Nelson Mandela

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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie (left) attend a concert at Wembley Stadium to celebrate his release from prison in 1990.

Georges De Keerle/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela was born in 1918 into a South African royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe. But he was black, and South Africa was ruled by whites, so even his prestigious birth couldn't save him from the brutal system of racial segregation, called apartheid, that was in existence then. Mandela attended college, where he quickly became involved with various protests against racial discrimination. Initially, he favored using boycotts, strikes, and other nonviolent methods to push for full citizenship for all South Africans. But after white police killed 69 peaceful black protestors in 1962 in Sharpeville, Mandela, as head of the activist organization, the African National Congress (ANC), embraced some methods of violent resistance as well [source: History].

After the ANC was banned, Mandela was arrested in 1962 and charged with sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy. During his eight-month trial, he cemented his status as an international icon with his opening statement that concluded with these passionate words: "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" [source: History].

Mandela spent 27 years in jail, most of the time doing hard labor. But he also earned a law degree, smuggled out political statements and drafted his autobiography. And his lengthy imprisonment added to his mystique and his reputation as a freedom fighter. International public pressure led to his release from jail in 1990 and to the dismantling of the apartheid system. Just a few years later, in 1994, he was elected the first black president of South Africa in the country's first multiracial parliamentary elections. In 1999, Mandela retired from politics, but continues to push for peace and social justice throughout the world [source: History].

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