The story of South African politician, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and activist Nelson Mandela and his rise from anti-apartheid militant to becoming the racially divided nation’s first Black president remains as inspirational a story as any told before. Although his ascension to the post was wrought with hardships and family tragedies, Mandela’s resilience and desire to see his people win equal rights are the hallmarks of a man who is considered by many the Father of the nation.
On this day in 1999, Mandela elected to not seek re-election to the presidential post after being elected in 1994. Born a descendant of African royalty, it was fitting that Mandela would go on to become the leader of his country but the road was not without its bumps.
Watch Mandela’s story here:
Committed to fight against the apartheid laws of South Africa, after graduating from college, Mandela and several of his colleagues routinely bumped heads with the ruling National Party. Although he was a nonviolent member of the African National Congress (ANC), he would later join Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the militant armed wing of the ANC in 1961.
In the summer of 1962, Mandela and several other ANC leaders were arrested and later tried for sabotage and charges relating to attempting an overthrow of the South African government. Mandela, initially charged with just five years of prison in 1962, would end up spending 27 years in prison, after a 1964 ruling found him and his compatriots guilty.
Mandela’s stature as a leader grew exponentially during this trying time, although he was treated poorly and barely had contact with the outside world. Mandela served 18 years of his sentence at Robben Island, with South African officials moving Mandela and other imprisoned ANC leaders to Pollsmoor Prison to disrupt their influence over young African activists.
Upon his long-delayed release in the summer of 1990, Mandela and then-president F.W. de Klerk, who was responsible for overturning Mandela’s sentence and ANC charges, would negotiate on plans to hold multi-race elections. Turmoil ensued after ANC leader Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993, which threatened to start violence in South Africa amid growing tensions between Blacks and the ruling class Whites. Mandela, now the leader of the ANC, consistently urged that his people remain at peace and patient, leading to the historic April 27 democratic elections in 1994.
The ANC won 62 percent of the vote, and with Mandela as the sitting leader, he was elected president of South Africa. In a true show of diplomacy, the losing National Party leader de Klerk was appointed as his deputy and Thabo Mbeki as second in command. In his short time, Mandela fought to narrow the divide between Black and White South Africans, with a symbolic gesture taking place at the 1995 Rugby World Cup as seen in the film “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman.
Stepping down in 1999, Mandela would go on to advocate for world peace and became a strong supporter of AIDS activism. His global profile would continue to grow in his retirement, and although some scandals and allegations of misused funds were bandied about, Mandela graciously moved beyond the controversial news bits and worked on his platform for peace. Mandela was critical of the United States and United Kingdom’s foreign policy programs, directing his ire toward George Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Today, as he prepares for his 94th birthday over a month from now, Mandela stands as a father figure to a nation that had nearly lost hope for justice and equality. His tenacity and willingness to do whatever was necessary to gain freedom for his people catapulted the leader into a stratosphere that few public figures will ever reach. Mandela’s legacy was cemented long ago, but it is fitting that as we approach Father’s Day in America, we recognize Nelson Mandela as not only a Father to a great nation, but also a Father to a movement that continues to inspire us all.
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