In the early 1940s a young lawyer named Nelson Mandela established South Africa’s first black legal practice.
In 1944 he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and for 20 years led a campaign of defiance against the South African government’s policy of racial segregation known as apartheid.
Then, after organising a three-day national strike in 1961, Mandela was charged with offences including sabotage and treason.
On 20 April 1964, facing the possibility of the death penalty, he told the court “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people . . . I have cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But My Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Mandela did not receive the death penalty but was instead sentenced to life imprisonment.
As a political prisoner, he became an ever more potent symbol of black resistance to apartheid, particularly in the light of his refusal to be party to any deal with the South African government.
As the years passed, calls from around the world for his release became more insistent, reaching a crescendo in 1988 – the year of his 70th birthday – with a tribute concert that was broadcast in 60 countries.
Political change came to South Africa with the election of F.W. de Klerk as Prime Minister in 1989, and the greatest symbol of de Klerk’s intention to end apartheid was the freeing of Nelson Mandela.
On 11 February 1990, crowds around the world celebrated at the news of Nelson Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison. Mandela had been imprisoned for 27 years.
Mandela was dignified in release but remained defiant, saying “I greet you in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all”.
He immediately resumed his leadership of the ANC and led multi-party negotiations to achieve the first multiracial elections in the country.
The apartheid constitution was dissolved in December 1993 and free multiracial elections were held the following year, as a result of which de Klerk became vice president and, on 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president.
After suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection, Mandela died on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95. Ten days of national mourning were declared in South Africa and a memorial service held at Johannesburg’s FNB Stadium on 10 December 2013.