Nelson Mandela

On February 11, 1990 26 years ago from today Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of confinement. Many people know Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa but aren’t as familiar with how he got there.

Nelson Mandela grew up in South Africa under the system known as apartheid a government enforced policy of segregation. While apartheid was practiced since 1795 after WWII it was officially structured and got progressively more oppressive. In 1960 nonwhites were removed from their homes and forced into segregated neighborhoods and in 1970 the state abolished political representation of nonwhites. Blacks were stripped of their citizenship and provided inferior education, medical care and other services.

Nelson began working for a law firm as a clerk in the 1940’s and met Walter Sisulu an activist for the African National Congress an anti-imperialist organization that wanted an independent South Africa. Mandela began going to school to get his law degree and joined the ANC. Nelson supported a faction of the ANC that believed that black Africans should not form any multi-racial alliance to achieve their independence. Once the government began codifying and expanding apartheid the ANC began advocating for boycotts and strikes. The strikes were met with backlash from the government and the police cracked down on all protest groups. Mandela began to adjust his approach and supported racially united activities against apartheid.

The ANC organized a joint campaign with Indian and communist groups that would utilize Nonviolent resistance inspired by Gandhi which Nelson considered to be a pragmatic approach. After rallies and protests resulted in increases to the ANC’s membership the government engaged in mass arrests and passed laws allowing the imposition of martial law. Nelson and his friend Oliver Tambo opened the only black-run law firm in the country which was popular with black Africans and often handled cases of police brutality. As a result of their caseload they were forced to relocate which significantly damaged their business.

Nelson began to think that armed and violent resistance was the only way to end apartheid. He attempted to get weapons from China but China felt they were unprepared to engage in guerilla warfare. A different organization planned a protest where  Africans would burn the passes the law required them to have at all times. At one of these demonstrations the police opened fire on the protesters killing 69 of them. Nelson formed a militant wing of the ANC and began acts of sabotage designed to avoid casualties. They bombed military installations, power plants and telephone lines when civilians were not present.

In 1962 Mandela traveled throughout Africa as part of the Pan-African Freedom Movement. He met with various African leaders such as Haile Selassie I, and William Tubman of Liberia. During this trip he was provided with funding for arms and began guerilla warfare training. When he returned to South Africa the government discovered his whereabouts and arrested him. When he was eventually tried the government brought 173 witnesses and thousands of documents. Instead of fighting the charges Nelson and his codefendants used this trial to shine a spotlight on the anti-apartheid movement. Nelson opened the proceedings with a three-hour speech which is considered one of his greatest speeches.

Nelson Mandela and his codefendants were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. During his imprisonment his wife Winnie continued to fight against apartheid although her methods met with the disapproval of his associates because of her willingness to utilize violence. He corresponded with anti-apartheid activists like Desmond Tutu and gained worldwide attention to the injustices of apartheid. The UN called for Mandela’s release but this was resisted by President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher and the South African Government. Eventually the pressures from other nations, banks and the threat of civil war prompted the South African government to release Nelson Mandela after 27 years on February 11, 1990. Once Nelson Mandela was released there was still considerable work to be done. On May 10, 1994 Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first Black chief executive. Nelson Mandela from prison to president.


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