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Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela is one of the great moral and political leaders of our time. His lifelong dedication to the fight against racial oppression in his country won him the admiration of millions worldwide, as well as the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and the presidency of his nation. As the leader of South Africa's anti-apartheid movement, Mandela was a key player in helping to move his country toward multiracial government and majority rule.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born deep in the black homeland of Transkei on July 18, 1918. His first name could be interpreted as "troublemaker." A primary school teacher added the English name Nelson later.

Mandela's childhood was peaceful, with days spend cattle herding and other rural pursuits, until death of Mandela's father landed him in the care of a powerful relative, the ruler of the Thembu people. It was only after he left the missionary College of Fort Hare, where he had become involved in student protests against the white colonial rule of the institution, that Mandela's set out on the long walk toward personal and national liberation.

Having run away from his guardian to avoid an arranged marriage, Mandela joined a law firm in Johannesburg as an apprentice. Years of daily exposure to the inhumanities of apartheid, where being black reduced one to the status of a non-person, kindled in him a kind of strange courage to change the world. It meant that instead of the easy life in a rural setting he'd been brought up for, or even a modest measure of success as a lawyer, his only future certainties would be sacrifice and suffering. Because of these circumstances, Mandela opted for nonviolence as a way of life. He soon joined the Youth League of the African National Congress (A.N.C.) and became involved in programs of resistance against the laws that forced blacks to carry passes and kept them in a position of permanent servility.

Angry and impatient, the government mounted a massive treason trial against its main opponents, Mandela among them. It dragged on for five years, until 1961, ending in the non-guilty ruling of all 156 accused. However, by that time the country had been very agitated by the massacre of peaceful black demonstrators at Sharpsville in March 1960, and the government was intent on crushing all opposition. Most liberation movements, including the A.N.C., were banned. Earning a reputation as the Black Pimpernel, Mandela went underground for more than a year and traveled abroad to enlist support for the A.N.C.

Soon after his return, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment on Robben Island for five years; within months, practically all the leaders of the A.N.C. were arrested. Mandela was hauled from prison to face with them an almost certain death sentence. His statement from the dock was destined to smolder in the homes and servant quarters, and to burn in the conscience of the world: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the idel of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an idea that I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Without any attempt to find a legal way out, Mandela assumed full responsibility. Mandela took the opportunity to speak out against the injustices he and his fellow black citizens suffered due to the racist system imposed by the government. This conferred a new status of moral dignity on his leadership, which became evident from the moment he was returned to Robben Island. Even on his first arrival, two years before, he had set an example by refusing to obey an order to jog from the harbor, where the ferry docked, to the prison gates. The warden in charge warned him bluntly that unless he started obeying, he might be killed and that no one on the mainland would ever be the wiser. Whereupon Mandela quietly retorted, "If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse." Amazingly, the warden backed off. "Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose," Mandela later wrote in notes smuggled out by friends.

Mandela's reputation grew during his years of imprisonment as he became viewed as South Africa's most significant black leader, as well as a symbol for equal rights, justice and resistance against apartheid. While in prison, Mandela refused to compromise his political beliefs in order to obtain his freedom. After almost three decades

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