Nelson Mandela

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Mandela dedicated his life to the struggle to end racial segregation and white minority rule under the apartheid system in South Africa. His contribution to the political education, mobilization, and organization of millions of people against the apartheid system has been unparalleled. In the 1990’s the South African government moved to abolish apartheid, and Mandela was elected president in 1994.

Early Life

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa, in a village called Mvezo on July 18, 1918. Although born of royal parentage, Mandela was reared in the traditional African setting among the Thembu. In addition to his mother, who was very strong-willed and dignified, Mandela’s father had three other wives. Along with his peers, Mandela was inculcated with a tremendous sense of responsibility to his family and community, reflected in some of his childhood duties such as ploughing land, herding cattle, and tending sheep.

An important element that contributed to the political consciousness of Mandela during his youth was his listening to the elders of his village discuss the history of their people. Mandela learned of the noble traditions of his people before the European colonial invasion and the gallant struggles of resistance to European colonial rule. Mandela’s insatiable thirst for knowledge was partially satisfied when he attended mission school as a child and then later while studying at Clarebury, a nearby training college. He learned much about some of the atrocities experienced by his people under European colonial rule. Mandela’s desire to study law emanated from his observations of the paramount chief conducting court in his village and from his commitment to helping to end minority rule in South Africa.

Perhaps the most significant event that raised Mandela’s political consciousness while still a teenager was the series of laws that were passed by the white-controlled, minority government in 1936. In the face of massive African opposition, the entire African population was effectively disenfranchised, the pass laws that restricted the movement and daily lives of Africans were extended throughout the country, and the increased expropriation of African land left the African majority population (80 percent) with only 12.7 percent of South African land. Like most South Africans, Mandela was deeply affected by these events.

Mandela’s initiation into political activism began in 1940 while he was working on his bachelor of arts degree at Fort Hare College in the Eastern Cape. As a member of the Student’s Representative Council, he was suspended from school for participating in a boycott to protest the reduction of the council’s powers by authorities. After returning home briefly, he soon left for Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage and being trained for chieftainship.

Mandela found a small room in Alexandra, an overcrowded township on the edge of Johannesburg. With the encouragement of Walter Sisulu, in 1941 he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a multiracial, antiapartheid organization founded in 1912. This marked the beginning of Mandela’s enduring struggle to establish justice and equality throughout South African society.

Life’s Work

Along with Oliver Tambo, his former schoolmate at Fort Hare College, and Sisulu, who provided Mandela with work and financial assistance to finish his B.A. by correspondence, Mandela helped to revitalize a faltering ANC. By 1944, Mandela was instrumental in founding the Youth League, which became an integral part of the ANC. As the most radical element within the ANC, the Youth League helped to turn the ANC into a mass movement. In 1949, Mandela was elected secretary of the Youth League and helped to develop its Program of Action, which it submitted to the ANC executive officers. The Program of Action called for a series of boycotts, strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience designed to end white minority rule in South...

(The entire section is 2,406 words.)