October is Black History Month, and to celebrate, we’re featuring someone who has influenced history every Wednesday and Saturday all through October. Our next instalment features Nelson Mandela.

Did you know that Nelson Mandela was expelled from University?

Nelson Mandela was the first black South African president, and an international peace activist, dedicating his life to improving the lives of back people and promoting racial equality. He was imprisoned for 27 years.


Nelson Mandela’s Story

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape on 18 July 1918. His father was principal councillor to the Acting King of the Thembu people. He died when Nelson was just 12. He became a ward to the King, and the stories of his ancestors’ bravery in the wars of resistance inspired him to want to contribute to the freedom of his people.

He attended primary school, where he was given the name Nelson, a tradition in which students were given ‘christian’ names. He continued to do well at secondary school and then began studying for a degree in Fort Hare. He was expelled after joining in a student protest.

The King was furious, and told him that he had to return to Fort Hare and complete his degree or wives would be arranged for him. He ran away to Johannesburg, arriving in 1941. He had various jobs including a a mine security guard. He then worked as an articled clerk for a law firm. Whilst there, he befriended many liberals of different races and religions, and went to communist meetings where he saw all sorts of people mixing over a common interest. He then began working on a BA at night through University of South Africa, returning to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943. He then began studying at the University of the Witwatersrand, but he was a poor student and left without completing his studies.

In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress and helped to form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). He rose through the ranks and through its efforts, the ANC developed the Programme of Action, a more radical mass-based policy, in 1949.

In 1952 he was chosen as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign with Maulvi Cachalia as his deputy. This campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws was a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. He and 19 others were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the campaign and sentenced to nine months of hard labour, suspended for two years.

A two-year diploma in law on top of his BA allowed Mandela to practise law, and in August 1952 he and Oliver Tambo established South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo.

At the end of 1952 he was banned for the first time. As a restricted person he was only permitted to watch in secret as the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown on 26 June 1955.

In December 1956 he was arrested with around 100 others on charges of treason. He went on trial that year and was acquitted in 1961. On 21 March 1960 police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest in Sharpeville against the pass laws. This led to the country’s first state of emergency and the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on 8 April. Mandela and his colleagues in the Treason Trial were among thousands detained during the state of emergency. He and other ANC leaders formed the military group known as Spear of the Nation, which launched on 16 December 1961 with a series of explosions.

On 11 January 1962, Mandela left South Africa in secret. He travelled Europe and Africa in search of support of the armed struggle, receiving military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. He was arrested upon his return to South Africa in 1962 and sentenced to 5 years in prison, charged with leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to strike. The police raided a property that was a secret hideout for ANC members and found incriminating documents and weapons. He was put on trial for sabotage on 9 October 1963 along with 10 others in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. He faced the death penalty, but was sentenced to life imprisonment.

While in prison, Mandela rejected three offers of freedom, all of which meant that he would have to abandon his principals. He remained in prison for 27 years.

On February 11 1990, the South African government released Mandela from prison. The ANC was unbanned and he was made president of the party in July 1999. By 1994 the party was sworn into government and Mandela became the first black President of South Africa. He sought to improving the living situations of black people in particular. He stepped down after one term but continued his work, setting up the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which works to this day to promote equality, freedom and peace.

He died in December 2013 after getting a lung infection, but will be remembered always as an international advocate of peace.