Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s First Black President, Was born on This Day in 1918

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid activist who served as South Africa’s first president from 1994 to 1999.  

He was the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government also has focused on dismantling the apartheid legacy by promoting racial reconciliation.

Ideologically nationalist and African socialist, he was also president of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.  


In Xhosa, Mandela was born into the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, Union of South Africa. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand before working as a lawyer in Johannesburg.  

Political Career

There he became involved in anti-colonial and nationalist African politics, joining the ANC in 1943 and co-founding its Youth League in 1944. After the white-only government of the National Party instituted apartheid, a system of racial segregation that privileged the whites, Mandela and the ANC committed to its overthrow.

He was appointed chairman of the ANC’s Transvaal branch, becoming famous for his involvement in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 People’s Congress.

He was repeatedly arrested for seditious activity and unsuccessfully prosecuted in the 1956 treason trial. Influenced from Marxism, However, he secretly joined the outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP).

Although initially engaged in a non-violent protest, in association with the SACP he co-founded the militant uMkhonto we Sizwe in 1961 and waged a campaign of sabotage against the government. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1962 and, following the Rivonia trial, was sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to overthrow the state.  

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Nelson Mandela in Prison 

Mandela served 27 years in prison, split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. Amid growing domestic and international pressure and fears of a racial civil war, President FW de Klerk released him in 1990. 

Mandela and de Klerk spearheaded efforts to negotiate an end to apartheid, which led to the multiracial general elections of the 1994 in which Mandela led the ANC to victory and became president. Leading a broad ruling coalition that enacted a new constitution, Mandela emphasized reconciliation between the country’s racial groups and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights violations.  

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Economically, his administration maintained the liberal framework of his predecessor despite his socialist beliefs, while also introducing measures to encourage land reform, fight poverty and expand health services. Internationally, Mandela acted as mediator in the Pan Am flight 103 bombing trial and served as secretary general of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.

Mandela became a senior statesman and focused on fighting poverty and HIV / AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation charity. 

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Mandela was a controversial figure for much of his life. Although critics on the right denounced him as a communist terrorist and those on the far left considered him too eager to negotiate and reconcile with apartheid supporters, he won international acclaim for his activism.

Globally considered an icon of democracy and social justice, it has received more than 250 awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize. He is held in deep respect in South Africa, where he is often referred to by the name of his Thembu clan, Madiba, and described as the “Father of the Nation”.  


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