In 2009, the birthday of Nelson Mandela — which is today, July 18 — officially became “Mandela Day,” according to the United Nations General Assembly. So, happy Mandela Day — we should probably celebrate. After all, Mandela is one of the most inspiring and influential leaders the world has ever seen. Now 95, Mandela struggled throughout his life to end the discriminatory policy of apartheid in South Africa and, due to his commitment to the cause, was imprisoned for 27 years.
Born on July 18, 1918 in the South African village of Mvezo, Mandela grew up tending to herds of cattle and, at seven, was sent to a local Methodist school. It was there that his given name, Rlihlahla, was replaced with the English name Nelson. Mandela attended the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape with the intention of receiving his bachelor of arts degree, but was suspended after becoming involved in a Student’s Representative Council boycott against the quality of food. He nonetheless passed his BA exams in 1943 and moved on to the University of Witwatersrand to achieve his law degree. In was there that Mandela became involved in African National Congress, otherwise known as the ANC. His political career was beginning.
After the 1948 South African general election, in which the racist and pro-apartheid Herenigde Nasionale Party — which would soon combine with the Afrikaner Party to create the National Party — took power, Mandela began calling for boycotts and strikes in order to protest the policy of apartheid. Though he began his political career as a firm supporter of non-violent resistance, Mandela acknowledged to necessity of violence after unsuccessfully attempting to prevent the demolition of Sophiatown, an all-black suburb in Johannesburg.
In 1962, Mandela was arrested and charged with inciting workers’ struggles and leaving the country without permission. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. However, in 1989 Mandela was granted his freedom by the new state president, F.W. de Klerk, who had previously released all ANC prisoners due to his belief that apartheid was unsustainable.
In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. He was the country’s first black president and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a group that investigated crimes that were committed under apartheid. Although his term as president lasted only until 1998, Mandela continued his activism for many years, working to combat HIV/AIDs and develop rural areas in South Africa.
In South Africa, Mandela is frequently referred to as “the father of the nation,” and, in 1993, he received the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk, as well as the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of Canada. Happy 95th, Nelson Mandela!