Nelson Mandela: A Life Remembered

NelsonMandela1President, freedom fighter and inspiration to the world dies at 95

Written by Victoria Rose Margaret Hadden


Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died on December 5, 2013 at hamis home in Johannesburg. He was 95. Nelson had previously been admitted to a Pretoria hospital on June 8th with a lung infection.

Nelson Mandela was a thorn in the side to the white minority rule in apartheid-era South Africa and a dynamic symbol of black resistance. The first black President of South Africa, Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. His philosophy on national rule, shaped by 27 years in prison, can be summed up in his own words, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918 in Mveso, South Africa. He was a member of the royal family of Thembu.  In 1939, Mandela attended Fort Hare University to study law and politics.  Later, he moved to Johannesburg, and in 1942 joined an anti-apartheid movement called the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela married Evelyn Ntoko Mase in 1944. The couple had four children together.

“Death is something inevitable.

When a man has done what he considers his duty to his people and to his country, he can rest in peace.”

– Nelson Mandela

Political Activism

In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy.  They went to jail, but were acquitted five years later. When Nelson Mandela returned home after five years in jail, he found his house empty. Evelyn had taken everything from the children to the curtains on the windows.

In 1958 Mandela married Winnie Madikizela. They had two daughters together. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers strike.  Soon after, he was arrested for leading the strike. He and ten other ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison for political offenses, including sabotage.


Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison.  The conditions were so miserable, Mandela contracted tuberculosis.  Because he was a black political prisoner, he received the lowest level of treatment and received smaller rations.  Despite this hardship, Mandela was able to earn a law degree through a University of London correspondence program.

There was a plot by the South African Government to offer Mandela freedom and shoot him during the recapture.  Mandela refused the offer to escape. In 1982, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela’s release in exchange for renouncing the armed struggle. Mandela flatly refused.

When President Botha suffered a stroke, he was succeeded by Frederik Willem de Klerk.  President de Klerk announced the release of Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990.  President de Klerk also disbanded the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.



Life After Prison

After his release from prison, Mandela immediately urged foreign powers to keep pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. While he stated he was committed to working toward peace, he declared the ANC’s armed struggle would continue until the black majority received the right to vote.

In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress, with lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo as national chairperson. Mandela continued to negotiate with President de Klerk for the country’s first multiracial elections. White South Africans were willing to share power, but many blacks wanted a complete transfer of power. Violence tinged negotiations, which were strained in the best of times. This violence included the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani.

Mandela had to keep a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the demonstrations and armed resistance.

In 1993, Nelson Mandela and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling apartheid. On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. On May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president, with de Klerk as his first deputy. In the same year, Mandela published his first autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, most of which he had written secretly in prison. The following year he was awarded the Order of Merit.

From 1994 to June 1999, 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 starting point to promote reconciliation between white 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 young republic.

File photo of Nelson Mandela in Kliptown

During his presidency Mandela also worked to protect South Africa’s economy from collapse. Through his Reconstruction and Development Plan, the South African government funded the creation of jobs, housing and basic heath care. 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.



Also in 1996, Nelson and Winnie Mandela divorced. Mandela married his current wife, Graca Machel in 1998. By the 1999 general election, Nelson Mandela had retired from active politics. He continued to keep a busy schedule, raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa’s rural heartland through his Mandela Foundation, and serving as a mediator in Burundi’s civil war. He also published more books on his life and struggles, No Easy Walk to Freedom and Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is my Life.

Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001. At the age of 85, in June 2004, He announced his formal retirement from public life and returned to his native village of Qunu.

In 2009, Mandela’s birthday was declared Mandela day to encourage global peace and celebrate Nelson’s legacy.

Mandela has been in and out of hospitals suffering from a recurring lung infection since January 2011. The Mandela family has been feuding regarding his assets, the final resting place of three family members, and Mandela’s own final resting place.

Mandela’s view on death can be seen in a quote attributed to him on the Soweten Live website, “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers his duty to his people and to his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for eternity.”



Victoria Hadden writes news, reviews and commentary for The Brandon Beacon



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