On this day in 1990, the South African government of President F.W. de Klerk releases Nelson Mandela from prison. Shortly after his release, Mandela was chosen deputy president of the African National Congress; he became president of the party in July 1991. Mandela led the ANC in negotiations with de Klerk to end apartheid and bring about a peaceful transition to nonracial democracy in South Africa; he and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in 1993.
Nelson Mandela was the son of Chief Henry Mandela of the Madiba clan of the Xhosa-speaking Tembu people. After his father’s death, Nelson was schooled by a regent, but renounced his claim to the chieftainship to become a lawyer. He attended South African Native College (University of Fort Hare), studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand, and passed the qualification exam to become a lawyer. In 1944 Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), a black-liberation group, became a leader of its Youth League and subsequently held other ANC leadership positions.
After the National Party’s white-only government established apartheid, a system of racial segregation that privileged whites, he and the ANC committed themselves to its overthrow. Mandela was appointed President of the ANC’s Transvaal branch, rising to prominence for his involvement in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was unsuccessfully prosecuted in the 1956 Treason Trial.
Influenced by Marxism, he secretly joined the banned South African Communist Party (SACP). Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the SACP he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961 and led a sabotage campaign against the government. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1962, and was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state following the Rivonia Trial.
Amid growing domestic and international pressure, and with fears of a racial civil war, President F. W. de Klerk released Mandela after 27 years served in three prisons, and the two men laid the framework for a peaceful transition to a non-racial democracy. In the subsequent 1994 multiracial general election, Mandela led the ANC to victory and became president. Leading a broad coalition government which promulgated a new constitution, Mandela emphasized reconciliation between the country’s racial groups and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses.
Economically, Mandela’s administration worked within a center-left liberal framework despite his own socialist beliefs, also introducing measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty, and expand healthcare services. Internationally, he acted as mediator in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial and served as Secretary-General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999. He declined a second presidential term, and in 1999 was succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela became an elder statesman and focused on combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the charitable Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Broadly regarded as an icon of democracy and social justice, Mandela has received more than 250 honors, including his Nobel Peace Prize, and became the center of an affectionate cult of personality. He is held in high esteem within South Africa, the continent at large and the world, where he is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, and described as the “Father of the Nation.”