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On Thursday, December 5th, 2013, the world suffered the loss of one of the most extraordinary and incredible humans to have ever lived on this planet - Nelson Mandela. The 95-year-old former South African President and anti-apartheid leader who died at his Johannesburg home, had been suffering from a recurring lung infection for many years.
Born on July 18th, 1918 in Mveso, Transkei, South Africa, Mr. Mandela grew up in a country that enforced apartheid or the 'state of being apart' - A system of racial segregation enforced by South Africa's ruling National Party that was similar to the one experienced by African Americans in the US. While the first seeds of fighting for an independent South Africa were instilled in him by a local chief when he was just 16, it was not until he turned 24, that Mandela became actively involved with the African National Congress (ANC), that was struggling to get apartheid abolished.
However, he and the other young members soon realized that polite petitioning by the few members of the ANC was having no impact on the racist regime. The group decided to form an offshoot called the African National Congress Youth League and begin a grassroots movement to get the entire nation to rally for equal rights, by organizing nationwide boycotts and strikes.
Mr. Mandela spent the next 20 years leading peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the racist policies of the South African Government. While he was often arrested, it was usually for short periods of time. In 1961, he was sentenced to five years in prison for orchestrating a three-day national workers strike. Two years into his sentence he was brought to trial again - and this time along with 10 other ANC members, banished to life imprisonment for political offenses that included amongst other things, sabotage.
In the winter of 1964, Mr. Mandela was incarcerated to Robben Island, a place that was largely used to isolate political prisoners. Confined to a small cell with no bed and a bucket for a toilet, Mr. Mandela spent his days doing hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed to have one visitor a year and to receive and send one letter, every six months. But these hardships did not break the will of this determined man. He somehow managed to win over even the most brutal prison officials and also earn his bachelors degree through University of London's distance learning program.
It took 18 years before the South African government finally succumbed to growing international pressure and transferred Mr. Mandela and other ANC leaders to the Pollsmoor Prison, a maximum security facility located in Cape Town. Conditions were better here. Mr. Mandela was allowed to roam freely within the confines of the prison walls and even entertain reporters. In 1985, South African President Botha offered the activist a chance to go free if he renounced armed sabotages against the racist regime. Mr. Mandela refused. He did not want any conditions attached to his release.
Change finally came in 1990, when Botha suffered from a stroke and was replaced by Frederick Willem de Klerk. The new President not only released Mr. Mandela, but also, removed all restrictions on political opposition. On February, 11th, 1990, after spending 27 years in captivity, Mr. Mandela or Mandiba as he was affectionately called, was finally a free man!
Once released he and F.W. de Klerk, who both received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts, continued their work towards dismantling apartheid. On April 27th, 1994, the country held its first democratic elections and Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa at the ripe-old age of 77! He spent the next five years ensuring that South Africa's transition to black majority rule was seamless.
In 1999, comfortable that the country was prospering, Mr. Mandela retired from active politics. He spent a few more years in the public limelight raising money to build schools and clinics in the country's rural areas. During this time he also published several books about his life experiences. In 2004, he finally announced his formal retirement and returned to his native village of Qunu.
Though he was seen a few times after that, Mr. Mandela completely disappeared from the public eye after 2010, thanks to a recurring lung infection that led him to be hospitalized several times and to which he finally succumbed, on December 5th, 2013. While Mandiba may be gone, his determination, persistence and ability to forgive, will continue to be a source of inspiration for many generations to come.
Resources: Biography.com, guardian.co.uk, BBC.co.uk