6 Pivotal Moments in Nelson Mandela's Life

In between his early days of resistance to apartheid and his victory as South Africa's first democratically elected president, several key moments proved pivotal in Mandela's life and legacy.

By Sam Schulz
|  Saturday, Dec 7, 2013  |  Updated 11:55 AM EDT
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    The life of South African anti-apartheid crusader and democracy icon Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, was one marked by scores of extraordinary moments.

    From his earliest involvement in the black liberation movement via the African National Congress, through his decades in prison and to his successes toppling apartheid in South Africa and leading it as president, here are six such moments:

    August 1952: South Africa's first black law practice.

    Mandela and his friend Oliver Tambo — both encouraged by Walter Sisulu, their colleague in the African National Congress, to study and practice law — together opened their own law firm, Mandela & Tambo, in Johannesburg.

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    It was the first black law firm in South Africa, and it handled a number of cases resulting from post-1948 apartheid laws, including many involving the country's pass laws — laws which required blacks to carry pass books with them in designated white areas and restricted their travel.

    "Those were the days of pettiness of the regime. Africans were carrying passes, and they were arrested at every little excuse, by the police. The office was always full of people who came there to ask for help," Tambo's wife Adelaide Tambo told PBS' "Frontline."

    The same year the pair founded the law firm Mandela also helped launch a nationwide campaign of resistance against the pass laws, in an effort to encourage a spirit of nonviolent protest against them.

    March 21, 1960: Sharpeville massacre.

    Protests against the country's pass laws weren't uncommon in 1960. But in the black South African town of Sharpeville on March 21 police fired into a peaceful crowd of protesters, killing 69 people and wounding more than 180.

    The massacre marked a turning point not just in South Africa's political climate but in Mandela's own resistance tactics. A state of emergency was imposed in South Africa, during which Mandela and thousands of others would be detained. The African National Congress was banned.

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    Also in the wake of the massacre, Mandela began his shift from peaceful resistance toward an armed struggle against apartheid, inspired by guerrilla fighters in Cuba and Algeria. He went underground, helped form the militant wing of the African National Congress — known as "Umkhonto we Sizwe," or "Spear of the Nation" — and started planning a national strike.

    April 20, 1964: Speech from the dock.

    Mandela delivered his famous speech in defense of liberty in the form of a statement to the court during the Rivonia Trial — one of South Africa's most significant political trials — where he and 10 other leading apartheid opponents were tried for sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy. The speech concluded: 

    During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.
    • Read the full text of the speech here.

    Less than two months later, Mandela and his co-defendants were convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. He was imprisoned on Robben Island and would spend nearly two decades there, before being transferred to other prisons.

    Feb. 11, 1990: Release from prison after 27 years.

    Over his decades in prison, Mandela had routinely turned down conditional offers of release, refusing to compromise his political goals. "Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts," he had told his captors.

    During those years Mandela had also become the world's most famous political prisoner, thanks in part to international efforts by the African National Congress — then led by his lifelong friend and former law partner Tambo. By early 1990, Mandela's cause had also begun to carry with it the weight of international pressure, as world leaders tightened their existing sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa.

    Under that pressure, South African President Frederik Willem de Klerk lifted the country's ban on the African National Congress on Feb. 2, 1990. Just nine days later, he freed Mandela from Victor Verster Prison.

    Oct. 15, 1993: Nobel Peace Prize.

    Mandela and then-President de Klerk were jointly awarded the shared prize in 1993 for their work on together negotiating an end to apartheid and a future of democratic rule in South Africa. In his acceptance speech and Nobel lecture, Mandela said of his country's future:

    The value of our shared reward will and must be measured by the joyful peace which will triumph, because the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race, will have said to each one of us that we shall all live like the children of paradise.

    Thus shall we live, because we will have created a society which recognizes that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance.

    • Read the full text of the speech here.

    May 10, 1994: Presidential inauguration in South Africa's first multi-racial government.

    Just after he himself cast a vote for the first time in his life, Mandela was overwhelmingly elected president of South Africa in April 1994 — making him not only the nation's first ever black president but also its first ever democratically elected one. He was inaugurated May 10.

    During his term in office, Mandela established a commission to investigate human rights violations under apartheid and launched housing, education and economic programs to improve the lagging living standards of black South Africans after decades of apartheid. A new democratic constitution was also instituted during his presidency.

    Mandela led his country as president for a single term before stepping down, as he had initially promised. After retiring from politics, he continued to advocate worldwide for peace, social justice, conflict resolution and HIV awareness and treatment.

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