The Life of Nelson Mandela

Today the world mourns the loss of South Africa’s most famous and influential leader, Nelson Mandela. Some people may be reading the headlines this morning, aware of the name but not of the life this amazing man had, so here is a quick run down of Nelson Mandela and why South Africa are grieving for his death.

Nelson Mandela was born on the 18th July 1918 in Umtatu, South Africa. He was known by most by his clan name of Madiba and it wasn’t until he attended school that his teacher gave him the English name of Nelson, this was a common tradition in South African education and one, Mandela says, was due to British bias on their education system at the time. He received an excellent education up until he was expelled from Fort Hare University for leading a strike against university authorities and so his rebellious streak began to appear. 
Young Nelson Mandela
He completed his degree in Law, became very interested in politics and joined the African National Congress. In 1944, Mandela married his first wife Evelyn and in 1946, they had their first son, Thembekile. In 1948 the National Party won the general election and began building the apartheid which involved enforcing racial segregation in all aspects of life, separating white people and black people by law. Mandela, outraged by the apartheid led strikes against the regime, most famously the Defiance Campaign which in 1952 saw him publicly burn the pass he was legally obliged to carry as a black male. During this time he divorced Evelyn and married another woman called Winnie with whom he had two children.
In 1960, police killed 69 demonstrators protesting after the banning of the ANC party, this was known as the Sharpeville Massacre. Mandela organised a bombing campaign which involved planting bombs under an abandoned Government building. There was never any intention to kill anyone, but one fatality came when a bomb exploded too early in the hands of a young activist. Following an uproar from the bombing he left South Africa in 1961 and upon his return a year later he was imprisoned for leaving the country illegally. He was then trialled for acts of sabotage, violence and treason.  He said he had dedicated his life to the struggles of the African people and told of his ideal situation in that white people and black people could live together, harmoniously once more. He added that he was prepared to die for this ideal. He was sentence to life imprisonment.
Nelson revisits his prison cell
He was imprisoned in a small cell and spent most of his time doing mundane chores such as breaking rocks or sewing.  While in prison his eldest son, Thembekile died in a car accident and his mother also died. His wife, Winnie, was jailed by the apartheid regime and spent thirteen months in solitary confinement. These three tragic events almost broke Mandela and he wrote how he had no words to describe the sorrow he was feeling.  He started gaining access to books while in prison and studied the work of Shakespeare and Churchill and learned about the Afrikaans. He demanded respect from the prison guards and became highly regarded amongst the other prisoners. In 1970 he secretly began writing his autobiography and smuggled the pages out of the prison.  In 1982 he was moved to a different prison and his conditions became better as he was allowed access to more books. His status amongst followers of the ANC party reached a unique level and members of the apartheid regime began negotiating with him.
In the 1980’s the Anti-Apartheid movement was formed in London in response to the Sharpeville Massacre. It was during this time that the world became aware of the situation in South Africa and the imprisonment of Mandela. It was the eventual demise of the Cold War that began to encourage the apartheid regime to negotiating their political stance. The current South African President P. W Botha suffered a mild stroke and the country was taken over by F.W Klerk who upon his appointment as President announced that the regime was to be abolished and all political prisoners were to be freed, including Nelson Mandela.

The ‘Walk to Freedom’ Nelson and Winnie
In 1990, at 71 years old and after 27 years in prison, Mandela walked free, hand in hand with his wife Winnie. The countries hopes of the prevention of a civil war rested upon his shoulders. He made a speech, to 50’000 people showing his support for both the black and white communities, unifying them the way he had envisioned the world would be able to do.  Between 1990 and 1994, South Africa was torn apart by various political parties coming to blows, including the ANC party and in 1992, 45 people were massacred and hacked to death by security forces. Mandela blamed Klerk for turning a blind eye on what had happened and his relationship with Klerk became increasingly tense.
In 1993, Chris Ani an ANC leader was murdered and the anger in the country was reaching its limit. Mandela went on National television and made a statement used to calm and defuse the anger in the country. A year later, it was decided the first multi-racial election would take place and Mandela was elected as President of South Africa in 1994.  He worked at building bridges between African communities, giving White people a new confidence and reconciling the nation.
Rugby in South Africa was associated with the apartheid movement, as all players had to be white. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela made his most celebrated political gesture by cheering on the predominantly white South African team.  While dressed in the same coloured clothes as the South African team he shook the hands of each player with 63’000 supporters chanting his name.
Nelson Mandela and The Queen 1995
Mandela broke South Africa’s era of isolation and travelled the world. The Queen visited Mandela in 1994 and he, in turn visited her in 1995.  In 1997 he handed over his leadership to Thabo Mbeki as he had always made it clear he would only serve one term. He retired in 1999.
He came over to London in 2008 for his 90th birthday, despite his various health problems and his last public appearance was at the South African World Cup in 2010. He retired to his home in the suburbs of Johannesburg  where he died, peacefully, surrounded by his family and friends on December 5th 2013. 
Nelson Mandela at the 2010 World Cup
Further Reading in the Information Store:
This World: Mandela at 90 – DVD – Shelved in the Book Zone at 320.968
Nelson Mandela by Colleen Degnan-Veness – 428.64
South Africa 1948 – 2000: the Rise and Fall of the Apartheid by Martin Roberts – 968.056
History of South Africa by Leonard Thompson – 968

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