Nelson Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013) was a South
African anti-apartheid activist who served as the first president of South Africa from
1994 to 1999. He was the country’s first black head of state and the first elected in
a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the
legacy of apartheid by fostering racial reconciliation. Ideologically an African
nationalist and socialist, he served as the president of the African National
Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.


A Xhosa, Mandela was born into the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, Union of South
Africa. He studied law at the University of Fort Hare and the University of
Witwatersrand before working as a lawyer in Johannesburg. There he became
involved in anti-colonial and African nationalist politics, joining the ANC in 1943 and
co-founding its Youth League in 1944. After the National Party’s white-only
government established apartheid, a system of racial segregation that
privileged whites, Mandela and the ANC committed themselves to its overthrow. He
was appointed president of the ANC’s Transvaal branch, rising to prominence for his
involvement in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People.
He was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was unsuccessfully prosecuted
in the 1956 Treason Trial. Influenced by Marxism, he secretly joined the banned South
African Communist Party (SACP). Although initially committed to non-violent protest,
in association with the SACP he co-founded the militant uMkhonto we Sizwe in 1961
and led a sabotage campaign against the government. He was arrested and
imprisoned in 1962, and, following the Rivonia Trial, was sentenced to life
imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state.
Mandela served 27 years in prison, split between Robben Island, Pollsmoor
Prison and Victor Verster Prison. Amid growing domestic and international pressure
and fears of racial civil war, President F. W. de Klerk released him in 1990. Mandela
and de Klerk led efforts to negotiate an end to apartheid, which resulted in the 1994
multiracial general election in which Mandela led the ANC to victory and became
president. Leading a broad coalition government which promulgated a new
constitution, Mandela emphasised reconciliation between the country’s racial groups
and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human
rights abuses. Economically, his administration retained its predecessor’s liberal
framework despite his own socialist beliefs, also introducing measures to
encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services.
Internationally, Mandela acted as mediator in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial and
served as secretary-general of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999. He
declined a second presidential term and was succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.
Mandela became an elder statesman and focused on combating poverty
and HIV/AIDS through the charitable Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Mandela was a controversial figure for much of his life. Although critics on the
right denounced him as a communist terrorist and those on the far left deemed him
too eager to negotiate and reconcile with apartheid’s supporters, he gained
international acclaim for his activism. Globally regarded as an icon of democracy
and social justice, he received more than 250 honours, including the Nobel Peace
Prize. He is held in deep respect within South Africa, where he is often referred to by
his Thembu clan name, Madiba, and described as the “Father of the Nation”.


Although he presented himself in an autocratic manner in several speeches, Mandela
was a devout believer in democracy and abided by majority decisions even when
deeply disagreeing with them.[379] He had exhibited a commitment to the values of
democracy and human rights since at least the 1960s.[380] He held a conviction that
“inclusivity, accountability and freedom of speech” were the fundamentals of
democracy, and was driven by a belief in natural and human rights. Suttner argued
that there were “two modes of leadership” that Mandela adopted. On one side he
adhered to ideas about collective leadership, although on the other believed that there
were scenarios in which a leader had to be decisive and act without consultation to
achieve a particular objective.[383]
According to Lodge, Mandela’s political thought reflected tensions between his support
for liberal democracy and pre-colonial African forms of consensus decision
making.[384] He was an admirer of British-style parliamentary democracy, stating that
“I regard the British Parliament as the most democratic institution in the world, and the
independence and impartiality of its judiciary never fail to arouse my admiration.” In
this he has been described as being committed to “the Euro-North American modernist
project of emancipation”, something which distinguishes him from other African
nationalist and socialist leaders like Nyerere who were concerned about embracing
styles of democratic governance that were Western, rather than African, in origin.
Mandela nevertheless also expressed admiration for what he deemed to be
indigenous forms of democracy, describing Xhosa traditional society’s mode of
governance as “democracy in its purest form” He also spoke of an influential African
ethical tenet, Ubuntu, which is a Ngnuni term meaning “A person is a person through
other persons” or “I am because we are.”

Socialism and Marxism

Mandela advocated the ultimate establishment of a classless society,[386] with
Sampson describing him as being “openly opposed to capitalism, private landownership and the power of big money”.[387] Mandela was influenced by Marxism, and
during the revolution he advocated scientific socialism.
[388] He denied being a
communist at the Treason Trial,[389] and maintained this stance both when later talking
to journalists,[390] and in his autobiography, where he outlined that the cooperation with
the SACP was pragmatic, asking rhetorically, “who is to say that we were not using
them?”[391] According to the sociologist Craig Soudien, “sympathetic as Mandela was
to socialism, a communist he was not.”[392] Conversely, the biographer David Jones
Smith stated that Mandela “embraced communism and communists” in the late 1950s
and early 1960s,[393] while the historian Stephen Ellis commented that Mandela had
assimilated much of the Marxist–Leninist ideology by 1960.[394]
Ellis also found evidence that Mandela had been an active member of the South
African Communist Party during the late 1950s and early 1960s,[119] something that
was confirmed after his death by both the ANC and the SACP, the latter of which
claimed that he was not only a member of the party, but also served on its Central
Committee.[121] His membership had been hidden by the ANC, aware that knowledge
of Mandela’s former SACP involvement might have been detrimental to his attempts
to attract support from Western countries.[395] Mandela’s view of these Western
governments differed from those of Marxist–Leninists, for he did not believe that they
were anti-democratic or reactionary and remained committed to democratic systems
of governance.[396]
The 1955 Freedom Charter, which Mandela had helped create, called for the
nationalisation of banks, gold mines and land, to ensure equal distribution of
wealth.[397] Despite these beliefs, Mandela initiated a programme of privatisation
during his presidency in line with trends in other countries of the time.[398] It has been
repeatedly suggested that Mandela would have preferred to develop a social
democratic economy in South Africa but that this was not feasible as a result of the
international political and economic situation during the early 1990s.[398] This decision
was in part influenced by the fall of the socialist states in the Soviet Union and Eastern
Bloc during the early 1990s.

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