Long Walk to Freedom: Why Nelson Mandela Was so Remarkable

History Hit

3 mins

11 Feb 2018

After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela walked free on 11 February 1990. Though he had been behind bars, Mandela had become a symbol of tolerance and democracy, A global inspiration. His life is one of the most remarkable of the 20th century.

Young Mandela

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo. As was customary, he was given a “Christian” name by his primary school teacher – she called him Nelson.

Having first been expelled from university for participating in a protest, Mandela completed his BA in 1943. He began studying for a law degree but left university without graduating.

A picture of Nelson Mandela in 1938.

Resisting apartheid

In 1944 he joined the African National Congress, an historic black political organisation. He helped to create the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and encouraged the ANC to embark on a programme of mass action in response to the victory of the National Party and the implementation of apartheid (racial segregation).

Mandela was among 156 people arrested and put on trial for treason in 1956. The Treason Trial was ongoing until March 1961.

On 21 March, 1960, 69 unarmed black protesters were killed by police in Sharpeville and the country was placed under a state of emergency. The ANC was banned and Mandela was detained.

A painting of the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960.

Days before the Treason Trial ended, Mandela began to plan for more direct action including a national strike scheduled for 29, 30 and 31 March 1961. He also helped to form a paramilitary organisation, Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) to carry out guerrilla warfare against the government.

In January 1962 Mandela secretly left South Africa. He travelled around Africa and Europe trying to gather support for armed struggle against apartheid. On his return, he was arrested for leaving the country without a permit and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. In October 1963 he was put on trial again, this time for sabotage.

“It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”

On 20 April 1964 he made his famous “Speech from the Dock”:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.”

On 11 June, Mandela and seven others were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were sent to the Robben Island Prison where Mandela would spend 18 of his eventual 27 years imprisonment.

A sign enforcing apartheid in South Africa. It designates a public space as “for use by white persons”

Here, Mandela slept in a tiny cell with no bed or plumbing. He was permitted to write and receive one letter every six months and a visitor once a year. He missed the funerals of his mother and his eldest son.

In September 1990 F. W. de Klerk, a progressive voice in the National Party, became President of South Africa. From the outset, de Klerk called for an end to racism in South Africa. He lifted the ban on the ANC and in February 1990 ordered to release of Nelson Mandela.

Free at last

Nelson Mandela votes in the 1994 election. Credit: Paul Weinberg / Commons.

Following his release Mandela participated in talks to end apartheid. He became ANC President in 1991.

Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

In May 1994 Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected President, stepping down after one term.

Mandela had become a symbol of tolerance and democracy. A global inspiration.

Nelson Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg on 5 December 2013.

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