Why Was Nelson Mandela Sent To Prison?

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Nelson Mandela (1918– ) was initially tried and sentenced to prison for encouraging black South Africans to go on strike and for illegally leaving South Africa. For most of his life Mandela fought for an end to apartheid (a system of segregation based on race that gave advantages to whites while restricting blacks to labor reserves) in South Africa. He joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that promotes the interests of black South Africans, and participated in nonviolent protests, such as work stoppages and using "whites only" facilities to combat apartheid. In 1952 the South African government arrested and tried Mandela and other ANC leaders under the Suppression of Communism Act. As a result he was prohibited from attending meetings or leaving his home in Johannesburg. By 1961 ANC members had come to believe that the South African government would respond only to violence. The organization therefore created a military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe ("spear of the nation"), which was known simply as MK. As head of MK, Mandela conferred with leaders in other countries and was arrested upon his return to South Africa.

While Mandela was in prison, new evidence surfaced and he was tried again in 1964—this time for sabotage and guerilla warfare (unplanned attacks). During his now-famous trial, Mandela explained in a lengthy statement the ANC's objectives and accused the South African government of committing a crime by its policy of white supremacy. He concluded by saying, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and spent the next twenty-seven years in captivity, becoming one of the most famous political prisoners and an international symbol of resistance to apartheid.

In 1984 ANC activists and others brought the South African government to a virtual stalemate. Violent uprisings took place nationwide, leaving hundreds dead. In 1988 the ANC began a campaign of terrorist bombings of mostly civilian targets, and the government under President P. W. Botha (1916– ) declared a state of emergency. From his prison cell, Mandela began negotiations with Botha, who was replaced several weeks later by President F. W. de Klerk (1936– ). Finally, in 1990 de Klerk unconditionally released Mandela, who was greeted by a crowd of 120,000 supporters. For the next four years, Mandela and de Klerk worked to establish a democratic government in which each person, black or white, would have one vote in elections. On April 27, 1994, South Africans elected Mandela the first black president of South Africa. In June 1999 Mandela stepped down from his post; he was replaced by Thabo Mbeki (1942– ), who was elected the new president.

Further Information: Denenberg, Barry. Nelson Mandela: No Easy Walk to Freedom. New York: Scholastic, 1991; Finlayson, Reggie. Nelson Mandela. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner, 1998; Mandela gets rousing send-off as Mbeki takes office. [Online] Available: http://www-cgi.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1999/safrican.elections, October 30, 2000; McLynn, Frank. Famous Trials: Cases That Made History. Pleasantville, N.Y.: Reader's Digest, 1995, pp. 166–71; Woodhouse, Jayne. Nelson Mandela. Des Plaines, Ill.: Heinemann Library, 1998.


he wasn't tolerated by white people

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