Learn more about Nelson Mandela as we remember his inauguration on this day in history May 10th, 1994.
Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist and the first black president of South Africa. He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in the rural village of Mvezo. A descendant of the Thembu royal family, Mandela’s father served as a local chief and counselor to the king. His devout Christian mother enrolled him in a Methodist school, where he was given the English name Nelson. After his father’s death, the 12-year-old Mandela was brought to the center of the Thembu monarchy to be raised by the king’s regent.
Living among the royal family exposed Mandela to powerful examples of black leadership that remained a source of influence throughout his life. Mandela attended the University College of Fort Hare and studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The school’s only black student and a frequent target of racism, Mandela soon began to immerse himself in the world of radical politics. In 1944, he joined the African National Congress, an anti-colonialist political party that fought to enfranchise and empower the black population living under an oppressive white authority. Mandela helped to found the ANC’s youth league and quickly rose in its ranks alongside fellow activists Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. With the national party’s rise to power in 1948, South Africa’s racial inequality was officially codified under the system of apartheid.
The government passed legislation that institutionalized discrimination and enforced the supremacy of the minority white population. Mandela and the ANC fought back, launching the defiance campaigns of 1952, a series of nonviolent, direct actions uniting black, Indian, and communist coalitions through coordinated civil disobedience. The National Party swiftly cracked down on their efforts, jailing Mandela and banning him from the ANC. Before long, the campaign had died out. In 1956, Mandela and 155 colleagues were tried for treason. While they were ultimately acquitted, Mandela became convinced that apartheid would not fall without armed resistance. In 1961, he formed the MK, a militant branch of the ANC that committed targeted acts of sabotage against the government and its military. The MK’s guerrilla tactics were effective. But in August 1962, Mandela was captured. Charged with conspiracy, he received a life sentence. Incarcerated at Robben Island, Mandela remained a symbol of black South African resistance.
During his years behind bars, he continued his fight on a smaller scale, organizing against the prison’s inhumane conditions through demonstrations and teach-ins. Calls for Mandela’s freedom gradually built up global support, and South Africa’s government buckled under growing pressure. Finally, in 1990, after 27 years, Mandela was released from prison. South Africa held its first open elections in 1994. The African National Congress, led by Mandela, won in a landslide. As president, Mandela prioritized national programs that expanded access to social services, education, and housing. His administration also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which served to investigate and confront human rights violations committed under apartheid. At the end of his first term in 1999, Mandela retired from politics. He continued to commit himself to activism, particularly in response to the AIDS crisis, until the end of his life. In 2013, Mandela died of a respiratory infection at age 95. He still stands as both the father of his nation and an international symbol of hard-won liberation.