This Black History Month, we’re sharing some of the figures that have inspired us. We’d like to celebrate their contributions and efforts, which have resulted in meaningful change being made. These are only a few of the figures who have inspired us, with many more continuing to pioneer progression in society. To read more on the importance of Black History Month, visit https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/
Nelson Mandela was born in South Africa in 1918. After an eventful childhood, he moved to Johannesburg where he worked a variety of jobs, eventually enrolling to study law. It was here that he became involved in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress in 1942.
Mandela helped the ANC by leading many peaceful, non-violent acts of defiance, taking example from the Indian Independence Movement. He also set up a law firm with a student he had met, providing low-cost and free legal support to Black people. In 1956, Mandela, along with 150 others, was charged with treason, and was arrested. He was issued several bans, preventing him from appearing in public, and newspapers were stopped from publishing his picture.
After many non-violent protests proved unsuccessful, Mandela decided that violent action would become necessary to end apartheid. In 1961, Mandela began to organise a mass strike, holding secret meetings with journalists and activists. He helped the ANC to set up an armed group in order to channel and control some of the group’s more violent members’ actions. This wing of the ANC aimed to carry out acts which would exert the maximum pressure on the government, whilst aiming not to cause large numbers of casualties.
“I had no specific belief except that our cause was just, was very strong and it was winning more and more support.”
He was arrested the following year and sentenced to 5 years in prison. He was later further arrested in 1963 for political offences, along with other leaders of the ANC. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, of which he served 27 years.
He served 18 of these years on Robben Island. The prisoners here spent their days breaking rocks, turning them into gravel. Mandela was often verbally and physically harassed, prevented from wearing sunglasses, and punished for collecting newspaper clippings. He continued to use this opportunity to learn and was able to carry out an LLB Degree from the University of London through a correspondence course whilst imprisoned. He also initiated the ‘University of Robben Island’ where prisoners gave lectures on their areas of expertise and debated socio-economic issues.
Mandela was eventually transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, following which an international campaign calling for his release was launched. This included a tribute concert at Wembley Stadium attracting 200 million viewers, and The Specials’ song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. Due to this international pressure, the South African President Botha offered his release in return for him renouncing armed struggle, an offer Mandela rejected instantly.
“What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”
Still imprisoned, he caught tuberculosis, exacerbated by his damp cell. It wasn’t until the next president came into power, Frederik Willem de Klerk, that his release was announced, pictures of Mandela were allowed to be published and the ban on the ANC was lifted.
After being released from prison, Mandela was elected the leader of the ANC. He took this opportunity to convince President de Klerk to hold multi-racial elections. President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela were awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their work on dismantling apartheid. Following the implementation of democratic elections, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first Black president in 1994.
In his years as President, Mandela worked tirelessly to improve relations between the white and Black communities of South Africa, for example by encouraging the Black communities to support the national rugby team. He also signed a new constitution, establishing a government based on majority rule, ensuring freedom of expression, and guaranteeing the rights of all minorities.
Even after his retirement, Mandela founded a group called ‘The Elders’ aimed at providing leaders such as Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter the chance to work on solutions to some of the world’s toughest issues. He remained committed to the fight against AIDS, something which he regretted not doing more about during his presidency.
Mandela passed away in 2013, after an inspiring life spent fighting for what he believed in. Mandela’s birthday was declared Mandela Day, an International celebration to promote global peace.
Stay tuned to our blog page for more stories about inspirational figures.