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Nelson Mandela


Date of Birth: July 18, 1918

Date of Death: December 5, 2013

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was never one to back down from trouble—almost the opposite, in fact. Rolihlahla actually means "to pull a branch of a tree," or more commonly translated as "troublemaker." He was the first of his family to attend school, where he received the name Nelson from one of his teachers, who found it easier to pronounce than his native name.

Mandela's father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was also no stranger to trouble, having spent time in politics. He was appointed Acting Paramount Chief of the Thembu Tribe and it was his duty to keep watch and manage over a specific part of the tribe. After a confrontation with a British Magistrate, he was stripped of his position and, along with his family, was forced to move from their home. Despite this, what some might call a racist act, Mphakanyiswa still served on the King's Privy Council and played a key role in helping Jongintaba Dalindyebo ascend to the throne of the Thembu Tribe.

A few years later when Mandela's father passed away, it was Dalindyebo who offered to informally adopt his friend’s son, and provided Mandela with the kind of education not normally afforded to most people in his country. Under his new mentor's watchful eye, Mandela was shaped and groomed to become his father’s successor and work in high office. Feeling a responsibility to his country and countrymen, he enrolled at Fort Hare University where the origin of his name went from a translation to a reality. He and a handful of fellow classmates boycotted against some of the university policies, and became part of a Students' Representative Council whose members were asked to leave the school shortly after forming. It was also at Fort Hare that Mandela met lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo.

Following his abrupt departure from Fort Hare, Mandela endured more unwanted news when he was informed that Dalindyebo had chosen brides for him and his cousin, Justice. Unwilling to comply with the decision made for them, Justice and Mandela refused the marriages and Mandela ran away to Johannesburg. He found work as a guard at a mine, but this was short lived when his employer discovered his status as a runaway and fired him. Not without resiliency and a little bit of luck, Mandela was able to secure employment at a law firm as an articled clerk. This was due to his connections with friend and mentor Walter Sisulu, the man who would be the catalyst for Mandela to meet his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase.

His employment at the law firm gave him the opportunity to complete and obtain his B.A. degree through correspondence with the University of South Africa. Following that, Mandela began studying Law at the University of Witwatersrand in 1939 where the beginnings of the anti-apartheid movement began to take shape. It was there that he befriended Joe Slovo, Harry Schwarz and Ruth First. While continuing his studies, Mandela submersed himself fully in politics and in 1943 he became a member of the African National Congress (ANC). It was around the beginning of his time with the ANC that Mandela and fellow lawyer Tambo decided to begin their own law firm as partners. They were called Mandela & Tambo and together they provided free or low-cost legal counsel to blacks who lacked attorney representation. Throughout this time Mandela played important roles in the ANC's Defiance Campaign in 1952, as well as the Congress of the People in 1955, which was instrumental in forming a basis for the anti-apartheid movement.

On December 5, 1956, along with over 150 others, Mandela was arrested on a raid and charged with "high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the present government and replace it with a communist state"—a crime punishable by death. Thus began the Treason Trial that lasted for five years and only saw a break in 1958 when 61, including Nelson Mandela, of the 150+ people arrested, were acquitted of all charges and released. The remaining defendants didn't see the end of the trial until 1961, when they were all found not guilty.

Following the trial Mandela, within the ANC, became the leader of the armed wing and in doing so co-founded the group Umkhonto we Sizwe, which means Spear of the Nation. On the run and living from place to place for over a year, he was arrested on August 5, 1962, when the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tipped off local authorities to where Mandela was hiding.

During the Rivonia trial Mandela was charged with leading workers to strike in 1961 and leaving the country illegally. He was initially sentenced to five years in prison. Two years later the courts settled on a verdict that took into account Mandela's time and work with the ANC, that resulted in his imprisonment for 27 years. At the end of the trial, Mandela made a final statement that ended with "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." These words resonated within the people who stood up to make a difference and will echo through generations to come.

Mandela was a "guest" of the Robben Island Prison facility for 18 years, then moved to Pollsmoor Prison for six years, only to be moved a third time to Victor Verster Prison for another three years, before he was released.

Following his release Mandela worked relentlessly to see his dream of a democratic South Africa come true. In 1994 his dream was realized when South Africa held its first multi-racial elections, electing him President. Mandela stepped down in 1999 but did not quit being a humanitarian, offering his time and efforts to such issues as the AIDS epidemic as well as the blood diamond controversy. Mandela is a pioneer for all those who wish to see change—to look within themselves for strength.

Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 from complications due to a recurring lung infection at the age of 95. He left behind his third wife, Graça Machel, six children and 17 grandchildren.

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