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Mandela, Nelson Rolihlahla

A Dictionary of Political Biography
Dennis KavanaghDennis Kavanagh, Christopher RichesChristopher Riches

Mandela, Nelson Rolihlahla (b. Qunu, South Africa, 18 July 1918; d. Houghton, Johannesburg, 5 Dec. 2013) South African; President 1994–99 

Born into the Thembu (Xhosa) ruling family Mandela studied at Fort Hare University but was expelled for leading a student strike. He subsequently qualified as a lawyer through correspondence courses and in 1952, with Oliver Tambo, he established the country's first black law firm. In 1944 he was a founder member of the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC). During the 1940s and 1950s he rose rapidly through the ANC hierarchy but was frequently subject to police harassment, detention, and banning. When the ANC was outlawed in 1960 he went underground and organized its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). In 1962 he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. In 1964, whilst still in detention, he was charged with treason and, after giving a memorable four-and-a-half hour speech criticizing apartheid, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.

In total Mandela spent twenty-seven consecutive years in detention. From 1964 to 1982 he was held on Robben Island, from 1982 to 1988 in Pollsmoor Prison, Cape Town, and from 1988 to 1990 in Victor Verster Prison, Paarl. From 1985 on he rejected several offers of ‘conditional’ release which would have imposed severe limits on his political activities. In many ways his imprisonment increased his, already considerable, political status and resulted in a worldwide campaign for his release. In February 1990 he was unconditionally released to scenes of joyous celebration at home and abroad.

On his release he became deputy president of the now legalized ANC leaving the ailing Oliver Tambo to hold the presidency for a short time longer, before being elected president of the party in July 1991. Displaying a quite extraordinary lack of rancour towards whites he began to work towards the establishment of a non-racial democracy in South Africa to replace the totally discredited apartheid system. To this end he participated in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), which began work in early 1992 to negotiate the future constitutional arrangements for the country but collapsed in 1992 and was replaced by a new forum at Kempton Park in 1993. In 1993 he and F. W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Although the negotiations were not without setbacks and delays they eventually produced an interim constitution which led to the first ever non-racial election in April 1994. In recognition of Mandela's huge personal popularity the ANC campaign for the National Assembly elections came close to being a presidential-style campaign with great emphasis put on the leader. With the ANC gaining just under two-thirds of votes cast, Mandela, as leader of the largest party in parliament, was installed as national President.

On coming to power he formed a coalition government of ‘national unity’ following the requirements of the interim constitution, which included de Klerk as Deputy Vice-President but in which the ANC held the majority of portfolios. De Klerk's National Party left the coalition in 1996. Under Mandela's leadership the government embarked on the twin paths of reconciliation and reconstruction in a society that had been badly divided by over a century of racial segregation and apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1996 and chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, began to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid era. As an example of the new South Africa the Commission sought reconciliation rather than revenge. While not revealing all the sins of apartheid, it did heal some of the damage of that period. Mandela increasingly passed on administrative duties to his Vice-President, Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela as president of the ANC in 1997. When Mandela indicated that he would not stand again for President at the end of his term, Mbeki became President after the 1999 general elections.

In 1958 Mandela married Winnie Madikizela. She became one of the leaders of the struggle against apartheid while her husband was imprisoned and was known by many as the ‘Mother of the Nation’. However, her status was irreparably damaged by the abuses carried out by her bodyguards and in 1991 she was convicted of kidnapping Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year old suspected of being a police informer, who was later found murdered. After his release from Robben Island, Nelson Mandela and Winnie separated in 1992 and were divorced in 1996. In 1998 Mandela married Graça Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, the first President of an independent Mozambique.

Mandela became internationally revered as an elder statesman and honoured by countries round the world. He campaigned against the spread of HIV/AIDS and for South Africa to host the 2010 football World Cup (and he made a public appearance at the final). He was active in various peace negotiations in Africa and lent his support to campaigns against injustice. In 2004 he announced that he was withdrawing from public life, but he still could make his presence felt. In 2007 he formed ‘The Elders’, a group of former world leaders who would address global problems. In 2008 he commented that Zimbabwe had witnessed a ‘tragic failure in leadership’, his first public criticism of Robert Mugabe, and in 2009, he caused surprise by attending an ANC rally in support of Jacob Zuma.

Helped by a combination of acute intelligence, total moral integrity, and an approach to politics which combined idealism and pragmatism, Mandela was the key pivotal figure in a political transformation which few believed was possible and retained great moral authority throughout the world. He wrote an autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in 1994.

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