Short biography of Nelson Mandela, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who defeated apartheid in South Africa

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), also known by the nickname of Madibait was the political leader of blacks in South Africa e activist during the fight against the regimeapartheid and the first black president of the Republic of South Africafrom 1994 to 1999. As an anti-apartheid activist he was able to use different political strategies, from non-violence to armed struggle. After suffering a long prison sentence lasting 27 years, he managed to reach an agreement with the leaders of the white population to end the segregation regime. For this he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Promoted from president reconciliation between whites and blacks and, although he was unable to achieve all the objectives he had set himself, he was able to enjoy great esteem and popularity throughout the world until his death, which occurred in 2013.

The young Mandela and the apartheid regime in South Africa

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the village of Mvezo, South Africa, in 1918 from a very prominent family, descended from the ruling dynasty of the ethnic group Thembu. In 1940 he moved to Johannesburg because he did not accept the marriage that his village chief wanted to impose on him. He began his studies at the University of Fort Hare and became involved in the fight against the government's racial policy.

Mandela at 19
Mandela at 19.

It should be remembered that South Africa is inhabited by a white minority (formed partly by Afrikaners, i.e. descendants of the Dutch colonizers, and partly by people of English origin) and by a black majority (about 70% of the population in 1960, more than 80% today), as well as mulatto and Indian minorities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, South Africa, despite being part of the British Empire, gained vast autonomy and in 1961 obtained full independence. The country, however, was dominated by the white minority, in particular the Afrikaner ethnic minority, who imposed a harsh regime of racial segregationknown as apartheid (roughly translated as “separateness”).

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The black population suffered heavy discrimination in all aspects of social life. In addition to not being able to go near most places frequented by whites, blacks could not move within the country without a special passport. Furthermore, millions of people were kicked out of their homes and forced to move to bantustan, semi-independent territories in which poverty and infectious diseases proliferated. Apartheid began in the 1920s, but was consolidated mainly after 1948.

Map of the Bantustans in 1994 (credits Htonl)
Map of the Bantustans in 1994. Credits: Htonl.

Mandela's fight against apartheid

Mandela became a anti-apartheid activist in his youth and in 1942 he joined theAfrican National Congress, the party that fought for the rights of the black population. He soon assumed a leading role and already in 1944 founded the party's youth organization. The ANC followed a non-violent approach and in the 1950s he organized numerous strikes and boycotts. Mandela participated in all the battles and in 1956 he was arrested and subjected to a long trial which ended in acquittal.

The ANC's political strategy changed following the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, which occurred because the police opened fire on the crowd protesting against internal passports, killing seventy people. Mandela, together with the other leaders of the ANC, decided to move on armed struggle and was among the founders of the militia Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Launch of the Nation”), aimed at carrying out guerrilla actions and sabotage against the regime.

Mandela burned his internal passport in 1960 in protest
Mandela burned his internal passport in 1960 in protest.

The long detention in prison

Mandela was arrested again in 1962 for his activities with Umkhonto we Sizwe And sentenced to life for sabotage and high treason. He was locked up in prison Robben Islanda small island off the coast of South Africa, and remained there until 1982, when he was transferred to a prison in Cape Town.

Mandela's cell on Robben Island (credits Witstinkhout)
Mandela's cell on Robben Island. Credits: Witstinkhout.

During his detention he studied Afrikaans (the language of the Afrikaners) and continued, within the limits permitted by his prison status, the fight against apartheid. His name, chanted in street demonstrations all over the world, became a symbol of the battles against racism and colonialism.

Liberation and the end of apartheid

In the second half of the 1980s the apartheid system entered into crisis. The international community put the South African regime is under pressure and among the white minority, opponents of segregation became more numerous. President Frederik De Klerkelected in 1989, started negotiations with Mandela, still detained, but now recognized leader of black South Africans. Mandela and De Klerk agreed that all South Africans should be granted the same rights regardless of skin colour, putting end to apartheidand that it had to be promoted national reconciliationwithout punishments against those responsible for discrimination.

On 11 February 1990, after 27 years of imprisonment Mandela he came out of prison and was welcomed to Cape Town by huge cheering crowds. Three years later he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with De Klerk.

Mandela president of South Africa

The end of apartheid guaranteed blacks the right to vote and in 1994in the first free elections in South African history, Mandela was elected president with over 60% of the vote. After the election, he actively promoted reconciliation.

An event fraught with consequences was the rugby world championship final of 1995, played in South Africa, which pitted the hosts against the “All Blacks” of New Zealand. The national rugby team was one of the symbols of Afrikaner supremacism and was not loved by blacks. Nonetheless, Mandela showed up at the stadium dressed in the colors of the national team, cheered for the team together with the other spectators (almost all white) and personally rewarded the captain: he intended in this way to “bring together” whites and blacks and create a common identity. It is no coincidence that the 1995 final was defined as “the match that made a nation”.

With François Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team
With François Pienaar, captain of the South African rugby team

As president, however, Mandela also encountered some failures. The most serious was the failure to combat the spread of AIDSwhich causes hundreds of thousands of deaths a year in South Africa.

Retirement from politics and death

Mandela left the presidency in 1999 and continued to engage in human rights organizations. In the 2000s she received numerous awards around the world and in 2008 a large concert was organized in London to celebrate her ninetieth birthday, with around 500,000 people in attendance. In the 2013 he contracted a serious lung infection and died on December 5.


Nelson Mandela Foundation