History's HEROES? Dated 1918 -

Nelson Mandela

Created by

Penny Johnson


South Africa
Born here and fought for freedom from suppression.


  • He negotiated with the South African government whilst still in prison
  • He led the fight for free elections
  • He became South Africa's first elected black President
  • He fought for and achieved a peaceful transition to democracy
  • He led the way to international reconciliation
  • He started the long process of building social justice in South Africa.


  • Brave / Courageous
  • A good and strong leader
  • Altruistic (puts other first e.g. risks or gives life for others)
  • Clever
  • Visionary (has far reaching ideas)
  • Good or moral (strong beliefs or principles)
  • Has integrity (stands up for what they believe and act accordingly)
  • Perseverant / Tenacious (keeps going despite challenges)
  • Decisive
  • Single minded / Focused (has a purpose)
  • Inspiring / Charismatic
  • Determined
  • Wise
  • Honest
  • Kind and compassionate
  • Just and fair minded


"I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man." - Nelson Mandela 1962

"I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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." - Nelson Mandela at his trial in 1964

The 'terrorist' who became South Africa's first democratically elected president.

Nelson Mandela spent his young life fighting for the freedom of South Africa's black and coloured population from oppression imposed by the minority government. He was imprisoned for 27 years. Soon after release, he became the first president of South Africa in elections in which all the people could vote. He gave great priority to reconciliation between the races.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo, small village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, to the Xhosa speaking Thembu people. His father died when he was nine, and he became the ward of the Paramount Chief and expected to eventually take high office. He went to a local mission primary school, where he was given the name Nelson. 

After secondary schooling he enrolled at university of Fort Hare in 1939 and became friends with Oliver Tambo.  They were both suspended a year later for taking part in a protest boycott. Mandela and his cousin Justice then ran away to Johannesburg to escape arranged marriages. While there he met Walter Sisilu who arranged for him to start his articles in a law firm. While studying, in 1943 he joined the African National Congress (ANC) to campaign for justice for the people of South Africa.

In 1948 he was elected secretary for the African National Congress Youth League which was trying to persuade the ANC to become more active in their campaigning. In that year, all-white elections were held - no black or mixed race people were allowed to take part - and the National Party was elected to bring in Apartheid - forced living apart of the races.

In 1949, the Youth League persuaded the ANC to accept a campaign of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-co-operation. And in 1952, the ANC embarked on a Defiance Campaign against unjust laws. Nelson Mandela toured the country encouraging people to take part in civil disobedience. He was arrested, with others, and convicted despite the fact that they had "advised their followers to adopt a peaceful course of action and to avoid all violence". He was given a suspended sentence and his movements were restricted.

During this time, Mr. Mandela passed his law exams and in December 1952, he and his friend, Oliver Tembo, opened South Africa's first black law firm in central Johannesburg. Because of the apartheid laws, they were told they had to move out of town, miles away from their clients. They refused and stayed put. 

He continued to work for justice and against apartheid, to the annoyance of the authorities and, in 1956, he and 155 others were charged with high treason and imprisoned during a trial that lasted 4 years and at the end of which they were acquitted (found not guilty).

In 1960, the ANC was outlawed. They had to conduct their meetings in secret from then on. Despite that, he would go to other public meetings and speak out against the repressive regime and secretly organise civil action like strikes and sit ins. However, he had to move around a lot because the authorities were looking for him and he kept evading them.

The authorities were using ever more brutal methods to enforce the 'pass' laws; everyone, except whites, had to carry passes on them at all times which restricted where they were allowed to go. In 1960, there was a huge demonstration outside a police station in Sharpeville when more than 5000 people presented themselves without passes, demanding to be arrested. The demonstration grew throughout the day, armed police support was rushed in and sometime in the afternoon, the police started shooting. 69 people were killed, including 8 women and 10 children, and 180 injured, including 31 women and 19 children. Many were shot in the back as they tried to run away.

Incidents like this made the leadership of the ANC decide that the fight for freedom had to become an armed struggle, since peaceful means were not working and were met with force.

Under an assumed name, Nelson Mandela travelled abroad in 1962 (including Britain) to enlist support for their cause. Shortly after their return he was arrested for leaving the country illegally and incitement to strike. He conducted his own defence and used it to make clear his views on racism and injustice. He was convicted and given 5 years imprisonment. 

While in prison, their underground HQ was uncovered and he and 10 others were charged with sabotage.  They all used the trial to make public their political beliefs and 2 of them, Nelson Mandela, Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, decided that if they were given the death sentence, they would not appeal.

9 were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. They were flown to Robben Island. They refused offers of remission in return for accepting apartheid.  "Prisoners cannot enter into contracts - only free men can negotiate." Mandela said and he stayed in prison a further 26 years.

During that time, in 1976, thousands of school children and students in Soweto walked out of school to march in protest against a law forcing them to do their learning in 'Afrikaans', "the language of the oppressor" (Tutu). When they would not disperse, the police fired into the crowds of children, killing and wounding many.  Chaos and rioting followed. The final death toll is unkown but runs into hundreds, with thousands wounded. This news spread throughout the world, highlighting the brutal repression of the regime. The tide of opinion, even in South Africa began to turn.

During the later 1980's, Nelson Mandela initiated talks with the government and open dialogue between them and the ANC. A new Nationalist president F. W. de Klerk took office. He responded to the pressure to release Mr. Mandela and lift the ban on the ANC.

On February 11th 1990, Nelson Mandela walked free. The following year he was elected President of the ANC and began negotiations with de Klerk on a new democratic constitution for South Africa.  

In 1993, together they accepted the Nobel Peace prize, on behalf of all the people who had suffered so much to bring justice to South Africa.

In 1994, Mr. Mandela voted for the first time and a few weeks later became South Africa's first President first President of a (in his words) "united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist government." in elections in which, for the first time, every South African adult was able to vote.

Despite the brutality of the previous regime and his own personal suffering, Nelson Mandela instituted a peace and reconciliation agenda, never faltering in his belief in democracy, equality and learning, holding out the hand of peace to those who had oppressed and deprived others.

Life in Nelson Mandela's world

What did Apartheid and it laws mean for the ordinary non-white person living in South Africa? 

Apartheid laws designated 4 races: white, black, coloured (mixed race) and Indian. Here are a few examples of these laws.

Family: Each race had to live in separate areas, therefore family members (especially from mixed race families) could be separated and forced to live away from each other.

Non-white people were forcibly removed from areas where they lived into other areas - even into 'transit camps'. 

Marriage between 'races' was outlawed.

Not only living areas but  transport,  hospitals, schools, colleges, beaches and even park benches were segregated, with all the better facilities kept for whites.

An example in education:  644 South African Rands was spent each year for each White school children while only 42 Rands was budgeted for a Black school child. 

Gradually, non-whites were disenfranchised - stripped of their right to vote.

All black people over 16 had to carry a 'pass' at all times in white areas. It was like an internal passport, with details like address, fingerprints, photograph, name of employer, his/her address, how long employed etc. An employer could be only a white person. The pass also showed legal permission (or not)  to be in a certain area and the reason for such permission. Any government employee could cancel the permission to stay in the area.
Without a valid permission, officials would arrest and imprison the person with the pass. 

Most passes were granted for only one individual (usually a man) for working, who then had to leave his wife and family behind. 


Was Nelson Mandela a Hero?

  • His willingness to fight against injustice and racism whereever he met it
  • His refusal to bow to pressure to accept injustice to keep himself out of prison
  • His flexibility in being prepared to talk to the 'oppressor' government
  • He always put the cause of justice and freedom from oppression before his own safety
  • His ability to put away revenge for the good of all people in South Africa
  • His inspirational leadership

Things you might not know about Nelson Mandela

He is often called Madiba - his Xhosa clan name.

A teacher at his primary school gave him the English name, Nelson.

He was called the Black Pimpernel, because of his success in moving from place to place and evading the police. 

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