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  • Writer's pictureMohamed Soltan

From Prisoner to President: Nelson Mandela's Extraordinary Life Story

Nelson Mandela’s fight against apartheid famously saw him imprisoned for some 27 years. A journey that started in the court of tribal royalty took the young Mandela to prison, before he rose up again to claim the South African presidency.

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, named him Rolihlahla, which translates to English as “troublemaker.”

Born in Mvezo Born in the tiny village of Mvezo in the former British protectorate of Transkei, Mandela’s father was a chief of the Thembu people, a subdivision of the Xhosa. At the age of 7, the young Mandela was assigned the more familiar first name, Nelson, by a schoolteacher.

Nelson Mandela studied the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Fort Hare, where he studied law. On graduating, he worked as a lawyer in Johannesburg. It was here that Mandela first became involved in politics, supporting African nationalism. He joined the ANC party in 1943, cofounding the party’s Youth League in 1944.

After the National Party established apartheid throughout South Africa, creating a system of racial segregation that led to privileged white South African citizens, Nelson Mandela and the ANC party committed themselves to ensuring its demise. Mandela was arrested for seditious activities multiple times and was unsuccessfully prosecuted in 1956.

Nelson Mandela was influenced by Marxism and secretly joined the South African Community Party, an organization that was outlawed in the country at the time. Although at the outset of his political career, he committed to non-violent means of protest, after joining forces with the South African Communist Party, Mandela cofounded uMkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. A militant group, uMkhonto we Sizwe waged a sabotage campaign against the South African government, which ultimately led to Mandela’s arrest in 1962.

Charged with Conspiring to Overthrow the Government Nelson Mandela was charged with conspiring to overthrow the government during the Rivonia Trial. On receiving a guilty verdict, he was sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela served 27 years in total as an inmate of Robben Island, Pollsmore Prison, and latterly Victor Verster Prison.

During his time in prison, Nelson Mandela is said to have undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving from a defiant prisoner who scorned his oppressors to one who came to embrace the Afrikaans language and culture, ultimately befriending his jailers. Over his 27-year jail term, Mandela mellowed from being a hot-tempered militant freedom fighter, maturing to become a measured and moderate man. In later life, Nelson Mandela possessed masterful negotiating skills, as well as the thoughtful sense of calm associated with seasoned statesmen.

Mounting International Pressure Amid mounting international pressure, Nelson Mandela was finally released upon the orders of President F.W. de Klerk in 1990. Following his release, Mandela trod a precarious path, continuing to rally against apartheid, while avoiding the kind of incendiary language that could alienate white South Africans and potentially spark a civil war.

As the leader of the ANC party, Nelson Mandela lobbied for the white-minority government to grant equal rights to the country’s disenfranchised and impoverished black majority. Despite being imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela maintained a steadfast belief in his cause, even rejecting an offer of freedom in 1985 due to a lack of improvement in living conditions for black South Africans.

Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk joined forces following Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. The two men led efforts to negotiate an end to apartheid, culminating in South Africa’s first multiracial general election in 1994. This was the first time that black South Africans had been allowed to vote in elections since the country’s founding in 1910. Mandela led the ANC party to a landslide victory, making history as South Africa’s first black president.

In his inaugural speech, Nelson Mandela famously asserted that “The time for the healing of wounds has come,” defining the moment as an opportunity to “bridge the chasms” that had divided the nation of South Africa for so long.

Earned the Nobel Peace Prize Mandela’s success in striking a balance while reigning in more militant members of the anti-apartheid movement earned him the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with President de Klerk.

Nelson Mandela was a controversial figure. While critics on the left derided him for his eagerness to reconcile with the supporters of apartheid, those on the right denounced him as a communist terrorist. Nevertheless, Nelson Mandela gained international acclaim for his activism, giving a voice to black South Africans, and rallying against injustices perpetrated against them.

South Africa’s First State Funeral In 2013, South Africa’s first state funeral was staged in the village that Nelson Mandela grew up in. A moving spectacle, the procession included some 12,000 soldiers, his funeral attended by dignitaries from several nations. The congregation sang the national anthem, backed by an orchestra, the procession following Mandela’s flag-shrouded coffin.

Widely regarded as the father of modern South Africa, Nelson Mandela inspired generations across the world with his decades of sacrifice, open defiance in the face of tyranny, and ultimately, his willingness to forgive not just the architects of apartheid, but also his own jailers for the sake of his country.

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