Nelson Mandela is the South African leader who sparked a series of events that led to the end of apartheid. He also served as the first Black president of South Africa and won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
Born in Umtata, South Africa, in what is now Eastern Cape Province, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the son of a Xhosa-speaking Thembu chief. He attended the University of Fort Hare in Alice where he became involved in the political struggle against the racial discrimination practiced in South Africa. He was expelled in 1940 for participating in a student demonstration. After moving to Johannesburg, he completed his course work by correspondence through the University of South Africa and received a bachelor’s degree in 1942. Mandela then studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
He became increasingly involved with the African National Congress (ANC), a multiracial nationalist movement which sought to bring about democratic political change in South Africa. Mandela helped establish the ANC’s Youth League in 1944 and became its president in 1951. The National Party (NP) came to power in South Africa in 1948 on a political platform of white supremacy. The official policy of apartheid, or forced segregation of the races, began to be implemented under NP rule. In 1952, the ANC staged a campaign known as the Defiance Campaign, when protesters across the country refused to obey apartheid laws. That same year Mandela became one of the ANC’s four deputy presidents.
In 1952, he and his friend Oliver Tambo were the first Blacks to open a law practice in South Africa. In the face of government harassment and with the prospect of the ANC being officially banned, Mandela and others devised a plan. Called the "M" plan after Mandela, it organized the ANC into small units of people who could then encourage grassroots participation in anti-apartheid struggles.
By the late 1950s, Mandela, with Oliver Tambo and others, moved the ANC in a more militant direction against the increasingly discriminatory policies of the government. He was charged with treason in 1956 because of the ANC’s increased activity, particularly in the Defiance Campaign, but he was acquitted after a five-year trial. In 1957, Mandela divorced his first wife, Evelyn Mase; in 1958, he married Nkosikazi Nomzamo Madikizela, a social worker, who became known as Winnie Mandela. In March 1960, the ANC and its rival, the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), called for a nationwide demonstration against South Africa’s pass laws, which controlled the movement and employment of Blacks and forced them to carry identity papers.
When police massacred 69 Blacks demonstrating in Sharpeville, both the ANC and the PAC were banned. After Sharpeville, the ANC abandoned the strategy of nonviolence, which until that time had been an important part of its philosophy. Mandela helped to establish the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), in December 1961. He was named its commander-in-chief and went to Algeria for military training.
Back in South Africa, he was arrested in August 1962 and sentenced to prison for incitement and for leaving the country illegally. In response to both international and domestic pressure, the South African government, under the leadership of President F. W. de Klerk, lifted the ban against the ANC and released Mandela in February 1990 after 28 years in prison.