Born in 1918, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandelagrew up in Soweto, South Africa. Though his father was a tribal chief, Mandela was the first in his family to attend school. He became active in law, clerking at a firm in Johannesburg while earning his degree at the University of South Africa.
In 1942, he began attending meetings of the African National Congress – a political party aimed at uniting and empowering Africans – and soon rose to leadership within the movement. Mandela fought against the unfair practices of the ruling National Party and urged South Africans to fight for their rights. In 1948, when an all-white election instigated Apartheid, Mandela became the face of the anti-Apartheid movement.
Mandela called for civil disobedience and worked to defend the civil liberties of South Africans suffering under the unjust laws. He was quickly labeled an enemy of the state and, after refusing to denounce his beliefs, was sentenced to life in prison in 1964.
While imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela endured terrible conditions and physical labor but his dedication to fighting for a free South Africa never ceased. Mandela’s beliefs and unyielding spirit became a symbol of strength for people struggling with injustice throughout the world.
When he was finally released on February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in prison, the world watched in awe as he walked out a free man.
His negotiations in the early 1990s with South African President F.W. de Klerk helped end the country’s Apartheid system and ushered in a peaceful transition to black majority rule. In what would become South Africa’s first democratic election, Mandela was elected the first freely elected President on May 4, 1994.
Nelson Mandela died in December 2013 at the age of 95.
Today, Mandela stands as a model for peace and equality throughout the world. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with F.W. de Klerk) he’s received hundreds of awards celebrating his work. Though he stepped down from political office in 1999, he remains a voice for humanitarian causes throughout the world.