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Mandela, visionary of a free South Africa

June 29, 2018

Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison to lead South Africa to freedom from white rule. He became the country's first black president and won the Nobel Peace prize for his policy of reconciliation.

African Roots Nelson Mandela
Image: Comic Republic

Mandela, visionary of a free South Africa

When and where did Nelson Mandela live?

Born in the mountainous Transkei region of South Africa in 1918, Mandela went on to study law at the country's Fort Hare University. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress, a political party set up to resist the racist policies of the white-led South African government. Soon afterwards, this system would be refined into apartheid, and Mandela's fight would turn into a life-long struggle. The first president of post-apartheid South Africa, he retired after five years in office. Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95.

What is Nelson Mandela renowned for?

Nelson Mandela set up the military wing of the ANC known as "Umkhonto we Sizwe" ("Spear of the Nation") to take on the ruling government and their anti-black policies. He was charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government in 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island where he spent 27 years. Released in 1990, Mandela went on to become the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

How did Nelson Mandela survive his long prison spell? 

Mandela inspired a generation because although he was imprisoned for so long, his humanity and world view transcended the walls of his prison. The decades served in jail didn't break him but only built his iconic role in the nation's struggle for freedom. Various freedom songs called for Nelson Mandela's release, amongst them Johnny Clegg and Savuka's "Asimbonanga" (which translates as "we haven't seen him").

Nelson Mandela, an advocate for his people

What is Nelson Mandela revered for?

Despite his years of hardship and imprisonment, Mandela never lost sight of his vision of a peaceful, more equal society in South Africa and his role in serving his country. He believed in a democratic nation with voting rights for all. He led South Africa for one term, but unlike many other African presidents, he knew when to step aside, paving the way for the democratic will of the people to choose the next leader of their country. 

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 together with the then President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk. De Klerk had previously lifted a ban on the ANC and released Mandela from prison. Together they worked to free South Africa of its apartheid rule.

What are some of Nelson Mandela's famous quotes?

Speaking at his trial in 1964: "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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realized. But my Lord, if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers it."

What is Nelson Mandela's legacy?

Mandela leaves a legacy of self-sacrifice and unwavering commitment to the fight for human rights for all. His vision for a South Africa where blacks and whites could live as equal without marginalization may have fallen short, but his presidency succeeded in putting ideology, no matter how unrealistic, back on the political table.

Victoria Averill, Thuso Khumalo and Gwendolin Hilse contributed to this package. It is part of DW's special series "African Roots," dedicated to African history, a cooperation with the Gerda Henkel Foundation.