Nelson Mandela: 1918 – 2013

Published January 2014, News Current

South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela, died on December 5. He was 95 years old. He had been battling a lung condition that began when he contracted tuberculosis years ago.

Current South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mr. Mandela’s death by saying, “We’ve lost our greatest son.”

Mandela was born July 18, 1918. His father named him “Rolihlahla.” It means “troublemaker.” On his first day of school, Mandela’s teacher gave him the name “Nelson.” The world has called him Nelson Mandela ever since.

Dr. Spinney said that Mandela sought “allies anywhere he could.”

Mandela received the best education available to a black South African of his day. He pursued law at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. That exposed him to discrimination by the ruling white minority of the time. South Africa was set up on a system called “apartheid.” Under that system, black and white people were segregated. Mandela campaigned against racial segregation. He also became an activist.

Patrick Henry College history professor Robert Spinney summarized Mandela’s early politics: “As a young man. . . [Mandela] was a militant and violent protester against the all-white apartheid regime. He had links to leftists, socialists, and communists.” Dr. Spinney said that Mandela sought “allies anywhere he could.”

 South African authorities charged him with attempted to overthrow the government violently. They sentenced him to life in prison. But an international campaign to free him grew. In 1990, white South African President F.W. de Klerk freed Mandela. He had been in jail for 27 years.

Nelson Mandla became South Africa’s President in 1994. Would he push for revenge or for racial harmony? Dr. Spinney noted that after prison, he was a peacemaker: “He prevented blacks from going violent. He was not vindictive. He sought and obtained reconciliation with whites. Rather than being driven out of South Africa by justifiably angry blacks, [white South Africans] enjoyed legal protection.”

Mandla served only one term as president. But in that time, he reconciled the separated nation.