Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. His father was Chief Henry Mandela of the Tembu Tribe. Mandela himself was educated at University College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand and qualified in law in 1942. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 and was engaged in resistance against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies after 1948. He went on trial for treason in 1956-1961 and was acquitted in 1961.
After the banning of the ANC in 1960, Nelson Mandela argued for the setting up of a military wing within the ANC. In June 1961, the ANC executive considered his proposal on the use of violent tactics and agreed that those members who wished to involve themselves in Mandela’s campaign would not be stopped from doing so by the ANC. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with hard labour.
In 1963, when many fellow leaders of the ANC and the Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. His statement from the dock received considerable international publicity. On June 12, 1964, eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. From 1964 to 1982, he was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town; thereafter, he was at Pollsmoor Prison, nearby on the mainland.
During his years in prison, Nelson Mandela’s reputation grew steadily. He was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa and became a potent symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. He consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom.
Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. After his release, he plunged himself wholeheartedly into his life’s work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after the organization had been banned in 1960, Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organization’s National Chairperson.
‘On Robben Island he never asked for special treatment’
“In the first years, we were allowed one visit, one letter, every six months. And the letter had to be no more than 500 words. But we had colleagues who were illiterate. Mr Mandela encouraged us all to study – we had to study. Not only politics, but learning to read and write. That type of initiative was very, very important. It also helped morale.
“On Robben Island, the leadership, they led by example. When we were on hunger strikes they refused to be exempted – because we had taken a decision in the ANC [African National Congress] that our senior people, particularly those who were old and not too well, should be exempted. But they refused.
“We knew that the families of Mandela and Walter Sisulu were being harassed by the police all the time – detained, children were tortured, sent into exile – but they never allowed their concern for their families to overshadow their concern for their fellow prisoners.
“When somebody was at a low ebb, as happened from time to time, you’d see Mr Mandela or Mr Sisulu going up to them, cheering them up.
“And Mr Mandela himself, he was offered more than other prisoners. He refused. He said: ‘I’ll only accept this if all of us are given this. If you’re going to exempt me from work, exempt everybody.’
“As an individual, by his actions, he managed to instil into people the notion of equality. All of us are equal. On Robben Island, we would never kowtow to the white wardens or do anything that violates our dignity. He always emphasises that first of all he is not a saint. He is a human being, who has made errors like others. He has managed to instil this notion of equality to people in their millions. He is a symbol of equality for human beings – dignity, equality.