This Day in Black History: July 18, 1918

Nelson Mandela, anti-aparthied activist and president of South Africa, was born.

Posted: 07/18/2012 07:00 AM EDT
Nelson Mandela

His has been a life of near biblical challenge and redemption. He became president of the very nation whose government that had imprisoned him for 27 years. He has been the impassioned voice of including all of South Africa’s racial groups in the government and in the life of the country.

Nelson Mandela has become one of the most celebrated people on the planet, representing to many a formidable example of someone who was able to forgive his oppressors while providing a powerful voice for those who had been oppressed.

Mandela served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, the first person ever to be elected in a fully representative democratic election in that country.

In his earlier life, he was a fervent anti-apartheid activist, and the leader and co-founder of the armed wing of the African National Congress. In 1962 he was arrested and convicted of sabotage and other charges, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

He served nearly three decades in prison, with much of that time being spent on Robben Island, near Cape Town.

By the 1980s, a widespread international movement had formed, protesting South Africa’s laws of racial segregation. That system, known as apartheid, included state sanctioned and enforced racial segregation under which South Africa’s Black majority population had their rights curtailed in favor of white supremacy.

Ultimately, the international community as well as forces within South Africa brought pressure on the government to end the practice and to release Mandela, who had become a worldwide symbol of the injustice of apartheid.

He was released from prison in 1990 and returned to the leadership of his political party, the African National Congress, playing a pivotal role in the negotiations that led to the country’s first multiracial elections and establishment of democracy in 1994.

As president, he frequently gave priority to reconciliation, while introducing policies aimed at combating poverty and inequality in South Africa. Mandela led the nation in moving to an inclusive government and won international praise for his passionate advocacy of reconciliation among the racial groups in the country.

During his years as president, Mandela oversaw a wide range of progressive social reforms aimed at reducing long entrenched social and economic inequalities in South Africa. Among the measures carried out by Mandela and his ministers included increased attention to health care and housing.

After leaving the presidency, he became an advocate for a number of social and human rights organizations.



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 (Photo:  PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)

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