Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, born in 1918, was the son of the chief of the Xhosa-speaking Tembu people. Instead of succeeding his father as chief, Mandela went to university and became a lawyer. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a black political organization dedicated to winning rights for the black majority in white-ruled South Africa.
In 1948, the racist National Party came to power, and apartheid South Africa’s institutionalized system of white supremacy and racial segregation became official government policy. With the loss of black rights under apartheid, black enrollment in the ANC rapidly grew. Mandela became one of the ANC’s leaders and in 1952 was made deputy national president of the ANC. He organized nonviolent strikes, boycotts, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience.
After the massacre of peaceful black demonstrators at Sharpeville in 1960, Nelson helped organize a paramilitary branch of the ANC to engage in acts of sabotage against the white minority government. He was tried for and acquitted of treason in 1961 but in 1962 was arrested again for illegally leaving the country.
Convicted and sentenced to five years at Robben Island Prison, he was put on trial again in 1963 with seven others on charges of sabotage, treason, and conspiracy. In the celebrated Rivonia Trial, named after the suburb of Johannesburg where ANC weapons were found, Mandela eloquently defended his actions. On June 12, 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
After 18 years at the brutal Robben Island Prison, where his civil disobedience and other acts of lawful protests had ensured the improvement of conditions at the prison, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison, and finally to a cottage where he was put under house arrest.
On February 11, 1990, President F.W De Klerk ordered the release of Nelson Mandela. Mandela subsequently led the ANC in its negotiations with the minority government for an end to apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial government. In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 26, 1994, the country’s first free elections were won by Mandela and the ANC, and a “national unity” coalition was formed with de Klerk’s National Party and the Zulus’ Inkatha Freedom Party. On May 10, Mandela was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by numerous international dignitaries.