Mourning an Icon: The Life of Nelson Mandela

The former South African president, who spent 27 years in prison because he fought apartheid, has died.

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In 1942 he enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand to study law and became active in the anti-apartheid movement and the African National Congress. For several decades, Mandela headed up a peaceful, nonviolent campaign against the South African government's racist policies that included the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He and Tambo also founded a law firm through which the pair offered free and low-cost legal advice to blacks.

The Revolutionary

Mandela was arrested, along with 150 other dissidents, in 1956 and charged with treason; all were acquitted. During this time, a new generation of activists, known as the Africanists, was developing within the ANC and questioning the organization's pacifist approach, which reflected the Mahatma Gandhi model of civil disobedience. 

By 1959 the Africanists had broken away from the ANC to form the Pan-Africanist Congress. At a peaceful PAC-organized rally in the township of Sharpeville in 1960, in which thousands of people gathered to protest apartheid laws, police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people, including women and children. The South African government banned both the ANC and PAC in 1960, and both groups went into exile -- and moved from passive to armed resistance. 

Mandela made the move, too. In 1961 he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, an armed offshoot of the ANC that focused on political sabotage and guerrilla tactics. He coordinated a three-day national workers' strike that same year, for which he was arrested. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had tipped off the security police about Mandela's whereabouts.

In October 1962, Mandela was sentenced to five years for coordinating the strike. But in 1963, during what became known as the Rivonia Trial, he and other ANC leaders found themselves facing life imprisonment. They were charged with guerrilla warfare and sabotage -- the equivalent of treason -- and for planning an invasion of South Africa. Mandela admitted only to sabotage. However, he, along with eight other defendants, received a life sentence.

The Political Prisoner

Mandela would spend 27 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island, off the Cape Town coast. While he received the harsh treatment as a black political prisoner, he was able to earn a bachelor of laws degree through a University of London correspondence course. His mother and a son died in the late 1960s, but Mandela was not allowed to attend their funerals.

In a 1981 memoir, South African intelligence agent Gordon Winter unveiled a plot by the government to assassinate Mandela: The political prisoner would be allowed to escape and then shot during the recapture. The news of the foiled plan only made Mandela an even more potent symbol of black resistance, and an international outcry for his release began.

In the U.S., the Reagan administration maintained a policy of so-called constructive engagement regarding the apartheid government of South Africa, rejecting economic sanctions and divestment from the country, which the United Nations General Assembly demanded. Ronald Reagan, who considered the ANC a terrorist organization, said in 1981 that he was loyal to the apartheid regime because it was "a country that has stood by us in every war we've ever fought, a country that, strategically, is essential to the free world in its production of minerals." (Long after his release -- until 2008 -- Mandela and other ANC members were not allowed to visit the U.S. outside of U.N. headquarters without a special waiver from the secretary of state because of their "terrorist" political affiliation.)