Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela in 1918 in South Africa’s eastern cape. A prominent civil rights leader an anti-apartheid activist, Mandela’s work focused on moving South Africa toward democracy and beyond its apartheid state.
While growing up, Mandela would hear stories from his elders about the valor of his ancestors during their resistance and fights for liberation. Inspired, he felt called to follow in their footsteps.
During college he started to attend meetings held by the African National Congress (ANC), a party in South Africa focused on social democracy. Shortly after graduation Mandela formed the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) and within a few short years, was elected president of the ANCYL.
In the 1950s under increasing pressure from South Africa’s apartheid regime Mandela and his colleagues faced targeting by police for their organizing activities. He and 155 others were arrested and charged with treason in 1956 and were later acquitted.
On the heels of the Sharpeville Massacre, where South African Police opened fire on an unarmed group of protestors organized by the Pan African Congress, killing many and paralyzed others, South Africa’s ruling party banned the ANC.
In response, Mandela and others went underground to organize the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), which translates to the spear of the nation, with the intent to “hit back by all means within our power in defense of our people, our future and our freedom.”
Mandela traveled to receive military training and earn support for the group for eight months in early 1963 and was arrested shortly after returning to South Africa and charged with sabotage to which he pleaded not guilty.
He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.Throughout his time in prison, three conditional offers of release were made to Mandela, he rejected them all, spending the majority of his time in a 6-foot-by-6-foot cell before his release in 1990, shortly after the ban on the ANC was lifted.
Within four years of his release, in 1994, Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in South Africa’s first multiethnic government. Committed to serving only one term, Mandela worked quickly, creating the Truth and Reconciliation Act to investigate human rights violations, among other initiatives focused on housing, education and economic development to raise the living standards of Black residents of South Africa.
His presidency is heralded as a major turning point for the country and for Black liberation worldwide.