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July 18, 1918
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa 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 focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African nationalist and socialist, he served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.
A Xhosa, Mandela was born to the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, British South Africa. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of the Witwatersrand before working as a lawyer in Johannesburg. There he became involved in anti-colonial and African nationalist politics, joining the ANC in 1943 and co-founding its Youth League in 1944. After the National Party’s white-only government established apartheid, a system of racial segregation that privileged whites, he and the ANC committed themselves to its overthrow. Mandela was appointed President of the ANC’s Transvaal branch, rising to prominence for his involvement in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People.
He was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the 1956 Treason Trial. Influenced by Marxism, he secretly joined the banned South African Communist Party (SACP). Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the SACP he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961 and led a sabotage campaign against the government. In 1962, he was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the state and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.
Mandela served 27 years in prison, split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison, and Victor Verster Prison. Amid growing domestic and international pressure, and with fears of a racial civil war, President F. W. de Klerk released him in 1990. Mandela and de Klerk led efforts to negotiate an end to apartheid, which resulted in the 1994 multiracial general election in which Mandela led the ANC to victory and became President. Leading a broad coalition government which promulgated a new constitution, Mandela emphasized reconciliation between the country’s racial groups and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. Economically, Mandela’s administration retained its predecessor’s liberal framework despite his own socialist beliefs, also introducing measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services.
Internationally, he 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. He declined a second presidential term and in 1999 was succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela became an elder statesman and focused on combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the charitable Nelson Mandela Foundation.
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 radical left deemed him too eager to negotiate and reconcile with apartheid’s supporters, he gained international acclaim for his activism. Widely regarded as an icon of democracy and social justice, he received more than 250 honours—awards, accolades, prizes, honorary degrees and citizenships in recognition of his political achievements.
Among his awards were the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize, and the Libyan Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights. In 1990, India awarded him the Bharat Ratna, and in 1992 Pakistan gave him their Nishan-e-Pakistan. The same year, he was awarded the Atatürk Peace Award by Turkey; he at first refused the award, citing human rights violations committed by Turkey at the time, but later accepted the award in 1999. He was appointed to the Order of Isabella the Catholic and the Order of Canada, and was the first living person to be made an honorary Canadian citizen. Queen Elizabeth II appointed him as a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St. John and granted him membership in the Order of Merit.
In 2004, Johannesburg granted Mandela the Freedom of the City, and in 2008 a Mandela statue was unveiled at the spot where Mandela was released from prison. On the Day of Reconciliation 2013, a bronze statue of Mandela was unveiled at Pretoria’s Union Buildings. In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed Mandela’s birthday, 18 July, as ‘Mandela Day’, marking his contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. It called on individuals to donate 67 minutes to doing something for others, commemorating the 67 years that Mandela had been a part of the movement. In 2015 the UN General Assembly named the amended Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners as ‘the Mandela Rules’ to honour his legacy.
He is held in deep respect within South Africa, where he is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, and described as the ‘Father of the Nation’.