Nelson Mandela. Fighter. Prisoner. President. Revolutionary.
On December 5, 2013, South Africa and the world mourned the loss of an iconic political leader. Relentless in his struggle against oppression — Nelson Mandela survived decades in prison and stayed the course through enormous punishment — ultimately leading his country into freedom. In his dedication to the liberties of his people and his defeat of apartheid, Mandela became a global symbol of triumph over adversity and one of the most recognizable human rights advocates of the twentieth century.
"A real leader uses every issue,no matter how serious & sensitive,to ensure that at the end of the debate we should emerge stronger" #Madiba
— NelsonMandela (@NelsonMandela) December 5, 2013
Described by other leaders of the world as “charming“, “kind-hearted“, and “humble“, Mandela and his heroic legacy changed the history of his country while teaching the rest of world the importance of perseverance, justice and forgiveness.
Here are the facts you need to know about Nelson Mandela: the man and the revolution.
1. Mandela Died After Months of Prolonged Illness
Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, dies aged 95 pic.twitter.com/uUQOB2F4x7
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) December 5, 2013
The 95-year-old former president died after suffering from a recurring lung infection for the past few months. His death was confirmed by South African president Jacob Zuma on live television at around 4:50 p.m. The Telegraph reported that family members and close friends were gathered at his deathbed today.
In July, Mandela was admitted to a hospital after his chronic lung infection persisted. During his time in the hospital, hundreds gathered to pray for him. Mandela had been hospitalized several times in recent months and had been particularly vulnerable to respiratory problems since contracting tuberculosis during 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela survived cancer previously having been diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001. He had not appeared in public since South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010.
During an interview for a documentary in 1994, Mandela gave his candid opinion on death:
Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.- Nelson Mandela
2. Mandela Was the Son of a Village Chief
“I was not born with a hunger to be free, I was born free.“- Nelson Mandela
Mandela was born in a small village where he began his life herding sheep and cattle. Although his African name was Rolihalahla his school teacher gave him his christian name “Nelson”. Mandela was the son of a chief and thus, had access to the best education available to black people in South Africa at the time. Mandela would say later in his life that he inherited his father’s “proud rebelliousness” and “stubborn sense of fairness”.
It was in his early 20s when Mandela moved to Johannesburg that Mandela first encountered racial discrimination.
3. He Became Politically Active While Studying Law
“The task of the ANC was to unite the African people and out of that build a nation-Nelson Mandela.”
Mandela studied law at the University of Fort Hare and later at the University of Witwatersrand. It was here where he became increasingly involved with the African National Congress (ANC), a multi-racial nationalist movement trying to bring about political change in South Africa. At that time, the Nationalist Government was elected into power — a white government which decreed apartheid as a rule of law. Mandela became one of the chief organizers of the ANC and drafted the “Freedom Charter“, a statement which demanded racial equality.
4. Mandela Supported Armed Struggle After Peaceful Protests Were Met With Violence
In 1960s, protests for equality were met with brutal government crackdown. During a peaceful protest in the town of Sharpeville, demonstrators were shot by police, killing 69 people. The uproar among South Africa’s black population was immediate, and the following week saw demonstrations, protest marches, strikes, and riots around the country. In response, the white-controlled government imposed martial law. All opposition was banned and thousands were detained. It was in 1961 when Mandela abandoned his peaceful track and went underground to start armed struggle.
He co-founded Umkjonto we Sizwa – an offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage the government using guerilla war tactics to end apartheid. Key government installations were targeted.
5. Mandela Was Imprisoned for 27 Years
In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. As a black political prisoner, Mandela received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program. Mandela continued to be such a potent symbol of black resistance that a coordinated international campaign for his release was launched, and this international groundswell of support exemplified the power and esteem Mandela had in the global political community.
In his trial, Mandela gave a historic hope-inspiring speech in which he expressed his dedication to his cause:
“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 need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”- Nelson Mandela
6. Mandela Rejected Offers of Freedom While In Jail
In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, allegedly to enable contact between them and the South African government. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela’s release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner flatly rejected the offer. With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the years, but no deal was made.
It wasn’t until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela’s release was finally announced, on February 11, 1990. De Klerk also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.
Mandela was finally a free man at the age of 71.
7. He Was Married 3 Times and Had 6 Children
Mandela has been married three times. He was married to Evelyn Ntoko Mase from 1944 to 1957. The couple had four children together: Madiba Thembekile, Makgatho, Makaziwe and Maki. He and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were married from 1958 to 1996; they had two daughters together, Zenani and Zindziswa. Winnie was and continues to be a controversial activist. Although he is popular among her supporters, who refer to her as the ‘Mother of the Nation’, she is reviled by others (mostly due to her alleged involvement in several human rights abuses, including the 1988 kidnapping and murder of 14-year old ANC activist Stompie Moeketsi). By the time Nelson became president they had been separated for two years. In 1998, Mandela married Graça Machel — a Mozambicam politician and humanitarian.
In addition to advocating for peace and equality on both a national and global scale, Mandela has remained committed to the fight against AIDS, a disease that killed his son, Makgatho, in 2005.
8. Mandela Was Elected as the First Black President of South Africa
In the mid-1980s, South Africa seemed destined for a future of unending low-level turmoil. Then, no less than Nelson Mandela, from behind bars, began to find common ground with a new generation of realists within the ruling camp. The end result has rightly been termed a miracle—a negotiated transition to genuine majority rule, with stability and economic growth. First free and democratic election and became the country’s first black president. Universally revered as an icon of leadership and humanity.
There were many remarkable stories of democratic transition in the late 1980s and early 1990s—the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, in Latin America, in several countries in Africa—but it’s hard to top South Africa. In 1990, Nelson Mandela was in prison, and no black South African could vote. Four years later, he was elected president of the nation.
Mandela decided to not stay in power for long and retired from public life in June 1999.
9. He Promoted Reconcilation Between Whites and Blacks
Mandela worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to black majority rule. He used the nation’s enthusiasm for sports as a pivot point to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks, encouraging black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team. In 1995, South Africa came to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the integrated country. In 1996, Mandela signed into law a new constitution for the nation, establishing a strong central government based on majority rule, and guaranteeing the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.
10. Mandela Was Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Became a World Icon
In 1993, Mandela and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling apartheid. Due in no small part to their work, negotiations between black and white South Africans prevailed.