Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary politician, who served as the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Mandela was the country’s first black head of state and the first black president to be elected in a democratic election with universal suffrage. Mandela’s government focused on dismantling the remnants of the apartheid system and fostering positive race relations. Mandela, as an African nationalist and socialist, served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991-1997.
Mandela was born to the royal Xhosa Thembu family. He studied law at the Universty of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand before practicing law in Johannesburg. While in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial and African Nationalist parties. Mandela was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the 1956 Treason Trial in which 156 people, including Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason. Mandela eventually joined the banned South African Communist Party and co-founded the militant Umkhoto we Sizwe in 1961, leading a sabotage campaign against the government. In 1961, Mandela was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the state and was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela served 27 years in prison, initially on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Vester Prison. Out of fears of a racial civil war, President F.W. de Klerk released Mandela in 1990.
Mandela and de Klerk negotiated the end of apartheid and organized the 1994 multiracial general election, in which Mandela won. As President, Mandela led the coalition to form a new constitution and formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses. Despite Mandela’s socialist beliefs, his administration maintained his predecessor’s liberal framework, while encouraging land reform, the expansion of healthcare services, and increased welfare services.
Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5, 2013. Critics on the right have denounced Mandela as a communist terrorist and those on the left have considered him too eager to negotiate and reconcile with apartheid supporters. Mandela has received more than 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and is described as the “Father of the Nation.”