The United States is going through a tumultuous time, and now more than ever we need unity, understanding, and mutual respect. No one embodies those ideals more than the late Nelson Mandela, who fought his whole life to liberate South Africans and promote peace and humanity around the world. In fact, the United Nations named July 18 Nelson Mandela International Day so we could celebrate his memory every year.
Here are 35 facts to commemorate the life, accomplishments, and legacy of the great man that was father to a nation and an inspiration to all of us:
2. He served as president only one term, voluntarily stepping down in 1999 to ensure the new democratic process worked. Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki was sworn in as Mandela’s predecessor in June 1999.
3. His name and life’s work are synonymous with the fight to end the Apartheid system of government and racial segregation in South Africa.
4. He was successful doing just that, and is still considered the Father of modern South Africa for his role in toppling the oppressive Apartheid government and ensuring democracy.
5. For his contributions to South Africa, civil rights, and humanity, Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
6. He’s also received more than 250 awards and honors from countries and organizations all over the world, including honorary degrees from more than 50 universities and colleges around the world, the distinction of becoming the first living person to be made an honorary Canadian citizen, and the last person awarded the Lenin Peace Prize from the USSR.
7. His birth name was actually Rolihlahla, a name meaning, “pulling the branch of a tree or a troublemaker” in the Xhosa tribe he belonged to.
8. The name “Nelson” was given to him by a teacher on his first day of elementary school, as it was often the custom of the day for educators to give proper English names that was easy for them to pronounce to replace their tribal birth names.
Mandela grew up in a small village in the South African countryside, where his father served as a counselor to tribal chiefs. However, his father passed away when Nelson was only 9, and the boy was adopted by a Thembu tribal regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo.
9. Not only was Mandela the first person in his family to attend school, he went on to study law at university and became one of the first black attorneys in South Africa.
10. In 1952, Nelson Mandela, along with his friend Oliver Tambo, opened the first black-run law firm in South Africa, providing affordable or often free legal service for their black countrymen who had broken Apartheid laws. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls, "I realized quickly what Mandela and Tambo meant to ordinary Africans. It was a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin color."
11. Seeing the injustice and state-sponsored racial discrimination that plagued his country, Mandela soon went into politics. In the 1950s, he was elected to lead the youth wing of the Africa National Congress (ANC) liberation movement that opposed the government.
12. The Apartheid government quickly grew threatened by the ANC and black rights organizers, and outlawed the organization, using harassment, intimidation, jailing, violence and murder.
13. In response, Nelson Mandela co-founded a secret military resistance movement called the "Spear of the Nation" or MK, in 1961, that advocated a campaign of sabotage against the government. This was a radical change of philosophy from the nonviolent demonstrations and peaceful protests he’d engaged in previously.
14. Mandela soon became the most wanted man by the government, and resorted to subterfuge to evade capture and keep working. Often disguising himself as a fieldworker, a chauffeur, chef, or other common worker, he was nicknamed the Black Pimpernel for his crafty elusiveness. "I became a creature of the night,” wrote Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom. “I would keep to my hideout during the day, and would emerge to do my work when it became dark,"
15. In fact, he was dressed as a chauffer when the police finally captured him in 1962, as he drove fellow activist Cecil Williams through a small town called Cedara. Mandela later said, “I knew in that instant that my life on the run was over with other ANC leaders of sabotage."
16. Almost everyone expected Mandela to be sentenced to death for his crimes, as he was considered a terrorist by the government. During the trial and sentencing, Mandela gave an impassioned speech, explaining that he was more than ready and willing to die for his cause. The speech was published in local newspapers and media as, I Am Prepared to Die, and ironically saved his life when it brought national attention and some sympathy to his plight. Instead of death, Nelson Mandela was sentence to life in prison for treason and conspiracy, along with seven of his cohorts.
17. Prisoner number 46664 was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990, a period of 27 years, or almost 10,000 days. He 18 years of that sentence doing hard labor on remote and barren Robben Island, 5 miles off the coast of South Africa.
18. During his decades in prison, South Africa’s struggle to throw off the yoke of Apartheid became an international cause célèbre, with Mandela the worldwide symbol of that cause.
19. Mandela actually had a chance to gain his freedom in 1985, when South African President P.W. Botha, facing mounting political and international pressure, offered to release Mandela immediately and recant his sentence if he only would publically deride armed opposition.
20. Mandela refused on principle, saying, "What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts." He voluntarily stayed in prison and served 5 more years.
22. Even incarceration in a remote island prison didn’t thwart Mandela’s activism. He still communicated with his fellow prisoners and the outside world on rare occasion when it was possible, passing secret messages through an elaborate system of hiding notes in trash, under toilet tanks, under dirty dishes, in used matchbooks, and just about anyplace else the guards wouldn’t look. Through this system, Mandela organized the other Robben Island inmates to protest and organize a hunger strike to try and improve their conditions.
23. By the last years of his sentence, Mandela was such a world icon for racial equality and national hero that he was given preferential treatment in prison, allowed to stay in a small cottage, communicate more with the outside world, and even the white guards paid him respect and reverence.
24. Mandela was finally released from prison on February 11, 1990, a world celebrated in South Africa and all around the world as a symbol of Apartheid’s failure. But instead of considering this a victory, Mandela urged the international community to continue boycotts of South African goods and economic sanctions, pressuring the white minority government.
25. He immediately picked up his activism, too, telling a massive crowd upon his release, ''Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not able to forgive.''
26. Upon his release, Mandela negotiated the end of the Apartheid government, with progressive President F.W. de Klerk starting to repeal racially-biased legislation left by his predecessor, Aparthied stalwart Pieter Botha, like the infamous Population Registration Act. By 1994, South Africa had a new constitution, an inclusive coalition government, and open elections for the first time in its history, with Mandela become the first black president of the nation.
27. At a time when many were calling for retribution and violence against their former oppressors, Mandela preached patients and reconciliation. In a remarkable display of humanity, he promoted peace and healing in his newly free nation just as vigorously as he’d promoted rebellion. Indeed, South Africa was on the brink of civil war, which could have led to possibly hundreds of thousands of deaths and decades of bloodshed. But instead of resorting to vigiliantism and violence, a wise President Mandela formed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and try human-rights abuses that took place under Apartheid, pacifying newly freed South Africans.
28. Understanding that promoting reconcilliation and uniting his countrymen was paramount for his young nation not to rip apart, Mandela tapped into one of the only universal cultural phenomena – sports. And he saw the perfect opportunity to form a new sense of national pride when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Up until then, black South Africans abhorred the white national rugby team, called the Springboks. But Mandela instead prompted his black countrymen to adopt the Springboks as their own, attending matches wearing a Springboks jersey and publically befriending the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar.
29. The name for that movie actually comes from the poem of the same name that Mandela turned to for inspiration and faith over and over again during his 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela even read the poem by William Ernest Henley to his fellow prisoners, and drew exceptional strength from the lines, "I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul."
30. The Springboks players started making appearances and doing promotional visits in poor all-black shantytowns and even borught on the first black player on the team, endearing the national psyche. Against all odds, the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup that year, captivating the nation. When team captain Pienaar was asked what it was like to have "62,000 fans supporting you here in the stadium?” He responded, "We didn't have 62,000 fans behind us. We had 43 million South Africans." This historical event became the basis for the recent movie Invictus, starring Matt Damon as Pienaar and Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela.
31. But not everyone was enamored with Mandela, and he faced plenty of vigorous opposition, death threats, and even assassination or coup attempts. It’s hard to fathom in this day and age when Mandela is so beloved around the world, but he was actually on the United States terror watch list from the 1980s until 2008, when he was 89 years old, along with other members of the African National Congress.
32. Nelson Mandela made an appearance in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic film, Malcolm X, playing a teacher who gave a civil rights speech. But Mandela refused to deliver one of the lines that Lee had written for him, “By any means necessary,” out of philosophical differences. Instead, Lee panned back to the actor playing Malcolm X delivering those closing lines.
33. Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5, 2013 at 95 years old, living to see his country and also our world a better place because of his presence.
34. It’s hard to quantify the positive effect Mandela had on South Africa while president, but according to his official Anthony Sampson, he “improved innumerable lives.” According to Sampson, thanks to Mandela, "Three million people were connected to telephone lines and safe drinking water, 1.5 million children were brought into the education system, 500 clinics were upgraded or built, two million people were connected to the electricity grid and 750,000 houses were built providing shelter for nearly three million people."
35. But the legacy he left the world is far greater, a model for change through non-violence, cooperation, and perservernce among all of man and womankind. Mandela’s words still stand as a beacon of hope for unity and civil rights:
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human hear than its opposite.”
Originally written and posted for the Alfano Group Real Estate blog.