Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Xhosa pronunciation: [xoˈliːɬaɬa manˈdeːla]; born 18 July 1918) is a South African anti-apartheid activist, revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, the first to be elected in a fully representative, multiracial election. His administration focused on dismantling apartheid‘s legacy, and cutting racism, poverty and inequality. Politically a democratic socialist, he served as president of the African National Congress (ANC) political party from 1991 to 1997. Internationally, Mandela was the Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.
A Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family, Mandela attended Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand, studying law. Living in Johannesburg townships and becoming involved in anti-colonial politics, he joined the ANC, becoming a founding member of its Youth League. When the white supremacist National Party government implemented apartheid in 1948, he rose to prominence in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign, being elected president of the Transvaal ANC branch and overseeing the 1955 Congress of the People. Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and with the ANC leadership stood on the Treason Trial from 1956 to 1961. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the South African Communist Party he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, leading a bombing campaign against government targets. In 1962 he was arrested and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, being sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela served time in Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison, and then Victor Verster Prison while an international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted after 27 years in 1990. Becoming ANC president, Mandela wrote his autobiography, and led negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multi-racial elections in 1994, in which he led the ANC to a landslide victory. As president, he created a new constitution and initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses, while introducing policies aimed at land reform, combating poverty and expanding healthcare. Internationally, he acted as mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial, and oversaw a military intervention in Lesotho. Refusing to run for a second term and succeeded by his deputy Thabo Mbeki, Mandela became an elder statesman focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Mandela has received international acclaim for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid stance, having received over 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Soviet Order of Lenin. He is held in deep respect within South Africa as the “Father of the Nation”, where he is often known under his Xhosa clan name of Madiba. Controversial for much of his life, critics denounced him as a terrorist and communist sympathiser.
Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtatu, a part of South Africa’s Eastern Cape. Given the forename Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term colloquially meaning “troublemaker”, in later years he became known by his clan name, Madiba. A member of the Thembu royal family which ruled the Transkei region, he belonged to the Left-Hand House of the Ixhiba clan, a cadet branch who provided court councillors to the Thembu king. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a local chief and councillor to the monarch; he had been appointed to the position in 1915, after his predecessor was accused of corruption by a governing white magistrate. In 1926, Gadla too was sacked for corruption, but Nelson would be told that he had lost his job for standing up to the magistrate’s unreasonable demands. A devotee of the god Qamata, Gadla was a polygamist, having four wives, four sons and nine daughters, who lived in different villages. Nelson’s mother was Gadla’s third wife, Nosekeni Fanny, who was daughter of Nkedama of the Right Hand House and a member of the amaMpemvu clan of Xhosa.
Mandela and his co-accused were transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. Isolated from non-political prisoners in Section B, Mandela was imprisoned in a damp concrete cell 8 feet by 7 feet, with a straw mat to sleep on. Mocked and harassed by many of the white prison warders, Mandela and his comrades spent their days breaking rocks into gravel, until being reassinged in January 1965 to work in a lime quarry; initially forbidden from wearing sunglasses, the glare from the lime permanently damaged Mandela’s eyesight. At night, he worked on his LLB degree, but newspapers were forbidden, and he was locked in solitary confinement on several occasions for possessing smuggled news clippings. Classified as the lowest grade of prisoner, Class D, he was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, although all mail was heavily censored.
The political prisoners took part in work and hunger strikes – the latter considered largely ineffective by Mandela – to improve prison conditions, viewing this as a microcosm of the anti-apartheid struggle. Appointed to the four-man “High Organ” of the ANC prisoners along with Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, Mandela was also involved with Ulundi, a group representing all political prisoners regardless of affiliation; within prison, he forged links with PAC and Yu Chi Chan Club members. He initiated a teaching program known as the “university of Robben Island,” whereby prisoners lectured on their own areas of expertise; he debated politics with Marxists like Mbeki and Harry Gwala, also discussing the issue of homosexuality, which he came to accept. Attending Christian Sunday services, Mandela talked with the prison imam and studied Islam. Also studying Afrikaans, he respected the warders and tried to convert them to the cause. Various official visitors met with Mandela; most significant was the liberal parliamentary representative Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party, who championed Mandela’s cause outside prison. In September 1970 he was met by British Labour Party MP Dennis Healey, while South African Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger visited in December 1974, though he and Mandela did not get on. His mother visited in 1968, dying shortly after, while his firstborn son Thembi died in a car accident the following year; Mandela was forbidden from attending either funeral. His wife was rarely able to visit, being regularly imprisoned for political activity, while his daughters first visited in December 1975; Winnie got out of prison in 1977 but was forcibly settled in Brandfort, still unable to visit him.
Presidency of South Africa
South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in which full enfranchisement was granted were held on 27 April 1994. During the campaign, Mandela made strenuous efforts to build links with Afrikaner conservatives, including General Constand Viljoen, Foreign Minister Pik Botha, and former president P.W. Botha. Campaigning on a platform that included a large-scale Reconstruction and Development Programme, the ANC won 62% of the votes in the election. Mandela, as leader of the ANC, was inaugurated on 10 May 1994 as the country’s first black President, with the National Party’s de Klerk as his first deputy and Thabo Mbeki as the second in the Government of National Unity. Many observers credited Mandela’s work toward reconciliation with aiding a peaceful transition. After assuming the presidency, one of Mandela’s trademarks was his use of Batik shirts, known as “Madiba shirts“, even on formal occasions.
As President from May 1994 until June 1999, Mandela presided over the transition from minority rule and apartheid to a multicultural democracy, and saw national reconciliation as the primary task of his presidency. Having seen how other African post-colonial economies had been damaged by the departure of white elites, Mandela worked to reassure and retain South Africa’s white population. He kept Afrikaner bureaucrats in their positions, including a major on his staff who had once bombed an ANC building. He attempted to create the broadest possible coalition in his cabinet: de Klerk served as a Deputy President of South Africa; other National Party officials became ministers for Agriculture, Energy, Environment, and Minerals and Energy; and Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party head Mangosuthu Buthelezi was named Minister for Home Affairs. Mandela’s efforts at reconciliation assuaged the fears of whites, but also drew criticism from more militant blacks; his estranged wife, Winnie, accused the ANC of being more interested in appeasing whites than in helping blacks.
Mandela also encouraged black South Africans to get behind the previously hated Springboks, the national rugby team, as South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. After the Springboks won an epic final over New Zealand, Mandela presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, wearing a Springbok shirt with Pienaar’s own number 6 on the back. This was widely seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans; as de Klerk later put it, “Mandela won the hearts of millions of white rugby fans.”
More controversially, Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC, appointing Desmond Tutu as its chair. To prevent the creation of martyrs, the Commission granted individual amnesties in exchange for testimony of crimes committed during the apartheid era. Dedicated in February 1996, it held two years of hearings detailing rapes, torture, bombings, and assassinations, before issuing its final report in October 1998. Both De Klerk and the ANC appealed to have parts of the report suppressed, though only de Klerk’s appeal was successful. Mandela praised the Commission’s work, stating that it “had helped us move away from the past to concentrate on the present and the future”.
During the course of Mandela’s presidency, a wide range of progressive social reforms were enacted, aimed at reducing long-entrenched social and economic inequalities in South Africa. As part of these reforms, free health care was introduced in 1994 for all children under the age of six together with pregnant and breastfeeding women making use of public sector health facilities (a provision extended to all those using primary level public sector health care services in 1996). The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was launched, which invested in essential social services such as housing and health care. Increases in welfare spending were carried out, with public spending on welfare and social grants increased by 13% in 1996/97, 13% in 1997/98, and 7% in 1998/99. The government also introduced parity in grants for communities, including disability grants, child maintenance grants, and old-age pensions, which had previously been set at different levels for South Africa’s different racial groups. 3 million people were connected to telephone lines, 1.5 million children were brought into the education system, 500 clinics were upgraded or constructed, 2 million people were connected to the electricity grid, water access was extended to 3 million people, and 750,000 houses were constructed, housing nearly 3 million people in the process. However, the RDP missed its targets for home and job creation, and the Mandela government soon began a retreat from its goals in favor of free-market reforms.
The Land Restitution Act of 1994 enabled people who had lost their property as a result of the Natives Land Act, 1913 to claim back their land, leading to the settlement of tens of thousands of land claims. The Land Reform Act 3 of 1996 safeguarded the rights of labour tenants who live and grow crops or graze livestock on farms. This legislation ensured that such tenants could not be evicted without a court order or if they were over the age of sixty-five.