Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (b. July 18, 1918 in the Transkei) is a South African leader, who fought hard against apartheid until he was imprisoned in 1964. He was released in 1990 and went on to become South Africa's first president to be elected by a multi-racial electorate in 1994.

Early Life and Political Socialization

Almost immediately, we see Mandela plunged into political life, as his father was the ‘right hand man’ to the Acting Paramount Chief of Thembuland (ANC archive). Although the reasons for his political socialization are evident and obvious, one ought to consider the ramifications of his environment; for instance, it can be argued that the class system in South Africa was in conflict with his ideals: “Ideologies and ideologists arise in class-divided societies…” (Ball and Dagger) If this is true, then it is vital to speak of Mandela and apartheid as two sides of the same coin.

Mandela’s primary education began in a local mission school, and his secondary education was completed in a Wesleyan institute in Healdtown. Around this time, he began to see cases in the Chief’s courts, many involving apartheid issues, and this primed him to want to become a lawyer instead of taking his father’s place in Thembuland politics (ANC archive).

Mandela’s earliest political experience came while enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, where he was working to obtain a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. While at the college, he was elected to a student political organization known as the Student’s Representative Council. Soon after, Mandela was expelled for participating in a protest on campus (ANC archive). Because of this, Mandela attended Johannesburg where he finally obtained his BA. Soon after, he joined the African National Congress in 1942, during the height of World War II. Nelson Mandela’s personal fixation with freedom brought him to work with many other members of the African National Congress to form a group under the leadership of a colleague, Anton Lembede (ANC archive). The group’s main focus was to change the African National Congress into a mass movement, including all people from urban communities to those in the countryside.

Mandela was instrumental in many political endeavors, many of which were anti-apartheid movements such as the Programme of Action, a policy-based initiative which was founded on the principle of using the non-violent weapons of “boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-co-operation” (ANC archive). This eventually became the modus operandi of the African National Congress.

And yet, some of our greatest leaders and role models have to resort to evil in order to do good. Mandela, being no exception to this, was the leader of an armed resistance group known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, formed in 1962. Mandela explains his reasoning:

“At the beginning of June 1961, after long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as long violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.” –Nelson Mandela (ANC archive)

It was this notion, along with strong governmental apartheid sentiment that would eventually land Nelson R. Mandela in prison.

Mandela in Prison

Nelson Mandela, like many political activists, eventually found himself imprisoned. He was sent to the notorious Robben Island Prison where he would eventually serve twenty seven years (Battersby). He was one of the many victims of the Treason Trial. After the trial, the African National Congress was banned, and the already convicted Mandela was sentenced to prison.

In the 1970s and '80s, the ANC was officially designated a terrorist group by the South Afrian ruling white minority. Other countries, including the United States, followed suit. To the embarrassment of the US Secretary of State, Manedla was officially on the US terror watch list as late as 2008.[1]

Mandela was in prison for twenty seven years, during which he endured a radical transformation. Mandela, by self-admittance, had a temper problem prior to being incarcerated. During prison, however, he had to learn to control his anger. “One was angry,” says Mandela, “at what was happening [in apartheid South Africa]- the humiliation, the loss of our human dignity. We tended to react in accordance with anger and our emotion rather than sitting down and thinking about things properly” (Battersby).

Mandela claimed it was the solitude in the prison cell that allowed one to think to oneself, allowing the nerves to become calm. In addition, many of Mandela’s prison mates were well-educated, well-travelled individuals. “When they told you of their experiences,” Mandela says, “you felt humbled” (Battersby). Mandela, while in prison, was also instrumental in the transformation of Robben Island from a ‘criminal’ prison to a ‘student’ prison. Mandela had chances to prove his political worth while in prison, as well. During the seventies, Mandela was offered remission of his sentence if he recognized the apartheid racially segregated region of Transkei. He refused. Later, during the eighties, Mandela was given a second opportunity at remission, only this time he was asked to renounce the violence that some of his groups partook in. He, again, refused (ANC archive).

Indeed, during his prison time, Mandela proved to be a prime example of a strong believer in principle, while at the same time erupting as a shining light to others suffering alongside him.

Mandela is Released

Mandela, stepping out of his prison cell, faced a newly changed South Africa through the eyes of a newly changed man. Shortly after being released, Mandela and his colleagues agreed on the suspension of the armed struggle (Umkhonto we Sizwe). He was officially released from prison in 1990, and was eventually elected President of the African National Congress in 1991 (ANC archive). Later, in 1994, he was elected President of the State of South Africa in the first truly democratic elections in the nation's history.

Before retiring from public life in June of 1999, he had received over fifty honorary degrees at prestigious universities all over the world, and was chancellor of the University of the North (ANC archive).

Elsewhere in the world, Mandela has made several attempts to make peace, even with nations outside his personal safety realm. For instance, in October of 1999, Mandela met with leaders from Iran, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Gaza, and the United States. Although Mandela found these numerous meetings to be pleasant, he did mention that the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, rejected Mandela’s intervention into the conflict (Battersby).

Mandela went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in a respect, as a representative of those who stand for peace and combat racism. Mandela, in the wake of this, regards his winning of the Peace Prize as a tribute to the people of Norway who stood against apartheid for so many years while so many more remained silent (ANC archive).

Certainly, Nelson Mandela’s political career after prison is one which many could be both envious of, while at the same time stand in awe at such greatness.

Mandela and President Bush

In a September, 2007 speech defending the Iraq war, George W. Bush blamed Mandela's death on Saddam Hussein. Mandela was, in fact, still alive.[2] The United States took Mandela off the terrorist watch-list in 2008, days before his 90th birthday.

Closing Thoughts

Nelson R. Mandela, in the wake of political turmoil, was one man who was both willing and able to stand up and fight back. Indeed, we can see how the man developed his legacy through his activist years, his years in prison, and his much more elaborate life afterwards.

Despite Mandela's history of supporting terrorism (was on the offical US Terrorist Watch List), the South African Broadcasting Corporation poll for the Greatest South Africans, had Mandela ranked number one greatest South African of all time.[3]


Ball, Terence, and Richard Dagger. Ideals and Ideologies. Fifth ed. Pearson Education, 2004.

Battersby, John. "Mandela." Christian Science Monitor (2000) "Birth of Freedom." Ed. Jon E. Lewis. New York: Gramercy Books.

Denenberg, Barry. No Easy Walk to Freedom. Ca-Print Harcourt Heinamann.

"Profile of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela." African National Congress Archive


  • Apartheid:A History by Brian Lapping (detailed Mandela's conviction for terrorism at the Rivonia trial)
  • [2] Mandela's 1985 refusal to renounce public violence
  1. U.S. has Mandela on terrorist list, 30 April 2008, accessed 24 February 2012
  2. Mandela still alive after embarrassing Bush remark
  3. [1]