12. Nelson Mandela Was Arrested and Sentenced to Five Years in Prison
After traveling secretly for years, in 1962, Mandela was finally arrested; years later, a CIA official in the United States revealed that he had tipped off the government because the CIA was concerned about his communist affiliations. He was charged with inciting strikes among black workers and leaving the country without permission.
11. At Mandela’s Trial, He Refused to Defend Himself
Mandela knew that if he defended himself, he would only be legitimizing the charges that were brought against him. Instead, he wanted to use his trial as an opportunity to show the morality of the ANC’s cause. He did not call any witnesses and, instead of delivering his testimony, he gave a political speech about the injustice of apartheid and the vision of the ANC.
10. Nelson Mandela Received a Lifetime Sentence on Robben Island
Following police raids on Spear of the Nation headquarters, documents that mentioned Mandela were used to initiate new charges of sabotage and sedition. For these charges, he was given a life sentence on Robben Island, a remote prison off the coast of South Africa. It was a notoriously harsh prison; white guards frequently harassed the prisoners, and he had to spend his days splitting rocks with a pickaxe.
9. While in Prison, He Became a Galvanizing Symbol for the Anti-Apartheid Movement
The government had expected that once Mandela was in prison, anti-apartheid activists would quickly forget about him and, without a central leader, would soon disband. However, the opposite happened. He gained worldwide attention as an anti-apartheid activist who was now a political prisoner under an unjust regime. Meanwhile, though, Mandela had minimal contact with the outside world, including with his wife.
International pressure on South Africa, primarily inspired by Mandela’s imprisonment, led the government to begin taking steps that would dismantle the institution of apartheid. It officially legalized the African National Congress and other organizations; the ANC would soon be able to participate in national elections. A 1992 referendum among white voters enabled a further dismantling of the apartheid.
With the legalization of the ANC, Mandela was released from prison in 1990. He had served a total of 27 years and was now 70 years old. Media outlets from all over the world broadcast footage of his release, with him holding Winnie’s hand as they stood in front of large crowds of people and were driven throughout the city of Cape Town. He gave a speech about the ongoing cause of the ANC in ending apartheid.
6. Mandela Was Nearly Blind Because of His Time on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela had been forced for years to split rocks that reflected the sunlight so strongly that it severely damaged his eyes. He developed what is commonly referred to as “snow blindness” and frequently wore sunglasses because of how much light hurt his eyes.
While in prison, Mandela had learned to speak Afrikaans, the language of whites in South Africa, and had studied history and law. When he became the head of the ANC, he made it a multiracial institution and engineered a ceasefire, known as the Pretoria Minute, for the violence with which the ANC was engaging. He wanted to transform the party into something that could be a viable force in post-apartheid politics.
4. Nelson Mandela Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993
Few people expected that apartheid in South Africa would fall, but when it did, many credited Nelson Mandela. As the leader of the ANC, he continued to work to secure black rights in South Africa and end the violence on both sides of the apartheid lines by encouraging reconciliation. For his efforts, in 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1994, apartheid in South Africa officially ended when, for the first time in over 300 years, black South Africans were allowed to participate in their government. When the first-ever democratic elections were held, the ANC became the dominant party in the new parliament. Nelson Mandela was elected president, and he won with a landslide victory . He was 75 years old.
2. Mandela Helped Mediate the Civil War in Burundi
The entire continent of Africa has faced immense challenges resulting from colonization and the transition to national governments within newly-formed states. Burundi had been engaged in an ethnic conflict since 1993; wanting South Africa to be a model for the rest of the continent, he helped broker a peace settlement between the warring Hutus and Tutsis.
Today, Nelson Mandela is more than a hero for South Africans. He represents an entire movement of peacebuilding and reconciliation for African countries struggling to find their way in a postcolonial war. Mandela used soft diplomacy to address human rights violations by military juntas and tried to mediate an agreement to end the ongoing conflict in the Congo. Though much remains to be done, he set an example that the rest of the continent, and the world, should follow.
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