A Symbol of Defiance – How One Man Can Make a Difference in the World

December 5th, 2013, by

When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.
– Nelson Mandela

The world mourns the loss of a man who dedicated his life to fighting for equality, a man who helped transform the future of a nation. Nelson Mandela was a defiance symbol of how one man can make a difference. He moved the world when he became the first Black president in a part of the world engulfed by apartheid. He knew when to be unyielding and when to be compromising.

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Transkei, South Africa. He was actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942. He was a peacemaker and, for nearly two decades, directed a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He once declared: If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island, on the coast of Cape Town, for 18 of his 27 years in prison. While incarcerated, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree through a correspondence program with the University of London.

President Frederik Willem de Klerk announced Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990 and also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions that were imposed on political groups and suspended executions. Nelson Mandela persisted in urging foreign powers to continue their pressure on the South African apartheid government for constitutional reform. Despite being committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC’s armed struggle would continue until the Black majority received the right to vote for their own people.

He continued to negotiate with President de Klerk toward the country’s first multiracial elections. The negotiations were sometimes strained, and news of violent eruptions, including the assassination of ANC leaders, continued throughout the country. Mandela had to maintain a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the political chaos. In 1993, he and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling the South African apartheid regime. Negotiations between Black and white South Africans prevailed and, on April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first fully democratic elections.

Nelson Mandela became the first Black president of the Republic of South Africa on May 10, 1994. For five years, he worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to Black majority rule and, using the nation’s enthusiasm for sports as a medium to promote white and Black reconciliation, encouraged Black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team. In 1995, South Africa returned to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the Republic.

Mandela worked to protect South Africa’s economy from collapse, and, through his Reconstruction and Development Plan, the South African government funded the creation of jobs, housing and basic healthcare. In 1996, he signed into law a new constitution for the nation that promoted a strong central government based on majority rule and guaranteed the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.

He retired from active politics before the 1999 general elections and spent his retirement years raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa’s rural areas through his Mandela Foundation. He also served as a mediator in Burundi’s civil war and wrote several books on his life and struggles, among them, No Easy Walk to Freedom; Nelson Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life; and Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.

On July 18, 2007, he convened a group of world leaders, which he called “The Elders,” a group committed to promoting peace and women’s equality, demanding an end to atrocities and supporting initiatives to address humanitarian crises and promote democracy. Thus far, the group has made an impact in the world, including in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent his life fighting for the rights of humanity.


[With the exception of the top photo, all other images are from then-ANC Deputy President Mandela’s visit to Los Angeles in June, 1990.]

Last modified: December 5, 2013 at 5:23 pm