Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary who was imprisoned and then became a politician and philanthropist, serving as the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the first black South African to hold the office, and the first elected in a fully representative election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalized racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation.
Mandela was a self-made man. His father died when he was 9, and the local tribal chief took him in and educated him.
Mandela attended school in rural Qunu, where he retreated before returning to Johannesburg to be near medical facilities.
He briefly attended The University College of Fort Hare but was expelled after taking part in a protest with Oliver Tambo, with whom he later operated the nation’s first black law firm.
In subsequent years, he completed a bachelor’s degree through correspondence courses and studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He left without graduating in 1948.
He grew up herding cattle, overcame his humble origins to become a lawyer and then used his profession to fight against apartheid. For his troubles, he was sentenced to life in prison but the walls of prison were not enough to quieten aman of Nelson’s resolve. Mandela overcame the apartheid, and all the black sheep behind it to become South Africa’s first black president, and an icon and inspiration to millions around the world. He was always mindful that his role in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid might not have been possible if he had not been imprisoned. “It is possible that if I had not gone to jail and been able to read and listen to the stories of many people. … I might not have learned these things,” Mandela said of the insights that he gained during his 27 years in jail.
His message of reconciliation, not vengeance, inspired the world. Mandela became the nation’s conscience as it healed from the scars of apartheid. Warm, lanky and charismatic in his silk, earth-toned dashikis, Nelson was always quick to admit to his shortcomings, endearing him further in a culture in which leaders rarely do. His steely gaze disarmed opponents. So did his flashy smile. For many South Africans, he was simply Madiba, his traditional clan name. Others affectionately called him Tata, the word for father in his Xhosa tribe.
Rolihlahla Mandela started his journey in the tiny village of Mvezo, in the hills of the Eastern Cape, where he was born on July 18, 1918. His teacher later named him Nelson as part of a custom to give all schoolchildren Christian names. Mandela continued to be a voice for developing nations.
He criticized U.S. President George W. Bush for launching the 2003 war against Iraq, and accused the United States of “wanting to plunge the world into a Holocaust.”
And as he was acclaimed as the force behind ending apartheid, he made it clear he was only one of many who helped transform South Africa into a democracy.
In 2004, a few weeks before he turned 86, he announced his retirement from public life to spend more time with his loved ones.
We remember him through his inspiring and revolutionary words –
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
“It always seems impossible until it is done”
“Education is the most powerful weapon in the world which you can use to change the world”
“In my country we go to prison first and then become president”
“Do not judge me by my successes , judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again”
With him gone, South Africans are left to embody his promise and idealism.