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Nelson Mandela

  b. 1918; d. 2013 | South African political activist/politician

At The Bottom
 1964

In a trial that much of the world condemned, Mandela and twelve other ANC leaders received life sentences.

Nelson Mandela sat in a jail cell on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island, a former penal and leper colony that now served as a warehouse for the nation’s political activists.  Mandela had just been convicted of plotting and carrying out acts of sabotage against the apartheid government, which denied black South Africans equal rights.  A long-time political activist from a distinguished family, Mandela had been the leader of an armed group within the African National Congress, which was campaigning to end racial discrimination and segregation. When the white-controlled government began to suppress black protests with great violence and went so far as to ban the ANC itself, Mandela believed there were no alternatives left if black South Africans were to be free.  In 1962, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for leading an illegal workers’ strike; two years later, nearly two dozen top ANC leaders were arrested and charged with over 200 acts of sabotage.  In a trial that much of the world condemned, Mandela and twelve other ANC leaders received life sentences.

At The Top
 1994

The apartheid system was officially dismantled...

Almost 30 years from the day of his conviction and life sentence, more than 60,000 people and leaders from 130 nations gathered in Pretoria to watch Nelson Mandela take the oath as South Africa’s first black president. “Today,” Mandela explained, “all of us . . . confer glory and hope to newborn liberty. Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.”  A new national flag was hoisted before the event — the red, white and blue flag (symbolizing European political control) was replaced with one that included the African colors of green, white and black. The apartheid system was officially dismantled, as the African National Congress won more than 60% of the votes in the country’s first multi-racial election.  After Mandela had been released from prison in 1990, still determined to carry on the struggle against racial injustice.  Over the next several years, he and other ANC leaders negotiated with the government of F. W. De Klerk to bring apartheid to a close and try to build a new, non-racist South Africa.  For their efforts, both men received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Comeback

His own personal freedom was not worth surrendering the freedom of others.

In his 1995 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote, “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”  Having won his release from prison, Mandela explained, “I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”  Mandela led an extraordinary and dangerous campaign against an unjust government, and he was not defeated by his imprisonment.  As he explained at the 1964 trial, he was prepared to die for his beliefs.  Throughout his 27 years in prison, he continued to hold on to his conviction that black South Africans must be free.  He was offered an early release on at least one occasion during the 1980s, provided that he give up his struggle against the South African government.  Mandela refused, explaining that his own personal freedom was not worth surrendering the freedom of others.  Mandela and his supporters around the world kept their hopes alive throughout the years he was incarcerated, and their hopes were eventually rewarded — not only with Mandela’s release, but also with the emergence of a free South Africa at last.

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