Known amongst the South Africans as “Madiba”; which means “Father” in the Xhosa language, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is celebrated as the individual who dedicated 50 years of his life to bring about racial equality towards his countrymen. Nelson Mandela was one of the key players in abolishing the apartheid regime that was institutionalized in South Africa for 46 years. After 27 years of imprisonment for rebelling against the regime, Mandela continued his campaign to abolish apartheid. This earned Mandela the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with F.W De Klerk. The following year Mandela became the first black president of a democratic South Africa. Retiring after one term of presidency, Mandela was involved in numerous organizations supporting various causes such as tackling poverty, ensuring the welfare of men, women and children and supporting AIDS victims.

The Apartheid Regime

Apartheid; (derived from the West Germanic language Afrikaans) literally means “separateness”. The apartheid regime was first institutionalized in 1948 after South Africa’s National Party came into power. The regime was designed to give power to the white minority population over the economic and social system by the suppression and segregation of Non-Whites (Black, Coloured and Indian) in South Africa. The system was enforced by laws such as the “Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949”, which prohibited marriages between whites and non-whites. The freedom of the non-whites was controlled by implementation of “pass laws”, which forced the non-whites to carry a pass to enter urban or “white places”. This was further institutionalized by the “group areas act of 1950”; which forced the non–whites that were working in urban areas to live in controlled, government approved areas. Later in 1951, the “Bantu Authorities Act” stripped black South Africans of their citizenship and political rights including voting and pushed them to separate “homelands” which would run as independent states. Hence from 17th July 1951, the black population would require passports to enter territory controlled by the central government. The apartheid government would further deepen the segregation by creating a separate education system through the “Bantu Education Act of 1953”, and the “Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953”; which specified that all public spaces such as parks, restaurants and beaches were to contain separate areas for whites and non-whites.



Public spaces separated for white and non-whites

Mandela’s Fight

Mandela’s political career began when he joined the ANC (African National Congress) youth league during his enrollment at University College of Fort Hare. It was in 1940 that he was expelled for political activism from the university, and in 1944 in which he formally joined the ANC.

After the National Party came into power in 1948 and introduced the apartheid regime, it was in the defiance campaign of 1952 that Mandela was recognised as an anti-apartheid activist. After getting arrested along with 19 others and charged with violation of the suppression of the communism act, along with lifelong friend Oliver Tambo, Mandela drafted the M-plan (Mandela plan). It was drafted in 1953 so that the ANC could operate under the radar by dividing the party into separate operational units.

After the Sharpeville Massacre of March 1960, which was a peaceful protest with regards to pass laws in Sharpeville in South Africa but ended up with 70 dead people, 180 injured and over 5000 protestors arrested, Mandela announced that the ANC will further retaliate against the government even if they had to resort to violent means.

“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

(Nelson MandelaLong Walk to Freedom, 1994)

In December 1961, Mandela became the First commander of the MK (Umkhonto We Sizwe – spear of the nation). This was the military wing of the ANC. The motives of the MK were to destroy government property that symbolized the regime. An estimated number of 150 MK attacks occurred between 1976 and 1982.

As he became a targeted person by the Apartheid government, Mandela had to resort to hiding. He came to be known as the “Black pimpernel” as he traveled around in various disguises.  He was then smuggled out of Africa to attend the Pan- African Freedom Movement of the East; Central meeting in Ethiopia on February 1962. He also went to London to gather support for his anti-apartheid movement. He met with journalists, activists and politicians. He then returned to Ethiopia to undergo guerilla training for two months before returning to South Africa.

Mandela was later arrested along with other major MK leaders. They were charged with sabotage and conspiracy in what is now known as “the Rivonia trial”. The offenders were charged with treason and sentenced to death. In the second indictment of the trial he gave a four-hour speech, in which he famously declared “it is a cause I’m prepared to die for”. Thereafter Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment along with most of the MK leaders. This occurred despite calls for leniency from the UN and the World Peace Council.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” (Nelson Mandela – April 20, 1964)

Mandela was sent to the Robben Island prison where he spent 18 out of 27 years of imprisonment. During this time, he studied for a law degree from the University of London International Programmes. He also played a key role in establishing the “University of Robben Island”. This gave the opportunity to fellow prisoners to lecture on their areas of expertise. In the remaining 37 years, Mandela was sent to Pollsmoor prison and Victer Verser Prison. The said prison was at the level of comfort of a house due to illnesses. Thus, the apartheid government had made many offers for unconditional release.  The offers denied by Mandela. Instead, he continued to garner attention to the regime.  This made Mandela increasing popular in the international community.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the apartheid regime became increasingly weaker. Meanwhile Mandela continued to attract the attention of the international community. This resulted in constant pressure to the apartheid government to release Mandela.

On 11th February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison as a free man. He then released his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom in 1994. In which he wrote about his early life and his 27 years of life in prison. As he declared that he would continue to work for peace and reconciliation. He spent four years travelling, meeting world leaders gathering support for his cause. In 1994 Mandela became the first black president of a new democratic South Africa.

“Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one’s commitment.”

(Mandela, 1994)

 Throughout his presidency, Mandela tried to piece up a broken nation. That suffered from disease, poverty and crime. Then he brought up The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which unveiled crimes committed from both the apartheid government and the ANC. This was also initiated as a peace building process. As it was a way of understanding the two communities by bringing them together. Thereafter, in 1999, after one term in office, Mandela stepped down from the presidency.

“A leader… is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the mot nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

(Mandela, 1994)

Despite stepping down from politics, Mandela was vocal on social issues particularly on equality and education. In 2005, the “Time Magazine” listed Mandela as one of the 100 most influential people. On the 18th July 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared “Mandela Day”. This was in commemoration of his birthday and his work towards peace and reconciliation.

Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” came to an end on 5th December 2013. To which South Africa and the world mourned. However, his dedication for peace and equality is inspiring and sets a benchmark for future leaders to follow.


Picture of nelson Mandela:

Picture of the signboard:

Roger Omond, the Apartheid Handbook, 1986

Brian Lapping, Apartheid a History, 1986

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1994

by Tharindi Rangoda ,Intern BCIS /  International Relations student @Royal Institute of Colombo