A democratically-elected Nelson Mandela became the first black president of South Africa. His inauguration in May 1994 was graced by several world leaders. His administration, The Government of National Unity, was suitably dominated by the African National Congress (ANC) – the current governing party of South Africa. 

The contours of Mandela’s political thoughts were defined by Gandhi, African-American civil rights activists and African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah.  As such, he repudiated anti-white sentiments, avoided the anti-imperialist movement and supported the British WWII efforts. Despite advocating non-violence and reconciliation, Mandela backed violence as an instrument of sociopolitical change. Regarding the latter, he targeted symbols of racist oppression. 

At heart, he was a democrat who believed in free speech and embraced the ideals of collective leadership. An ardent admirer of the British parliamentary system of democracy, he believed that the British Judiciary was independent and impartial.  Though denying his communistic affiliation, Mandela advocated a classless society. Albeit, evidence indicate that he was an active member of the South African Communist Party (SCAP).  

No doubt Mandela was charismatic. Highly image-conscious, he maintained the persona of a gentleman donning ironed clothes and observing proper decorum. His public speeches were formal.   He had few confidantes but had a wry sense of humor.  Stubborn, loyal and quick tempered, he was typically friendly and welcoming, and appeared relaxed in conversation with everyone, including his opponents. Attentive to all, he always looked for the best in people, even defending political opponents. Considered the father of the nation, the icon of the anti-apartheid cause, Mandela was often cited alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  For fostering racial integration, he earned international acclaim. His multiple awards, accolades, prizes, honorary degrees and honorary citizenship vindicated his politics.

Baptized a Methodist, he was given the English first name Nelson.  The budding-president attended church regularly and went to a Methodist mission school. At school, he developed a passion for African history and was influenced by anti-imperialist rhetoric.  Nevertheless, he considered European colonialists as benefactors who had brought education and other benefits to southern Africa. 

Mandela started university in 1939. As the student representative, he protested the food quality and was suspended. He, therefore, completed his undergraduate degree by correspondence in 1943 and proceeded to study law at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) where he befriended people of all political beliefs and races.  Following his legal training he and Oliver Thambo, who served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1967 to 1991, established their own firm, dealing mostly with cases of police brutality. Thriving as it was, the firm was forced to relocate to a remote location causing business to suffer. 


Mandela’s Farmhouse Hideout

Political Activism

On moving to Johannesburg, Mandela befriended ANC activist Walter Sisulu who deeply influenced his political thinking. Despite the racial overtones Mandela believed the struggle for self-determination was solely a Black African issue. He helped founding the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) – an organization dedicated to fighting apartheid. In 1950, he became the national president. 

Banding with sympathetic groups, the ANC spearheaded a nonviolent campaign against apartheid in 1952. A Mandela-led protest in Durban provoked mass arrests and triggered the imposition of martial law. The incident, however, only popularized the ANC and the membership surged to 100,000. Anticipating democratic prospects, the coalition appealed to South Africans for suggestions dealing with a post-apartheid South Africa.  From popular submissions, a charter calling for a nonracist democratic state and nationalization of major industries was developed.   However, accused of high treason in December 1956, Mandela and members of the ANC national executive were arrested, yet another time. But six years after the trial began, they were acquitted in 29 March 1961.

In 1961, Mandela, Sisulu and Joe Slovo co-founded MK (Spear of the Nation). MKs objectives were to exert pressure on the government without inflicting casualties. It therefore targeted military installations, power plants, telephone lines etc. The rationale being, such targets favored the prospects of racial reconciliation. Soon after ANC leader Albert Luthuli was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, MK celebrated with 57 bombings. 

As a delegate to the February 1962 Pan-African Freedom Movement in Ethiopia, Mandela clandestinely met with Emperor Haile Selassie I then went on world tour seeking support.   On return, he was captured and jailed with inciting strikes and leaving the country illegally. Found guilty, he was sentenced to five-years imprisonment. 

In July 1963, police raided a Farm in Rivonia, arresting the occupants and uncovering paperwork incriminating Mandela. As a result, Mandela and comrades were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to unseat the government. The trial ran from October 1963 to June 1964.  Although the accused admitted sabotage, they denied conspiracy and used the court as a platform to highlight their cause. As the trial gained international traction there were calls for the release of the political detainees.  Despite the global outcry eight of the accused, including Mandela, were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for treason. 


Mandela’s Prison Cell – Robben Island

Robben Island: 1964–1982

Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island for 18-years. His solitary cell was a dank cage outfitted with a straw mat. But the deprivation of freedom was an absurd fraction of the punishment he endured. He was compelled to break rocks into gravel before being reassigned to working in a lime quarry. Without protective eye wear, Mandela suffered eye damage from the glaring lime stones. Being viewed as a threat to the state, he was denied newspaper access, permitted one visit and one letter every six months. Of his few visitors were Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party, who championed his cause outside of prison, and British Labor Party politician Dennis Healey. Mandela’s mother was accorded a single visit but died shortly afterwards. Other members of his family including Winnie, his wife, were unable to visit. His mail was heavily censored as well. 

From 1967 onward, prison conditions improved markedly. Black prisoners were allowed games and better food.  Despite the oppressive conditions, Mandela used his time productively. He initiated the University of Robben Island whereby prisoners taught each other.  He also forged relationships with young radicals despite their contempt for white anti-apartheid activists.

The replacement of harsher prison-guards with more humane ones allowed Mandela more visits and more liberal correspondence.  Interest in his plight surged as well. On his 60th birthday, the slogan Free Mandela sparked an international campaign triggering the UN Security Council to call for his release. The government balked. Its western allies including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher considered the ANC a terrorist organization. In April 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. At Pollsmoor, he was permitted a roof garden, and allowed generous correspondence and access to reading material. 

Politically, Mandela became an acknowledged supporter of the multi-racial United Democratic Front (UDF) whose objective was to combat systemic racial inequality. Besides, he was permitted more visitors which enabled clandestine communications with Oliver Tambo, the ANC leader in exile. However, as investments in the country dwindled in the 1980s, violence escalated. To stem the tide of violence, Mandela was offered conditional freedom but spurned the offer.  Albeit, in 1989 President P.W. Botha was replaced by F. W. de Klerk and despite fierce internal opposition Mandela was released unconditionally. Mandela left prison on 11 February 1990. In a speech immediately following his release, he acknowledged his obligation to peace and reconciliation, but affirmed that the ANC’s armed struggle would continue as a defensive bulwark. 

To garner support, he visited several countries in Africa and Europe.  In Europe, Mandela saw Francois Mitterrand, Pope John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher. In the US, he also met George H.W. Bush and addressed both Houses of Congress.  Mandela sought out Fidel Castro and the heads of state of India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia. In May 1990, the multiethnic ANC successfully negotiated lifting the state of emergency. Going further, Mandela offered a cease fire against the will of MK activists.  For his visionary leadership, at the ANC’s July 1991 national conference, Mandela was elected ANC President.  

His victories were tainted nonetheless. Aspects of his private and political life were spiraling out of control. Soon after moving in with Winnie, they separated and later divorced. In addition, prospects for a peaceful transition were compromised by increased internecine violence between ANC and Inkatha. 

General Election: 1994

For the 1994-general election, the ANC campaigned on providing housing, free education and access to water and electricity.  Although they fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to effect meaningful change to the constitution, the ANC won seven of the nine provinces.  For the President-elect, national reconciliation was one of his primary goals.  Assuaging their fears, he urged white South Africans to remain. Despite his antagonistic relationship with de Klerk, he forged a broad coalition by appointing de Klerk as Deputy President and other National Party officials to key positions. Buthelezi, founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party, was named as Minister for Home Affairs.  He met with senior figures of the apartheid regime emphasizing forgiveness and compromise. In 1995, South Africa hosted the International Rugby Tournament. To promote racial harmony, he encouraged Black support for the despised national rugby team.  Leading by example, Mandela sported the T-shirt of the South African’s Team and presented the winner’s trophy to its captain. Although Mandela’s efforts at racial integration did mollify white fears, it elicited fierce criticisms from militant blacks. Undeterred, he established a Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid.  Led by Bishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission was empowered to grant amnesty in exchange for testimony. After two years of hearings detailing rapes, torture, bombings, and assassinations, it issued its final report in October 1998.  In general, the Commission’s work was thought to have been successful in narrowing the deep ethnic divide plaguing the country. 

Domestic programs

Undoubtedly, under the white-controlled National Party racial disparity was transparently promoted. The black majority lacked electricity, potable water and adequate sanitation. Black children had scant access to schools and a third illiterate. Unemployment was at a staggering 33% and half the population lived below the poverty line. With a fifth of the national budget allocated to debt repayment, promised programs had to be clawed back. Despite budgetary constraints, old-age pension, disability grants, child maintenance grants, free healthcare for pregnant women and children under six served to offset the perception of broken promises.  Five years later, ANC programs had created phone access to 3 million, millions of children were enrolled in schools, and millions more had electricity, water and housing. Tenants living on farms, where they grew crops or grazed livestock, gained protection. Without arbitration or if over the age of 65, they could not be evicted.

Broadening his vision, Mandela encouraged nations to resolve conflicts through comity. In recognition of his efforts, he was appointed Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement in September 1998. 

The crippling consequences of age could not be ignored. At age 76, and ailing, Mandela felt lonely. To occupy himself, he entertained some of the rich and famous. Otherwise, Mandela lived simply donating a third of his annual income to the Nelson Mandela Fund. Written from the confines of a prison cell, in December 1994, he published his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.  

Despite his 80% popularity rating, this anti-apartheid icon retired in June 1999. The quiet family life he had thirsted for was transient and he quickly reverted to a schedule of daily meetings with world leaders and celebrities. Significant attention was devoted to the Nelson Mandela Center of Memory, Nelson Mandela Foundation and the campaign against HIV/AIDS. At age 85, and amid failing health, Mandela finally withdrew from public life.  Ever mindful of the need for economic assistance to Africa, he nonetheless, spoke at the Brookings Institution and the NAACP in 2005. On his 90th birthday, he called for a global redistribution of wealth. Showing true grit, he successfully lobbied FIFA to host the 2010 games. His final public appearance occurred at the World Cup closing ceremony.  Mandela died on 5 December 2013 from respiratory disease. Still alive, however, is his legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation: it continues to ripple across the globe.

Parts of this text have been excerpted from The Eloquence of Effort