Nelson Mandela, the President of the Republic of South Africa, has spent much of his life escaping the police, on trial, or in prison. "My life is the struggle" he has said. His struggle was against apartheid, the racist system used by the former white government of South Africa to suppress the majority black population. Mandela delivered his essential beliefs from the dock at his last trial, before he was sentenced to thirty years imprisonment: "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 to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Born in a village near Umtata in the South African Transkei, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the son of the principal adviser to the Acting Paramount Chief of Thembuland. The stories of the elders about the heroic feats of his warrior ancestors in their defence of the Transkei inspired the boy to become a man who would also fight for the freedom of his people.
The law and politics were Mandela's weapons. He studied first at Fort Hare where he was suspended for participating in a protest rally. He moved to Johannesburg to continue his studies and to join the African National Congress (ANC) in1942. Mandela became a member of the National Executive Council 1950 and Deputy President in 1952. He also continued to run a legal practice for black people while helping to popularise the ANC's Freedom Charter, a document imbued with the same ideals as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
An increasingly important organiser for the ANC, Mandela often avoided the police by wearing disguises. At other times he was banned, arrested and imprisoned. Finally, in 1962, he went overseas to speak at various human rights gatherings and to meet with senior politicians from several countries. Upon his return to South Africa in 1962, he was arrested and sentenced to five years jail for leaving the country illegally and with incitement to strike. Whilst in jail, he was charged with sabotage. At this trial, he declared he was willing to die for his ideals.
Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the 1980's, he was several times offered a release on the condition he renounce violence. He refused, not because he advocated violence but because, he said, prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate. In 1990, with the impending disintegration of apartheid, he was released. In 1993 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On 10 May, 1994, he was elected the first black President of South Africa.
Mandela's speech: New York, 21 September 1998