He spent 27 years in prison. Just four years after his release, he was elected president of his nation!
Those two things do not normally go together. However, the stories of Nelson Mandela and his country, South Africa, are not your average stories.
South Africa had the fortune and MISfortune of having a lot of mineral wealth, particularly diamonds and gold. It was also located in an important area of the world, at the very tip of Africa, a spot passed by ships traveling between Europe and Asia. That meant that world powers fought over control of the land, the strategic location, and all that wealth. In 1961, after years of colonization and invasion, slavery and wars, South Africa became a truly independent republic – a nation with legally institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination. The system of legal segregation was known as apartheid.
Apartheid was an appalling policy that trampled on the rights of the majority of the people of South Africa. People around the world called for an end to apartheid – and even went so far as to hold protest demonstrations and to boycott South African businesses. (My own sister was briefly held by police here in the U.S. for her participation in an anti-apartheid demonstration!) Within the country of South Africa, anti-apartheid activists used strikes, marches, protests, and even bombings and sabotage to fight against the oppression. Mandela, one of the anti-apartheid leaders, was arrested and convicted of sabotage, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
I read that Mandela and his anti-apartheid organization were influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and used nonviolent protests for years. However, the nonviolent strategies didn't work, and eventually the organization began to bomb governmental buildings when they were empty, with the intent of not hurting and killing people. Unfortunately, the guerilla war against the South African government spill over into unplanned violence and did end up causing civilian deaths; Mandela sharply criticized the organization's own violations of human rights.
While a young man, before his arrest, Mandela (born on this day in 1918) had earned a university degree. While in prison, he studied law through correspondence courses from a British university and earned his law degree.
When he was finally released from prison in 1990, Mandela became a strong voice for negotiation and reconciliation. He showed, not just leadership, but greatness. And he won more than 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. He was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994.
I recommend the 2009 movie Invictus (rated PG-13), in which Morgan Freeman plays President Nelson Mandela as he uses the popular sport of rugby to help heal his nation.