Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in the village of Mvezo, Transkei in South Africa. Mandela’s life was plagued with struggles; he lived through the oppressive South African apartheid system, spent 27 years incarcerated in prison, and faced a lifetime of discrimination and racism. However, through his unwavering strength and perseverance, the South Africa that Mandela left behind at his death in 2013 was radically different than the country that he had been born into 95 years earlier. In November 2009, The United Nations General Assembly recognized Nelson Mandela’s contributions and dedication to the promotion of peace and democracy by declaring July 18th “Nelson Mandela International Day”. Every year, Nelson Mandela International Day is an opportunity to remember Mandela’s legacy and continue his fight for equality and democracy in our own communities and around the world.
Nelson Mandela established his identity as a rights activist at a young age, joining the African National Congress (ANC) and establishing its Youth League, the ANCYL, in 1944 at the age of 26. Under his leadership, the ANC was at the forefront of black resistance to South Africa’s white minority government’s restrictive apartheid regime that established a formal system of segregation and discrimination against the majority non-white population. Discrimination against non-whites had been persistent for decades in South Africa, but the apartheid regime codified particularly draconian laws including prohibiting interracial marriages and sexual relations, segregating public spaces and facilities, and disenfranchising non-whites from government participation.
Through protests, strikes, and outspoken political activism, Nelson Mandela and the ANC fought for equal rights and an end to apartheid in South Africa. Mandela’s opposition efforts made him a target of the South African government. He was arrested in 1962 and subsequently sentenced to life in prison under the charge of sabotage in 1964. Mandela spent the next 27 years in prison and his incarceration further emboldened the anti-apartheid movement and attracted international attention to his cause. Throughout his incarceration, Mandela remained a leader and source of guidance for the resistance. He released political statements and a draft of his autobiography from prison that inspired millions around the world, making Nelson Mandela a household name. When the “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign gained international momentum, the South African government offered Mandela his release in exchange for concessions on his part. Mandela stayed steadfast in his convictions and rejected the deal, encouraging the resistance to remain uncompromising on issues of racial equality and democracy. Finally in 1990, the newly elected president F. W. de Clerk released Mandela from prison. In 1994, Mandela was elected in the nation’s first multiracial election to be the first black South African president. Under his leadership, a new South African constitution was written prohibiting racial discrimination. Rather than allowing retaliation and revenge against the white minority, the new central government advocated for peace and unity between races.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy is one of peace, equality, and social justice. This year’s Nelson Mandela International Day is dedicated to Action Against Poverty with the goal of eradicating poverty and restoring the dignity of the poor in South Africa, a cause that Mandela passionately advocated for. While poverty has decreased in South Africa in recent years, one in five South Africans still live in extreme poverty, with 63 percent of young children living in such conditions. This poverty is unevenly distributed among the population, as South Africa has one of the world’s highest income inequality measurements according to the World Bank. Inequalities in wealth and income are concentrated along racial lines, with black South Africans earning only one-fifth of what whites did in 2015, for example. These disparities stem from decades of state-enforced economic, political, and social inequity; it has been 26 years since the end of apartheid, but its effects are still felt everyday. Nelson Mandela International Day focuses on bringing together corporations, non-governmental organizations, and individuals from around the world to promote initiatives to combat poverty and its destructive consequences. A simple way to be involved is dedicating just 67 minutes to helping others (one minute for every year of Mandela’s public service) and documenting it on social media using #ActionAgainstPoverty and #MandelaDay.
Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to the betterment of his community, his country, and the world—a legacy which all of us have an opportunity to honor every day. One of the most important ways we can do that in our own communities is to recognize the political, economic, and social institutions that repress or discriminate against certain groups in society. We must recognize and actively combat inequalities that give advantages to some members of society over others, whether that be because of race, religion, nationality, gender identity, sexual orientation, education, or legal status. Nelson Mandela understood that true democracy requires true equality. By remembering his legacy and embodying his values every day, and especially on Nelson Mandela International Day, we too can be forces for positive change and peace in our world.