Nelson Mandela was a South African politician and president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He is best known for his fight against apartheid and all forms of racism, which led to his incarceration, making him the most famous political prisoner ever.
Mandela was born in July 1918 in the then British colony Union of South Africa. At that time, although the majority of the population was black, it was a white minority that held the power. They controlled everything and they had established a discriminatory social structure later called apartheid. In fact, this term indicates the policy of racial segregation which provided for the separation within the country between whites on the one hand, and blacks, mixed-race and Indians on the other.
The African activist was descended from the Xhosa, one of the most important cultural groups in South Africa. His father was in fact the leader of Thembu, a subgroup of the former. The ruling white class, however, had deprived him of his title, his land and his function as leader. Mandela himself was deprived of his identity, since (as was the custom) his real name Rolihlahla was changed to Nelson, an English one. Thanks to his connections and his lineage he was able to access to the only university for blacks in the country, the University of Fort Hare. It was here that he turned into an activist.
He became a law student and created the country’s first law firm dealing with South Africans blacks’ civil rights. When apartheid became state law, Mandela and his friends gave rise to a series of non-violent protests against it. He led the Defiance Campaign, a campaign that enticed blacks to actively violate racial laws. Mandela and 8,000 other people went to jail for this, but they also gained the interest of public opinion.
After serving his sentence, Mandela returned to fighting for black rights and leading protests against the government. He was accused of treason and although he was later acquitted, he was forced to leave the country. In the meantime, he decided to receive military training and seek other supporters for his cause. The aim was to return to South Africa and create an urban warfare. Back in his country, the police found out his plans and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Before the sentence, Mandela gave a very long speech in which he spoke openly about the dignity of Africans stolen by the “politics of white supremacy” and went so far as to state: “But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
During his 27 years of imprisonment his words became famous around the world, despite being banned in South Africa. Anti-apartheid activists from all parts of the planet asked for his release. In 1960 even the United Nations intervened, calling for sanctions against the country. Under international pressure, the president of South Africa eventually freed Mandela and pledged to end the apartheid nightmare.
It took years for the law to be repealed in 1991. After winning also a Nobel Peace Prize, in 1994 Mandela became president of South Africa with over 62% of the vote.