people.  Mandela traveled the country organizing resistance to discriminatory legislation, often referred to as the "Black Pimpernal" by the press because of the disguises he used to avoid police.  Mandela was arrested for these actions and convicted of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act.  He was given a suspended sentence, prohibited from gatherings and confined to Johannesburg for six months.  It was during this confinement that Mandela passed the attorney's admissions examination, and he and his long time friend, Oliver Tambo, opened the country's first black law partnership with the help of Walter Sisulu.
Apartheid had become the official political policy in 1948, which caused membership in the ANC to greatly increase.  After the Sharpville massacre in 1960, when police killed 69 and wounded 180 unarmed African pass protesters, Mandela convinced the nonviolent ANC to form a military wing, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which soon launched a campaign of sabotage against the government.  At the same time, the government banned all black political organizations to include the ANC and kept a close watch on Mandela.  In 1962, Mandela left the country to train militarily. Upon his return, he was arrested for leaving the country and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and two years later sentenced to life for treason and sabotage in the Rivonia Trial.  (It has been alleged by many--though never conclusively proven--that the CIA tipped off the South African government about Mandela being out of the country and that this is how the government knew when and where to arrest him upon his return in 1962.  The evidence includes London newspaper reports in The Guardian on 15 August 1986 and The Times on 4 August 1986.)  By the end of the 1960s, opponents to apartheid were being arrested at the rate of 600,000 per year.
Nelson Mandela spent 1964 to 1982 incarcerated in the maximum security prison on Robben Island, then moved to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and finally to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.   Mandela's reputation grew steadily during his prison years, and he was often looked up to by fellow inmates.  The government often offered Mandela a pardon if he would settle down in Transkei, but P.W. Botha offered the pardon only if Mandela agreed to denounce violence.  Mandela's steadfast refusal to compromise his political position to obtain freedom, made him a leading symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.
The ANC became an underground organization from the 1960s to the mid 1980s, while the government continued to implement a series of reforms to further oppress South Africans.  These actions were criticized internationally and helped to win anti-apartheid favor around the world.  By the late 1980s, the mass democratic movement pushed the white leaders of South Africa to engage in conversations with exhiled ANC leaders in 1988 and 1989.  President F.W. de Klerk made the decision to release Nelson Mandela in February of 1990 after he had spent 27 years in prison.   The ANC's consistent principle of non-racial democracy created a basis for trust, which led to further talks between political parties, black and white.  A transitional constitution was then developed at the World Trade Center in Johannesburg from 1991 to 1993, and this led to a new Government of National Unity.  Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their efforts in negotiating an end to apartheid.  In 1994 multi-racial elections occurred, and Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa.
Mandela dedicated his life to the struggle of ending apartheid policies in South Africa, never wavering from his position to seek equality for all races to include whites, and he has given more of himself in doing so than most activists.  Yet, he remains a modest man who shows a total lack of bitterness or revenge for the years of lost freedom, his lost family and the loss of so much life.  It is these qualities which make Nelson Mandela one of the great moral and political leaders of our time.

  • 1910, South Africa's parliamentary membership limited to whites.
  • 1912, the African National Congress (ANC), a nonviolent civil rights group promoting the interests of black Africans, was founded.
  • 18 July 1918, Nelson Mandela was born in Umtata, the Transkei region of South Africa.
  • 1944, Mandela joined the ANC Youth League.
  • 1948, Apartheid became the official political policy of South Africa.  Laws classified people according to racial groups, determined where each group was to live, prohibited social contact between races and denied representation of non-whites in the national government.  Nelson Mandela became actively engaged in apartheid activities.
  • 1949, ANC adopted a nonviolent Programme of Action.
  • 1952, Mandela opened the first black law partnership in South Africa.
  • 1952, Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws launched by the ANC.
  • 1952, Mandela arrested, convicted for crimes against the Suppression of Communism Act and given a suspended sentence.
  • 14 June 1958, Mandela married his second wife, Winnie.
  • 1960, Sharpville massacre in which 69 killed and 180 wounded.
  • 1960, Military arm of the ANC, called the Umkhonto we Sizwe, formed.
  • 1960, ANC and all black political organizations are banned.
  • 5 August 1962, Mandela arrested and sentenced to 5 years of hard labor in prison.
  • 12 June 1964, While already in prison, Mandela further sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage and treason.
  • 14 August 1989, P. W. Botha quit as president; 15 August De Klerk succeeded him.
  • February 1990, Mandela released from prison and assumed leadership of the ANC, leading negotiations with the government for a new constitution that ended apartheid.
  • 7 June 1990, South Africa lifted the emergency decrees.
  • 7 July 1991, the first national conference of the ANC held, and Nelson Mandela elected President, while his friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the National Chairperson.
  • 1991 to 1993, a new constitution for the Government of National Unity was developed at the Johannesburg World Trade Center.
  • 1993, Nelson Mandela and South African President F. W. de Klerk share the Nobel Peace prize for their efforts in establishing democracy and racial harmony in South Africa.
  • 1994, After the country's first multiracial elections, Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa.
  • May 1995, South Africa approved a new constitution which barred discrimination against minorities, to include whites.
  • March 1996, Nelson Mandela formally divorced from Winnie Mandela.

WWW sites
There are many sites devoted to Nelson Mandela, his life, his struggle to end apartheid and his current position as President of South Africa.   Some of the best sites are:Facts on File and South Africa's Government of National Unity.  Sites which offer commentary on and recognition of his achievements, include the Boston Globe for his Nobel Peace Prize, the Peace Prize lecture and the most complete list of honors awarded.
The African National Congress home page provides the most inclusive collection of information on the history of apartheid and the revolution which brought the ANC into power.  Not only are major events of the apartheid era, such as the Rivonia Trial covered, but also the key persons and groups that contributed; Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and many others.  This site also contains the most comprehensive collection of speeches by Mandela.   Two of his most important speeches include his speech on his Release From Jail (1990) and his Inaugural Address (10 May 1994).  Another site which details the rise and fall of apartheid is the South Africa U.S. Embassy.
Robben Island, which housed the majority of revolutionaries against apartheid, to include Mandela, has now been designated as a National Museum and cultural heritage site.

Recommended Books
For a personal perspective of the trials and tribulations of his life, read Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (1995). A less detailed accounting may be found in Mandela: An Illustrated Autobiography (1996).   Nelson Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life (1992), is a collection of speeches and writings which explains Mandela's political beliefs.  Mary Benson, Nelson Mandela, The Man and the Movement (1986) is a sympathetic biography and portrait of Mandela that relies, in part, on prison interviews.
The book Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend is a touching tribute to Mandela from a former prison guard James Gregory, whose hatred for blacks was reversed after getting to know and becoming a friend of Mandela.
Documentary information:

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