Nelson Rolihlahla (“Troublemaker”) Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” took him from prison to the presidency—and his people from division to democracy.
1918–2013, b. Mvezo, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa
Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.
—Nelson Mandela, writing to Winnie Mandela from Robben Island, February 1, 1975
People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.
—Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1995
• Born to Xhosa-speaking parents in the Thembu royal family, Mandela took it upon himself to study law at university. He and Oliver Tambo established a law firm in Johannesburg in 1952 offering free or low-cost counsel to Black South Africans.
• Mandela helped organize the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, which advocated for nationwide civil disobedience campaigns aimed to highlight the iniquities of apartheid. His growing profile led to arrests and harassment from the state.
• After the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), Mandela was convinced that only armed struggle could end apartheid. He cofounded the ANC’s militant wing.
• Arrested and tried for treason and sabotage, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1963. While subjected to brutal treatment inside prison walls, Mandela became a global symbol of both oppression and hope for those outside.
• Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela negotiated with President F.W. de Klerk to organize free and fair elections. He had to strike a balance between keeping dialogue open while maintaining political pressure through the ANC. Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
• As South Africa’s first Black president (1994–99), Mandela worked to assure passage of a new constitution—based on majority rule, but guaranteeing minority rights and freedom of expression.