This Day In History: Nelson Mandela Released from Prison

This Day In History: Nelson Mandela Released from Prison

Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela‘s release from prison, a great day in black history. After spending 27 long and undeserved years behind bars, Mandela, who would go on to become South Africa’s first black president, was released on Feb. 11, 1990.

Mandela was born into a royal family in South Africa on July 18, 1918. At the young age of 9, his father died. Young Nelson was adopted by Jongintaba Dalindyego, who began to teach him about tribal leadership. Nelson became the first in his family to receive a proper education. He completed his studies at a local school, and went on to attend a Methodist secondary school. In 1939 he entered the only Western-style school of higher learning for South Africans at the time, the University of Fort Hare. To avoid an arranged marriage, Mandela ran away to Johannesburg and studied at the University of Witwatersrand.

His loyalty and commitment to political activism grew when he joined the African National Congress, a group in the movement against racial inequality. After the Afrikaner-dominated National Party gained victory in the 1948 election, a strict system of racial classification, also called apartheid, restricted the basic human rights of all people of color, and banned them from participating in government. The ANC designed a campaign against apartheid in 1952, and four years later 155 activists, along with Mandela, were arrested for treason. While they were acquitted in 1961, tensions grew around the ANC, paving the way for the creation of the Pan Africanist Congress (not the Pan-African Congress, a separate and much older organization) became an alternative. A year later, police opened fire on peaceful protestors in Sharpeville, killing 69 people. Riots broke out throughout the country.

Mandela became the first leader of Umkhonot we Sizwe (translated ‘Spear of the Nation’), also referred to by MK, which launched a sabotage campaign against the country’s corrupt government, proclaiming that South Africa would be a separate entity from the British Commonwealth. After illegally attending a conference in Ethiopia, Mandela returned on Aug. 5, 1962 and was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.

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The following year in July, police seized an ANC hiding place in Johannesburg and arrested a group of MK leaders. As evidence began to pour out, fingers pointed at Mandela, identifying him as the leader. Mandela was sentenced to life in prison, his trial drawing new global attention. His first 18 years at Robben Island Prison in Cape Town left him in extreme and cruel conditions. He was confined to a tiny cell without plumbing or a bed. He was forced to perform hard labor, and received only small portions or scraps of food. He was allowed to see his wife only twice each year. But despite the inhumane prison conditions, Mandela’s mental state remained positive and strong. He never once lost hope. He remained the symbol and leader of the anti- apartheid movement, and in 1982, he was relocated to the mainland. In 1989, the triumph began when newly elected President F. W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and called for a nonracist South Africa. A year later on Feb 11, 1990, the president demanded his release. Mandela went on to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. He died on Dec. 5, 2013, of a reoccurring lung infection, but he will always be remembered as one of the most noble, selfless people in history.

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