Nelson Mandela, leader of South Africa helped bring about social change and the end of apartheid

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. (Courtesy of South Africa The Good News)

Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. (Courtesy of South Africa The Good News)

Nelson Mandela, the leader of South Africa who was imprisoned for 27 years for his efforts to bring about social change, died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95. He spent much of his life challenging the idea that the white minority should rule South Africa, and he is one of the people responsible for causing the end of apartheid in that nation. But while many remember him as a hero and as the social conscience of his nation, his life was not without controversy. He was a complex man, and his strengths—and weaknesses—as a leader, would make a good research paper topic in political science or international relations classes.

Mandela’s early years

Born in 1918, Mandela was a founder of the African National Congress (ANC), a socialist group dedicated to democracy and the end of apartheid, the system under which the white South African minority legally ruled over and oppressed black South Africans. In 1956, Mandela and other political activists were arrested, charged with high treason for acting against the government. Mandela was acquitted and able to continue to work toward change.

In 1960, after 69 unarmed black protesters were shot by police during a demonstration, the ANC was outlawed. Unable to counter such violence with nonviolence, Mandela went underground, used a false name to travel outside the country, and helped build up an armed wing of the ANC that engaged in what many governments considered terrorist attacks. (The United States government included him and other members of the ANC on a terror list through 2008.) The ANC bombed civic offices, and there were civilian casualties.


In 1962 Mandela was charged with illegally leaving the country and, eventually, conspiracy to overthrow the government. Rather than testifying at his trial, Mandela gave a four-hour-long speech against oppression.

Faith Karimi of CNN, in her article “Nelson Mandela, anti-apartheid icon and father of modern South Africa, dies,” quoted the conclusion of Mandela’s speech: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He was in prison for 27 years, during which the world challenged South African apartheid. American students organized efforts to prevent people from investing in companies that did business with the South African government. Political pressure was put on South Africa to free Mandela, and he was eventually moved to a prison farm where he could receive visitors. Among those visitors was South African President F. W. de Klerk, with whom Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their work together to end apartheid.

In 1990, Mandela was freed from prison. And though the world expected South Africa to plunge into chaos at the end of apartheid, when Mandela was elected president in 1994 in South Africa’s first multiracial elections, the transition was smooth and nonviolent.


In 1955, Mandela helped create the Freedom Charter, a document that called for all banks, gold mines, and land to be nationalized in order to bring equality to South Africa. But when Mandela took the position as president – which he held for only one term – he did not strive toward his original socialist plans for the nation. Instead, he worked with investors and members of the old government (including underperforming members of his cabinet) in order for the new South Africa to avoid slipping into chaos. According to Pusch Commey of New Africa, in his article “Nelson Mandela what will his true legacy be? An exclusive with his daughter,” “Mandela nationalized nothing during his presidency, fearing that this would scare away foreign investors.”

South Africa continues to face massive economic inequalities, many of them along racial lines – a legacy of apartheid. Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters party, was quoted in an article on Fox News,The world remembers Nelson Mandela’s shining attributes; his frailties remain a footnote,” “All evidence of the past 20 years reveal the simple reality that those who had to take forward the struggle for economic freedom” – including Mandela, Malema implied – “did not do so.” Some South Africans wonder if Mandela might have accomplished more if he had not retired after one term. Others criticize how closely he worked with the former rulers, and how loyal he remained to the ANC, despite the group being mired in charges of corruption.

But Mandela’s impact on freeing South Africa from apartheid and the systematic oppression of black South Africans is indisputable. As Mandela (quoted by Commey) acknowledged, “After climbing a great hill, one finds that there are many more hills to climb.” And though apartheid is gone, South Africa still has a long way to go to be free of its legacy.

What do you think about Nelson Mandela’s legacy? Tell us in the comments. 

Read more about Nelson Mandela and apartheid on Questia.

2 replies
  1. Margie Gibson says:

    I am a South African born and brought up under racist and sexist rule, and educated under what was known as Christian Higher Education. I left SA in 1979 as I became appalled by the systematic dehumanising laws of this country, but was equally appalled when attending an African National Congress meeting in London, in the same year, that the aim of the ANC, as stated then was to kill all whites in South Africa. Mandela and many other (including the much maligned Nationalist Party under Mr De Klerk, those who worked for a more fair society ,and those who voiced their moral outrage against apartheid) drew us all back from the edge of a racial bloodbath. Let us hope that we can learn from our common past. It is right and proper to celebrate the victory of reason, kindness, grace, mercy and cooperation which one hopes will continue to be the example that South Africa gives to the world. While Mandela is the icon, the victory belongs to many. Let us all see each other as human to human.


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