Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African resistance leader who received a life sentence on Robben Island for opposing apartheid. Nelson Mandela personified struggle throughout his life. He is still leading the fight against apartheid after spending nearly three decades of his life behind bars. He has sacrificed his private life and his youth for his people, and remains South Africa’s best known and loved hero.
Nelson Mandela was born in a village near Umtata in the Transkei on July 18, 1918. His father was the principal councilor to the Acting Paramount Chief of Thembuland. After his fathers death, the young Rolihlahla became the Paramount Chiefs ward to be groomed to assume high office. However,
influenced by the cases that came before the Chief s court, he was determined to become a lawyer. Hearing the elders stories of his ancestors struggles during the wars of resistance gave him dreams of making his own contribution to
the freedom struggle of his people (Ngubane).
After receiving a primary education at a local mission school, Nelson Mandela was sent to Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school. He then enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare for the Bachelor of Arts Degree where he was
elected onto the Student’s Representative Council. He was suspended from college for joining in a protest boycott. He went to Johannesburg where he entered politics by joining the African National Congress in 1942 (Woods).
At the height of the Second World War, members of the African National Congress set themselves the task of transforming ANC into a mass movement. In September of 1944 they came together to form the African National Congress
Youth League. Mandela soon impressed his peers by his disciplined work and consistent effort and was elected to the Secretaryship of the Youth League in 1947 (Ngubane).
By painstaking work, the ANCYL was able to get support for its policies amongst the ANC members. At the 1945 annual conference of the ANC, two of the leagues leaders, Anton Lembede and Ashby Mda, were elected onto the National
Executive Committee. Two years later another Youth League leader, Oliver R. Tambo became a member of the NEC
The victory of the National Party which won the 1948 all-white elections on the platform of Apartheid, inspired ANCYL to create the Programme of Action. The Programme of Action was simply a sub-committee of the ANCYL. The weapons of boycott, strikes, civil disobedience and non-co-operation
was accepted as official ANC policy. In 1950, Mandela was elected to the NEC at national conference (Apartheid).
The ANCYL programme aimed at attaining full citizenship and direct parliamentary representation for all South Africans. In policy documents of which Mandela was an important co-author, the ANCYL paid special attention to the redistribution of the land, trade union rights, education and culture. The ANCYL strived to free education for all children, as well as mass education for adults (Woods).
When the ANC launched its Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, Mandela was elected National Volunteer-in-Chief. Mandela traveled the country organizing resistance to discriminatory legislation. Mandela was
convicted of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act and given a suspended prison sentence. Shortly after the campaign ended, he was also prohibited from attending gatherings and confined to Johannesburg for six months
During this period of restrictions, Mandela wrote the attorneys admission examination and was admitted to the profession. He opened a practice in Johannesburg, in partnership with Oliver Tambo. In recognition of his outstanding contribution during the Defiance Campaign, Mandela had been elected to the presidency of both the Youth League and the ANC at the end of 1952 (Woods).
Their professional status did not earn them any leniency toward the brutal apartheid laws. The government wasn’t alone in trying to frustrate Mandelas legal practice. The Transvaal Law Society petitioned the Supreme Court to strike him off the roll of attorneys but was unsuccessful. Mandela’s desire to serve his black fellow citizens had done nothing unworthy to remain in the ranks of an honorable profession (Apartheid).
During the fifties, Mandela was the victim of various forms of repression. He was banned, arrested and imprisoned. For much of the later half of the decade, he was one of the accused in the mammoth Treason Trial. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the ANC was outlawed, and Mandela, still
on trial, was detained (Woods).
With the ANC outlawed, Mandela took his campaigns underground to try and gain support. He was forced to live apart from his family, moving from place to place to evade detection. Mandela had to adopt a number of disguises to
help avoid detection. His successful evasion of the police earned him the title of the Black Pimpernel (Ngubane).
Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, was formed to embark in violent protests instead of peaceful ones. Mandela as its commander-in-chief, left the country unlawfully and traveled around for several months. During the trip, Mandela arranged guerrilla training for members of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Apartheid).
Mandela was arrested and charged with illegal exit and incitement to strike as soon as he returned to South Africa. He conducted his own defense as a aspiration of the African people. Mandela stated that “I detest radicalism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black
man or a white man” (Woods). He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
While serving his sentence, he was charged in the Rivonia Trial with sabotage. Mandela s statements in court during these trials are classics in the history of the resistance to apartheid, and they have been an inspiration to all who have opposed it. His ending statement was “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” (Woods).
Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and started his prison years in the notorious Robben Island Prison, a maximum security prison. While in prison he rejected many offers to be released if he would recognize Transkei and
agree to settle there. He also rejected an offer of release on condition that he renounce violence.
Released on February 11, 1990, Mandela plunged wholeheartedly into his life’s work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held
inside South Africa after being banned for decades, Nelson Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organization’s National Chairperson (Ngubane).
Mandela accepted the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of all South Africans who suffered and sacrificed so much to bring peace to their land. He was inaugurated as State President of South Africa on May 10, 1994.
Nelson Mandela’s life symbolizes the triumph of the human spirit over man’s inhumanity to man. His struggle throughout life to do away with racism exemplifies his courage and heroics. South Africa is very fortunate to have a leader of that character. Without Mandela, blacks would still be opposed and would not have equal opportunities. They would not have a proper education or have any basic human rights.
“Apartheid.” World Book Encyclopedia. 1988 ed., vol. 1,
Ngubane, Jordan. “Mandela.” McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of
World Biography. 1987 ed., vol. 7, pp. 132-133.
Woods, Donald. Biko. New York: Paddington Press LTD,