Iconic Political Leader
t the center of history’s great revolutions, there are always those who give themselves fully to the vision they believe in. When it came to ending apartheid in South Africa, few were more central to the cause and its victory than Nelson Mandela. It was while on trial for sabotage in 1961 that he most famously said: “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.”
Even after being sentenced to life in prison and throughout all 27 years behind bars, Mandela’s vision and commitment never wavered. From within the walls of his tiny cell on Robben Island, he worked diligently to deepen his wisdom and reclaim his power, no matter how long it took. His story is important, telling of a tragic conflict from which many wounds are still healing. It’s also inspiring, reminding us of what it takes to overcome major challenges and create massive impact. Ahead, we’ve pulled six essential lessons from Mandela’s life so that we might all remember our true greatness.
Born into the Madiba clan in 1918, Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker” in his native Xhosa. When his father, who had served as counselor to many tribal chiefs, passed away, nine year old Mandela was adopted by the acting regent of the Thembu people. Groomed to be a tribal counselor like his father, his education combined traditional learnings with Methodist schooling, the latter giving him the English name Nelson. He excelled in school and enrolled in the University College of Fort Hare (the Harvard of South Africa) and set his sights on becoming a clerk—the best profession a black man could hope for at the time. Of course Mandela soon outgrew even that dream as he dared to imagine something far beyond himself.
In his second year at University, Mandela was elected to the Student Representative Council. And when a majority of students voted to boycott the council altogether, he stood with them and resigned. He was given an ultimatum: agree to serve, or be expelled. His adoptive father (the Thembu Chief) was furious, and when Mandela returned home, he was greeted with an arranged marriage. Feeling trapped, he ran away to Johannesburg, where he worked a variety of jobs, finished his bachelor’s degree and began to study law. Meanwhile, his political star was on the rise as he became active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress, an organization that lobbied for equal rights, freedoms and opportunities for blacks, and helped form its new Youth Division. His work would ultimately transform the organization.
Mandela and his Youth League colleagues worked to expand the ANC
from a small band of lobbyists filing polite petitions to a mass grassroots movement
demanding serious change. By 1949, the Congress had officially adopted the Youth League’s methods of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and noncooperation. Mandela became the movement’s leader, directing monumental acts such as the 1952 Defiance Campaign. Meanwhile he founded the law firm Mandela & Tembo, providing free and low-cost counsel to unrepresented blacks. Throughout the 1950s Mandela was tried and jailed multiple times, along with thousands of South Africans who put their lives on the line in defiance of an unjust system. Tensions rose as the apartheid government refused to negotiate, and the decade ended tragically as military police opened fire on unarmed protestors in 1960, killing 69 people.
With state security threatening the possibility of peaceful protest, Mandela illegally left the country to seek support for an armed struggle. Not long after his return he was arrested and put on trial for sabotage with 10 others, all sentenced to life in prison. The system did everything in its power to strip him of his dignity. He arrived to high-security Robben Island as the lowest class of prisoner, allowed just one (highly censored) letter per six months and made to sleep on a mat on the floor. But he did not give up. He worked to keep his mind and body sharp and patiently maneuvered to improve the situation for himself and his fellow prisoners. His first successful demand was long trousers, and as the group aged they earned better treatment from jailers and gained access to more reading, writing and communication with the outside world. It was thanks to his faith and conscious effort that Mandela made it through 27 years in prison and emerged strong enough to lead a nation.
While Mandela was in prison, the struggle for freedom in South Africa continued. Political parties like the ANC and the PAC (Pan-African Congress) were banned, but in the 1970s students and labor unions took up the cause, organizing protests and boycotts, and leveraging their collective bargaining power. While the movement fragmented it grew louder. In the 1980s, anti-apartheid leaders formed the United Democratic Front, which coordinated with the church through Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who corresponded with Mandela as well. On the global front, many countries (including the US and Britain) boycotted South African exports, from television programing to cigarettes. By the late 80s, apartheid was officially causing economic, political and social chaos in South Africa, which people feared might erupt into a race war. In this climate, the state initiated talks with Mandela in search of a path to peace.
Mandela was finally freed in 1990 at the age of 72. Under the leadership of President FW de Klerk, the government initiated a slow and painful effort to dismantle apartheid, beginning with lifting the bans on political parities like the ANC. Now free and resuming leadership of the ANC, Mandela stood firm in his demand for suffrage. Violence reached new heights as many who had suffered sought revenge, and everyone looked to Mandela to set the tone. Mandela urged foreign leaders to maintain sanctions on South Africa. While he was committed to working towards peace, he also affirmed that he could not renounce armed struggle until the black majority received the right to vote. In 1993 Mandela and FW de Klerk both received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. When the vote had been granted, Mandela called blacks to lay down their weapons and show up at the ballot box, and in 1994 he became the country’s first black president. His genuine efforts to forgive those who had been his oppressors pointed the way forward for a nation divided.
An intimate look into Mandela’s lengthy archives, from 1960s journals to private recorded conversations.
A moving and exhilarating autobiography ranks as one of the finest memoirs from history’s great figures.