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Happy Birthday Mr Mandela: A look at the life of a global icon

20th July 2012

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Wednesday saw Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday. Celebrations occurred throughout South Africa with greetings sent from all over the world. In Qunu, his ancestral home, people took part in 67 minutes of community work each; a minute for every year Mandela devoted to public service.

With his birthday established by the UN as International Mandela Day, why is this ex-president such a global icon? 

The History

Nelson Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18th 1918. He received a university education before qualifying in law in 1942. Two years later he joined the African National Congress, taking part in various resistance protests and rallies against the ruling National Party’s apartheid policies.

In 1956-1961 he was tried for treason, but was later acquitted. In 1960 the ANC was banned and the non-whites found themselves without an established political voice, provoking Mandela to suggest military action. An ANC executive considered and agreed that any members who wished to involve themselves in Mandela’s campaign would not be stopped from doing so by the Congress. The military wing known as Umkhonto we Sizwe was created.

However, in 1962 Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment with hard labour. A year later, he was brought to stand trial alongside other leaders of the ANC for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. Conducting his own defence in the courtroom, Mandela received international publicity for his statement which conveyed his beliefs about democracy, freedom and equality. He said:

             “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.”

On June 12 1964 Mandela and the others were sentenced to life imprisonment. During his time in prison, both Mandela’s mother and his eldest son died, but he was refused leave to attend the funerals. As both he and other ANC leaders suffered in prison or exile, the black youths of South Africa did their best to defy the white minority rule. After hundreds died, their uprising was crushed.

In 1980, an international campaign to release Mandela was launched by Mr Tambo, a fellow ANC member and an anti-apartheid politician. Global sanctions were tightened on South Africa and their apartheid regime, and in 1990 President FW de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and released Nelson Mandela from prison. Talks on forming a new multi-racial democracy for South Africa began.

 In 1994, Mandela became the first black president of South Africa after serving 27 years in prison. 


So what exactly was this apartheid?

From 1948 the apartheid became a political system under the policy of the Afrikaner Nationalist Party, which governed every aspect of life in South Africa. An Afrikaan word meaning ‘separateness’, the apartheid enforced a racial hierarchy which privileged white South Africans. People were classified into racial groups determined by their skin colour (non-whites were classified into Asian, Black or Coloured) and separate geographic areas were allocated to each of these.

Initial emphasis was to restore the separation of races within urban areas and between 1950 and 1986 about 1.5 million Africans were forcibly removed from cities to rural locations.

Later, the Separate Development Policy was introduced under the Prime Ministership of Hendrik Verwoerd, which deprived black people of their citizenship. They instead became legal citizens of one of ten tribally based self-governing homelands or ‘Bantustans’. An area spanning about 14% of the country’s land was set aside for these homelands while the rest was allocated purely for the whites. Movement between parts of the country was regulated, the location of residence or employment was restricted and only the whites were allowed to vote or own land. Alongside this the government segregated education, medical care, beaches and other public services, providing black people with services inferior to those of the whites. Any Africans outside the Bantustans had to comply with strict curfew regulations and passbook requirements; failure to produce these when challenged resulted in arrest.

The Icon  

Due to his strong resistance to the apartheid rule Nelson Mandela is now an internationally recognised symbol. He refused to compromise his political beliefs even to obtain freedom, and with his defiant speech in the courtroom he became a figure of strength for ANC supporters. Believing in equality, democracy and political freedom of speech, his inspiring words and selfless actions left him with no shortage of support.

But his political success and achievement as the first black President is frequently downplayed by Mandela. It appears that he is respected and admired worldwide for not only his political activism but also for his incredibly modest personality displaying an incredible lack of bitterness over the harsh treatment he received.  

The Status

Not only did he achieve the status of the first black South African President in 1994 but a year before this Nelson Mandela also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work resisting the apartheid regime and “for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”

He stepped down as president in 1999 and has since become South Africa’s highest profile ambassador, campaigning against HIV/Aids and helping to secure his country’s right to host the 2010 football World Cup. He has been involved in peace negotiations across various countries in Africa and across the globe including the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Now, at the grand old age of 94, Mandela is retired and spends much of his time enjoying the company of his family and ‘reflecting’ on life. He is famously quoted for retiring with the line, "don’t call me, I’ll call you" aimed at anyone considering making future demands on his time.

Perhaps with such an amazing life history, no one can blame him…

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