Taking his place alongside India's Mahatma Gandhi and Tibet's Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela was one of the 20th century’s most revered activists and a triumphant icon in the struggle for racial equality. The Daily Beast looks back at the defining moments that made the former political prisoner turned South African president a legend.
In 1961, Mandela was a wanted man for his leadership in the African National Congress, which was turning to increasingly violent methods in its fight for equality. “We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races, there is room for all the races in this country,” he told journalist Brian Widlake, who was granted an interview with the elusive political leader. Just one year later, after 17 months on the run, he’d be captured, sentenced to life imprisonment, and locked up for 27 years on Robben Island.
Release From Prison
“I must confess I am unable to describe my emotion,” Mandela told reporters upon being released from prison in 1990—a grueling 27 years after his incarceration. Even though he was already an old man and had been through hard labor and isolating prison conditions, the civil-rights icon wasn’t thinking about retirement. “We remain committed to peace,” he said. “And if the government gave us an opportunity, if they normalize the situation, we are ready to make a positive contribution.”
The 1994 presidential election marked two historic firsts for South Africa. The world watched closely on April 27, as the country held its first multiracial election, and less than a month later, South Africa elected its first black president. Just four years out of jail, Mandela praised the progress his country was making in his inaugural address. “Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud,” he said. “Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity's belief in justice.”
Nobel Peace Prize Speech
In 1993, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, who would become Mandela’s first deputy president, “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa.” The announcement speech called Mandela a “moral authority” and praised his lack of bitterness despite decades of imprisonment. “Today’s announcement that I have been named to receive the most prestigious award for peace was a deeply humbling experience,” the South African leader told the press.
Congressional Gold Medal
President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Nelson Mandela’s influence in South African politics in 1998 with the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest honor for a civilian. “Mr. Mandela waited a very long time to actually do something for his people, rather than just to be something to keep their hearts and hopes alive,” President Clinton said in his introduction. “And every day I watch him, that is what he does. So should we.” Mandela used his acceptance speech to highlight the inequality still apparent in his country. The medal is one of more than 250 awards that have been bestowed upon him.
Leave it to Nelson Mandela to include his former jail guard in the festivities celebrating his 20 years of freedom. On February 10, 2010, the prisoner, whose arduous path led to a presidency and a Nobel Peace Prize, marked the 20th anniversary of his release from jail. The 91-year-old was in jubilant spirits, toasting the occasion with a cheering group of friends, family, and admirers. “Whites are fellow South Africans and we want them to feel safe,” he said at a press conference. As humble as ever, he downplayed his sacrifices saying, “Nobody who has some conscious politically would avoid doing the same things that we did.”