Nelson RolihlahlaMandela (Madiba) was bornin 1918, in the Transkei. He was president of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997, and was the first president of South Africa under the democratic constitution of 1994. The son of a Thembu paramount chief, Mandela studied law at Fort Hare University and in 1952 set up the first black law practice in South Africa together with Oliver Tambo.
He became a leading member of the ANC Youth League, but was banned and restricted in 1953 and was one of the accused in the Treason trial of 1956. His defence was a major articulation of opposition to apartheid and he was finally acquitted in 1961.
By then the ANC had been banned in the aftermath of the Sharpeville shootings. Mandela became commander-in-chief of its armed wing, Urnkhonto we Sizwe, and travelled abroad to raise funds for it. On his return in 1962 he was arrested in Natal and at the Rivonia trial in 1964 he was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. He was transferred to Pollsmoor prison, and later Victor Verster Prison, in the 1980s.
During his imprisonment, Mandela became both the local and the international symbol of opposition to apartheid. He refused to accept offers of release by Prime Minister P. W. Botha in return for renouncing armed opposition to the state. He was finally released in 1990 when the ANC was unbanned by Prime Minister F. W. de Klerk, and he led negotiations with De Klerk on the transition of South Africa to democratic rule.
Mandela gained immense popularity among all South Africans, including many whites who admired his reconciliatory approach. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and following the victory of the ANC in the 1994 election, became the leader of the Government of National Unity (GNU) and South Africa’s first black president. He stood down from the presidency of the ANC in 1997 and announced that he would retire from politics at the end of the GNU’s term of office in 1999.
Mandela’s statesmanship and lack of rancour were universally recognised as the most important reason for the peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in South Africa.