Why was Nelson Mandela an influential individual?

Why was Nelson Mandela an influential individual?


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kateanswers eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was not just influential, he was revolutionary.

Knowing the sociopolitical context of South Africa is critical to understand the gravity of Mandela's actions fully. While Mandela was growing up, South Africa was under apartheid, a system of segregation between the white, European ruling class and native people of color. In this system, native people were severely oppressed and subject to restrictions the ruling class was not. Even after apartheid was formally "over," some of these restrictions persisted. One such restriction that Mandela organized a campaign against were "pass laws," which required native people of color to carry a sort of identification card that was to be shown any time they wanted to gain access to a "whites only" space. 

As a young man, Mandela worked with the African National Congress to advocate for people of color. In 1952, he lead the Defiance Campaign, demonstrating with and supporting others in civil disobedience against unjust laws in South Africa. The government deemed this to be an act of communism, and Mandela and several others involved were sentenced to nine months of hard labor as punishment. 

For his persistent efforts in fighting against the institutionalized racial oppression of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela was elected to the African National Congress while in prison. In 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the country's first truly democratic election — previously, only the white ruling class could vote. All his life, Mandela spoke openly and ardently about the injustices occurring in South Africa. His persistence is remarkable and honorable. Today, Mandela is representative of the struggle people faced under apartheid and the good things that can come through diligently fighting for what is right. 

Mandela's influence is not only felt in South Africa; many in the United States and elsewhere have been inspired to participate in civil disobedience against unjust institutions as a result of Mandela's work.