Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the Transkei, a region of rolling green hills near the southern tip of the African continent. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he recalled his childhood as a simple, joyful time. He herded sheep and cows near his mother’s huts and played barefoot with other boys. He was educated by British missionaries, got a law degree and eventually opened the first black law firm in Johannesburg. In the 1940s, Mandela became active with the Youth League of the African National Congress. Tapping into the culture of black resistance that was sweeping Johannesburg, Mandela helped organize strikes and demonstrations against the country’s system of racial segregation.
As a young man in Johannesburg, South Africa, President Mandela experienced firsthand the impact of apartheid—where racial segregation, unequal rights, and poverty among the black majority were the norm. Later, Mandela and other ANC leaders decided that freedom songs and civil disobedience would never topple the apartheid government, so they set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. As a result of Umkhonto we Sizwe’s guerrilla tactics, Mandela and seven other ANC leaders went on trial for sabotage in 1963.
Against the advice of his lawyers, Mandela gave a four-hour closing statement. He used the speech in what’s known as the “Rivonia trial” to attack the apartheid system. Despite facing the death penalty, he defiantly told the court that his actions had been in pursuit of the ideal of a free, democratic society with equal opportunity for people of all races. As he fought for social justice he faced opponents that were internationally recognized, better funded, and backed by a standing police force. He was called a terrorist, a traitor, and a criminal by those within his country and watching from afar. And he was sentenced to life in prison in 1964 on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government.
“It is an idea for which I hope to live for and to see realized but my Lord, if it needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die,” Mandela said at the time. Mandela and his codefendants escaped the gallows but were sentenced to life in prison. He would spend the next 27 years behind bars, much of that time in the maximum security prison on Robben Island. In prison he became a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement and the focal point of international campaigns to do away with racial segregation in South Africa. The anti-apartheid revolutionary and the country’s first black president was known for his compassion and progress through peaceful resistance. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for treason of the white minority government and was released in 1990 after negotiating with his captors. He went on to lead the first fully democratic election in the country’s history. His contributions and the number of people he inspired are innumerable.
President Mandela personifies the fearless values we talk about so frequently: taking risks, being bold, and letting urgency conquer fear. Perhaps most importantly, President Mandela pressed for a cause that he believed was right when most said the challenges he and his fellow activists faced were insurmountable. His selflessness, his perseverance, and his focus have been an inspiration for activists and changemakers around the world.
Mr Mandela was a human being whose life can be seen as an inspiration to humanity. He was born to lead and he led a nation out of a darkness which should have no place in any time, but which was a suppurating wound in the modern world. Apartheid was wrong on so many levels – an affront to the most basic levels of human decency. The genius, the legacy, the meaning of Mr Mandela, was that he rose above the hate, fear, greed, and suspicion of apartheid, and on finally coming to power used his authority to lead the people of South Africa towards reconciliation.
These kinds of challenges would likely stop most of us in our tracks, but President Mandela pressed on. On several occasions, the South African government offered his freedom on the condition that he abandon his activism. Each time, he refused. His tireless work sparked an international movement of individuals and eventually governments that lobbied for his release and for an end to apartheid. And, his release from prison was a historic moment—courage had triumphed over fear.
President Mandela did not stop his work at the end of apartheid. He then started what proved to be a nearly equally challenging task of governing, and of bringing a country together that had been ripped apart by the struggle for equal rights. He knew that his work was not done, and he knew that he needed to inspire the next generation of South Africans to continue to press for unity, for growth, and for equal opportunity. As President, he continued to take risks and bold actions, working with all parties to bring the country together–beginning at the outset of his presidency, inviting his former jailer to be a VIP guest at his inauguration.
Nelson Mandela will always remain an inspiration for all of us. We applaud you for being fearless in the face of so many obstacles, for learning from adversity rather than hiding from it, and for showing us that we all can lead movements that can change the world.