Today marks the 25th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. He went on to transform South Africa – ending apartheid and instituting democracy, a process of healing, and human rights.
In the late 1980s, the South African government under F.W. de Klerk had made it clear that it was open to negotiations, and anticipation grew in the South African population in the days and weeks before Mandela’s release. South Africans knew that change was coming, but nobody predicted the depth and breadth of it or at that point, where the country was heading.
For black South Africans, Mandela had been the personification of hope – hope to end white domination, dating back to colonial times, but particularly, the apartheid system, which had torn the country apart for almost 50 years. Many white people were afraid of revenge and violence. Only few people had heard anything from him during his 27 years in prison, and the question whether he would be able to resume his leadership role in the black liberation movement was on everybody’s mind.
Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 after his famous “Speech from the Dock” at the end of his trial for sabotage, in which he famously stated:
“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.”
He went on to live his idea and lead his country to fulfill his ideals.
And just as his last words before entering prison represent the ideals we remember him by, so are his first words after his release a tribute to the international statesman he would become:
“Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.”
This is why this day 25 years ago is so important. South Africa entered a new area in its history and Nelson Mandela was the man who made change possible. He inspired change inside his own community and beyond, and served as a role model for conflict resolution, reconciliation, and human rights.
Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 at age 95 at his home in Johannesburg.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.