My recent vacation included approximately two weeks in South Africa, and one of the things I learned was that the stories of Nelson Mandela and Apartheid are entwined to the extent that one cannot discuss one without the other. Most South Africans view Nelson Mandela as a cross between George Washington, Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi. Most of us have some familiarity with Mandela’s life – anti-Apartheid activist, political prisoner, first black prime minister, architect of the dismantling of Apartheid. But, what of his early life? How did he come to be the leader of the anti-Apartheid forces? How did he come to be so revered?

First, it is necessary to understand what Apartheid was and how people existed under its laws. There had always been some degree of racial segregation in SA all the way back to Dutch colonial times. The white Dutch colonists, much like whites in other parts of the world, including America, had always viewed non-whites as inferior. In 1948, however, this attitude was taken to a new level. The National Party, which was dominated by hardliners, narrowly gained control of the government, and as the ruling party, it began legislating and enforcing the Apartheid laws with which we are all familiar.

The word “Apartheid” literally means “the state of being apart,” or “apart-hood,” in Afrikaans. Under its laws, people were classified into four separate groups according to an elaborate and arbitrary set of criteria: “white,” “black,” “colored,” and other mixed people, such as Asians and Indians. In addition, some of the groups had several subcategories to refine the separation further. Every aspect of life was strictly segregated: housing, schools, beaches, jobs, medical care. You name it. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes and forcefully relocated to the “appropriate” residential area. It was not unusual for family members to be classified differently. Thus, they would be forced to live, work and exist apart from each other. Women were discriminated against both racially and gender-wise. Asian groups were treated differently. For example, Japanese, Taiwanese and South Koreans were classified as “honorary whites,” whereas other Asians, such as Chinese and Indonesians, were classified as “colored.” People classified as “blacks” and or “colored” were subjected to curfews with strict penalties for violations, including arrest and imprisonment.

From what I could gather from first-hand accounts of people who actually lived through this period, it was the most demeaning, depressing, and emasculating situation one could imagine. It took the US “Jim Crow” laws to a new level. This way of life was what Mandela was largely responsible for ending, and that is why he so revered in SA today.

Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahia Mandela on July 18, 1918 in Transkei, SA. One might say that his name was a portent for his life as it meant “pulling the branch of a tree” or, more commonly, “troublemaker.” After his father died when he was nine Nelson was adopted by a local chieftain and was given the same status and opportunities as if he were the chieftain’s own son. This became extremely fortuitous as Nelson was able to receive a formal education up to and including college. Indeed, it was one of his primary school teachers who arbitrarily decided to change his name to “Nelson.” Eventually, Nelson moved to Johannesburg and began to study law.

Nelson joined the African National Congress in 1942. For the next 20 years he participated in and/or directed peaceful, non-violent protests against the Apartheid government. He was arrested on a few occasions. In 1963 he was one of over 100 persons arrested for various political offenses, including sabotage, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Not surprisingly, former inmates told us that, in the eyes of the government, a political crime was the worst offense, even worse than murder. He spent 27 years in prison, including 18 on Robben Island.

It should be noted that the conditions at Robben Island were not exactly up to the level of American prisons. For example, we saw one section where 50 inmates had to share one toilet. Inadequate food and mistreatment by prison guards were commonplace. It would be easy to become bitter and resentful, but inmates who had been imprisoned with Nelson recall that he continued to preach non-violence and even forgiveness.

Finally, by early 1990 internal and external political, economic and social pressures had built up against the SA government to such a degree that Nelson was released from prison. He continued to work toward a peaceful end of Apartheid. In 1993 he and then President Frederik Willem de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize. (Incidentally, de Klerk deserves a great deal of credit for his role in the ending of Apartheid. It is not easy to cede power the way he did.) Finally, in 1994 blacks were given the right to vote in SA’s first democratic election. Fittingly, Nelson was elected the country’s first black president. The long struggle was over.

In 1999 Nelson withdrew from public office, but he continued his life’s work on behalf of his country. Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg at the age of 95.


Few people are able to make a real, meaningful difference in millions of people’s lives, to change the course of history. Nelson Mandela was such a man. Today, in SA it is hard to find anyone, white or black, who would say anything negative about the man.

That said, SA has a long way to go. Two generations of blacks and colored were raised under Apartheid. They were denied basic human rights, including education, decent jobs, etc. The disenfranchisement of these people cannot be rectified easily or, possibly, at all. In addition, during this period the country suffered a massive “brain drain,” as many professionals fled the country. I believe SA’s recovery, as a nation, will be a long, hard road, but it can be accomplished. Time will tell.



  1. Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Mandela life was his ability to “forgive” not only personally for all that the Afrikaner had done to him, but realizing that “forgiveness” by all South Africans was the only way forward for his country. The Truth and Reconciliation Commissions established after independence had the aggrieved openly confronting their oppressors and in an unprecedented way, forgiving them for their transgressions. Only Mandela could have made this happen, just as Gandhi did in India half a century earlier.
    Jai Sehgal

  2. L, Nice article – did not mention his anti-Israel stance, but I agree that would be for a different discussion. He still did great things and was “Lincoln” like in his reconciliation approach after getting in power. Had Lincoln lived, we may not have had a 100 years of such major racial strife, much as Mandela reduced it as much as possible. R

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