Former South African president Nelson Mandela died today, following a lengthy bout of pneumonia that had him in and out of the hospital for months. He was 95.
Throughout his life, the stalwart freedom fighter, who spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activities, never stopped tackling the issues he was passionate about. He inspired his country and the world by confronting inequality, poverty, racial reconciliation, and HIV/AIDS.
We take a look back at Nelson Mandela's personal sacrifices and the political and humanitarian legacy he fought so long and hard for:
Early Years Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Qunu, Transkei, South Africa. He was an active student as a young man, leading strikes at Fort Hare University before starting the Youth League of the African National Congress with other student activists in 1944. Mandela became active in the campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, advocating civil disobedience to draw attention to this unjust system of state-sponsored segregation and discrimination.
Imprisonment In March 1960, the Sharpeville Massacre brought the struggle against apartheid into the international spotlight. A massive number of black protestors led a demonstration at a police station in the township of Sharpeville. Police reacted violently against the protest, killing over 69 people. The massacre became a flashpoint for the fight against apartheid. Mandela helped organize a general strike and formed a paramilitary wing of the ANC called Umkhonte we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). The South African government cracked down on Mandela and other activists, determined to shut down these efforts. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 for his political activities. He would spend 27 years in prison on South Africa’s Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor Prison.
Watch a clip of Mandela's dedication to activism:
The Fight Continues Despite his imprisonment, Mandela continued to play a key leadership role, inspiring activists and helping formulate strategies for overcoming apartheid. Internationally, he became a symbol of courage in the face of oppression. Mandela was released from prison in February 1990 and became president of the ANC when it was reestablished as a legal political party in 1991.
Ending Apartheid After he was freed from prison, Mandela plunged with full force into the movement to end apartheid. He is credited with helping build a coalition of activists that would work together to establish post-apartheid South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993 for his efforts. In 1994, Mandela won the presidency in the nation’s first democratic election, and he served as head of South Africa’s new government until 1999. Mandela worked tirelessly to reform the nation’s social service and public finance systems, and he advocated for reconciliation among all South African people.
Life and Legacy Although Mandela has passed, his work will continue in communities worldwide. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Mandela has been honored with songs, honorary degrees, statues, and other tributes. The United Nations has declared his birthday “Mandela Day” in which communities across the globe are encouraged to do something positive for others for at least 67 minutes, in honor of the number of years Mandela dedicated to the freedom struggle.
(For a detailed account of his story, check out Mandela’s autobiography entitled Long Walk to Freedom, published in 1994.)