By Roxanne Joseph



Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is known predominantly for his role as a revolutionary who dedicated his life to creating a democratic South Africa free from racial segregation and inequality. It is impossible to list each and every highlight during Mandela’s lifetime, which spanned close to a century.


He was a beacon of hope, and represented change and reconciliation, but he meant very different things to different people. He was an activist, a freedom fighter, political leader, family man and father to a broken nation, with a lifelong mission to help mend it.



One of the first highlights of Mandela’s younger years was when, at around the age of 25, he became involved with the Student Representative Council at Fort Hare University, where he was studying at the time. This was perhaps the first public view of his inclination towards political activism and it eventually resulted in his being asked to leave the university. It was also here that he met his lifelong friend Oliver Tambo.


Although Mandela’s principles had always been aligned with those of freedom and equality, it was really his time as a law student at the University of the Witwatersrand (where he was exposed to black consciousness, African nationalism and desegregation) that galvanised him.


In 1939, he completed his studies and, five years later, joined the African National Congress (ANC), taking his place alongside the elite group of young, black intellectuals (Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Anton Lembede, among others) who would go on to lead the country in later years. The group – loudly – voicing their dissatisfaction with the way the ANC was being run, formed the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in April of that year. For the next decade, Mandela would focus on using the law to wage war on apartheid.


While this new generation of black leadership quickly began to formalise their ideas for the way forward, the rest of the world watched as World War II drew to a close, the first electronic digital computer was introduced and the United Nations was established.


Several years later, in 1948, the apartheid policy of segregation was implemented across South Africa under the Nationalist Party (NP). One of the party’s first actions was to pass the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act in 1949, which outlawed marriages between whites and non-whites. This was followed by more legislation which dictated where people could live and restricted their ability to work, all according to race.


Mandela’s response to apartheid was, in 1952, to open the first black law firm in South Africa with Tambo; the two provided free or cheap legal aid to the black population. They joined Sisulu and Communist Party General-Secretary Moses Kotane in forming the Congress Alliance; they embarked on national campaigns against specific apartheid laws and encouraged passive resistance.


That same year, they started the two-year long Defiance Campaign, which transformed the ANC into a mass-based and militant organisation, growing from 7 000 to over 100 000 volunteers by the time the campaign ended. During this time, Mandela emerged as one of the most influential leaders of the liberation struggle as he recruited volunteers and spent several short stints in jail.



Anti-pass campaigns intensified as 1960 rolled around, and tensions between the black population and government reached a climax following the death of 69 people and wounding of 186 more during the Sharpeville Massacre. This was the start of armed resistance in South Africa, and the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were declared illegal after the Unlawful Organisations Act came into effect. Under this act, any organisation deemed a threat to the public could be banned by the government.


Just as Mandela went into hiding, the United States of America sent troops into Vietnam for the first time, 15 African countries gained independence and a referendum of white South Africans voted in favour of leaving the Commonwealth and becoming a republic. While Mandela was being arrested for conspiring to overthrow the state and preparing to stand trial, Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and Frank Ifield were topping the charts with songs about love and heartbreak.


The Rivonia Trial, where 10 leading opponents of apartheid appeared in the Pretoria Supreme Court, began in 1963. Then President Hendrik Verwoerd was hoping for the death penalty, but when the trial ended on 12 June 1964, the court sentenced eight of the accused, including Mandela, to life imprisonment. The trial was significant not only because of whom it centred on, but also because of its media coverage; the resulting international pressure was immense.


In the aftermath, various sports bodies (including FIFA and the Olympic Committee) terminated the country’s membership, and by the 1970s South Africa was largely isolated from participating in world sport and other cultural events.


But the fight inside Mandela did not dwindle, even while imprisoned. For 18 long years, he was incarcerated on Robben Island, a mere 12-kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. The prison was a harsh place and had a reputation for banishment that went as far back as the 17th century. During his time there, Mandela (or prisoner 46664) was forced to work at the limestone quarry under the scorching sun for several hours each day. After his release in 1990, Mandela asked that photographers avoid using flash photography at a series of press conferences he attended because his eyes had been severely damaged by the bright reflection of the sun from the stones.


On 16 June 1976, tens of thousands of students took to the streets of Soweto to oppose the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in black schools. Although initially peaceful, the protests turned violent as police fired at participants, leading to months of violence and hundreds of people dead. This is considered a turning point in the history of black resistance to apartheid.


In 1985, three years after he was moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, Mandela began secret talks with the government. These negotiations continued for years without the public knowing, and during this time Mandela was taken on secret excursions so that he could reconnect with the world. A year later, in June 1986, the government declared a nationwide state of emergency and, with it, implemented curfews, banned the promotion of unlawful strikes, boycotts and protests, and restricted the press.



In 1989, the first publicly acknowledged meeting between Mandela and then President PW Botha took place. The meeting was characterised by Justice Minister Kobie H Coetsee as “pleasant”, but he denied rumours of Mandela’s possible release. A series of important events followed: after Botha suffered a stroke, FW de Klerk was sworn in as acting president and pledged to phase out apartheid; eight of the country’s most prominent political prisoners were released; and the 30-year ban on the ANC and other political organisations was lifted.


On 11 February 1990, Mandela was freed without conditions. Instead of being taken to his home in Soweto, he insisted on walking, hand-in-hand with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, through the gates of Victor Verster Prison. It had been 27 years, six months and four days since the country’s most wanted man, aged 44, was arrested at a roadblock outside the town of Howick; the father of five entered into freedom as a 71-year-old grandfather.


And so, as the Berlin Wall was falling and the Hubble Telescope began orbiting, the ANC suspended its guerilla campaign against apartheid, and deliberations over an interim Constitution – one based on full political equality – began.


South Africa’s power shift was hastened by the death of popular black leader Chris Hani, who was shot and killed on 10 April 1993. Mandela appealed to the country for calm and urged a stronger commitment to negotiations from all sides. The ANC, meanwhile, reacted confrontationally after a massacre in Boipatong township in 1992 left more than 40 dead. That same year, Mandela and De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and black and white leaders endorsed the interim constitution that attempted to balance majority rule with safeguards to reassure whites and other minorities.


On 27 April 1994, for the first time in South African history, black people were allowed to vote in the general elections. Despite months of violence leading up to this moment, a peaceful election ensued and the ANC was named the ruling party; as a result, Mandela became the first black president of the country.



Finally, South Africa found itself on the path to reconciliation. But reconciliation was not without further pain and suffering. It began with one of Mandela’s greatest achievements during his time as president: the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was a court-like body that heard testimonies from the victims of apartheid and perpetrators of violence; the former had a chance to be heard and the latter had the opportunity to give testimony and request amnesty from prosecution.


The formal hearings began in April of 1996 and were crucial to the transition to a full and free democracy in South Africa. The TRC presented its report almost two years later, and in it, condemned both sides for committing atrocities.


One of the most significant sporting events for South Africa during the 1990s was the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when the national team won. The previously all-white team had long been seen as a symbol of oppression by many black South Africans and had been banned from international competition until 1992. Mandela called for everyone – including the black population – to support the team and, for many, this move was seen as yet another step towards racial reconciliation.


The 1990s saw the rise of multiculturalism and alternatives – grunge, rave and hip hop spread globally, and genocides devastated Rwanda and Bosnia. Technology enabled information and communication. Wars in the Congo, Iraq and Chechnya broke out.


For much of his term as president, Mandela dedicated his efforts to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, starting with donating a third of his salary throughout his term in office to its formation. From 1996 to 1998, the fund mobilised nearly R40-million, which went to almost 800 projects. Mandela’s love of children is a quality he was always known for, and to him the fund spoke to his resounding faith in the country’s future generations as leaders of further reconciliation. He emphasised this at the launch of the fund: “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people.”


Mandela’s first and only term in office ended on 14 June 1999, when he was succeeded by Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki, who went on to lead the country for almost a decade. Mbeki was one of the first to boldly contradict Mandela’s sanitised rainbow nation when he described South Africa as two nations: one poor and black, and the other rich and white.


After leaving office, Mandela continued to lend support to the fight against social injustice, poverty and inequality in South Africa and across the continent. He persevered with diplomatic efforts he had initiated in government, working to mediate in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, among others. While retirement may have slowed Mandela down slightly, his activist instincts never dwindled – he became an advocate in the fight against HIV and Aids, which quickly became an epidemic as the years went by.


In June 2004, at the age of 85, Mandela announced he was “retiring from retirement” to spend more time with family and friends, and told journalists, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”


Mandela was a quirky man who loved brightly coloured shirts, boxing and dancing (he will forever be remembered as using the “Madiba dance” or “Madiba magic” to help dissolve tense and difficult situations). He was so much more than the man who lifted the shroud of darkness that was apartheid, the man that led the nation – alongside his comrades and generations to come – into the light.



*Check out the latest edition of the Public Sector Leaders publication here.

For enquiries, regarding being profiled or showcased in the next edition of the Public Sector Leaders publication, please contact National Project Manager, Emlyn Dunn:

Telephone: 086 000 9590 |  Mobile: 072 126 3962 |  e-Mail: