His role in fighting apartheid and his ability to steer South Africa through crisis of its rebirth earned him the reputation of a benevolent negotiator and quintessential peacemaker. Chief among African leaders, Nelson Mandela is one of few statesmen to have achieved almost universal respect around the world and across the political spectrum… His role in fighting apartheid, his imprisonment on Robben Island – where he came to symbolise the struggle of oppressed people around the world – and his ability to steer South Africa through the crisis of its rebirth earned him the international reputation of benevolent negotiator and quintessential peacemaker…
Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the first black South African to hold the office, and the first elected in a fully representative and multiracial election. As President, Mandela tackled the challenge of uniting both the country’s racial groupings and a fragmented public service whose delivery mandate was skewed in favour of the white population. Politically an African nationalist and democratic socialist, he served as the President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997. Internationally, Mandela was the Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999. Mandela was one of the few leaders capable of inspiring confidence both inside and outside the country. Few others would have managed to unite the disparate warring parties and steer South Africa from what seemed to be the brink of civil war.
In December 1948, Mandela and 19 others were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their participation in the Defiance Campaign, a national protest against laws curtailing the freedoms of blacks, Indians and coloureds. Mandela served 27 years in prison. He spent the next 18 years on Robben Island, was transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town and then to Victor Verster prison, where it was discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis. Mandela was released from jail on Sunday, 11 February 1990. The first images of the president-to-be walking out of prison were relayed live via satellite to ecstatic audiences across the globe. Becoming ANC President, Mandela published his autobiography and led negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multi-racial elections in 1994, in which he led the ANC to victory. He was elected President and formed a Government of National Unity. As President, he established a new constitution and initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses, while introducing policies to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services. Internationally, he acted as mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial, and oversaw military intervention in Lesotho. He declined to run for a second term, and was succeeded by his deputy Thabo Mbeki, subsequently becoming an elder statesman, focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He played a key role as middleman in crisis-hit areas such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Controversial for much of his life, right-wing critics denounced Mandela as a terrorist and communist sympathiser. He has nevertheless received international acclaim for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid stance, having received over 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Soviet Order of Lenin. He is held in deep respect within South Africa as the “Father of the Nation”. In June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. Mandela donated part of the Nobel Peace Prize award to charities for children and also announced that he would contribute a part of his annual salary to a presidential trust fund created to aid street children and child detainees. Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was published in 1994, and soon became one of the year’s best selling books in South Africa.