Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, leader of the struggle against apartheid, was the first black President in the history of South Africa. He was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, a village in eastern South Africa. The South African population was made up of a majority of black people, the country’s original inhabitants, and a white minority descended from the Europeans who colonized the country. Almost all economic and political power was in the hands of the white minority. At 25, Mandela enrolled in law school in one of the few South African universities open to blacks. While he was a student he joined the African National Congress, a movement dedicated to fighting racial discrimination. Upon graduating, Mandela became the first black person to open a law studio in South Africa. In 1948 the black population had no voting rights in South Africa, and therefore the National Party, an organization that promoted white supremacy, won the elections with ease. Soon a new racial policy called apartheid was enacted. In Afrikaans, the language of white South Africans, “apartheid” means separation.
Apartheid officially divided South Africa into areas reserved for blacks and others reserved for whites. Rights and freedoms for black people became even more limited than before. Mandela organized strikes and protests against apartheid. On April 5, 1956 he was arrested. He was acquitted five years later following a lengthy trial. On March 21, 1960 in the South African city of Sharpville, police opened fire on a group of black protesters, killing 69 people. Mandela realized there was no room for civil protest in South Africa. In 1962 he founded a clandestine military group called Umkhonto we Sizwe. In Zulu, the language of black South Africans, the name meant Spear of the Nation. Mandela’s group carried out attacks, sabotaging various government structures. In 1962 the South African authorities arrested Mandela once again. This time he was accused of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela’s arrest sparked a global reaction. Many countries began to officially protest against the situation in South Africa. But it was only at the end of the 1980s that apartheid laws began to be abolished. On February 11, 1990 Mandela was freed after spending 27 years in prison. In 1993 Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year the first free elections since the end of apartheid were held. Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. In 2004 Mandela withdrew from public life. His retirement marked the end of a political and human experience that changed the face of South Africa.