Black South African political leader, whose long imprisonment made him an international symbol of the struggle against apartheid. He became president of South Africa (1994–1999) following the country's first multiracial elections. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk.
Mandela was born in Transkei, the son of a tribal chief. After attending university in Johannesburg he practised as a lawyer, setting up the country's first black legal practice. An activist in the African National Congress (ANC) from his twenties, he responded to the banning of the organization in 1960 by inciting a wave of strikes; when nonviolent means made little impact, he formed the Spear of the Nation movement to undertake a campaign of sabotage and guerrilla activity. Mandela evaded arrest until 1962, when he received a five-year sentence for incitement; in 1964 this became a life sentence, following a second trial at which he was found guilty of sabotage and treason.
Mandela spent the first part of his sentence on Robben Island, a notorious high-security prison. A campaign for his release was spearheaded by his second wife, Winnie Mandela (1934– ), whom he had married in 1958; she became a political figure in her own right, suffering imprisonment (1969–70) and harassment at the hands of the authorities. By the late 1970s he had become an internationally famous figure, showered with honours and tributes from sympathizers worldwide. His refusal to gain his own freedom by making a political deal with his captors had by this time invested him with an almost mythical status in the eyes of many black South Africans. In 1988 his seventieth birthday was marked by renewed calls for his release and much international publicity; later that year he was moved to more comfortable quarters.
Mandela was finally released in 1990, on the intervention of the new state president, F. W. de Klerk. He immediately engaged in talks about the country's future with de Klerk and other government figures and travelled widely to argue the case for continued international pressure on South Africa. In 1993 a transitional constitution extending the vote to all racial groups was adopted and the following year Mandela was overwhelmingly elected as his country's president, at the age of seventy-six. In this role he has fostered a mood of national reconciliation at home while also playing a prominent part on the world stage as a respected elder statesman. Since December 1997, when he handed over the presidency of the ANC to Thabo Mbeki (1942– ), his role has been chiefly a ceremonial one.
The triumphs of Mandela's old age have, however, been marred by the persistent controversy surrounding Winnie Mandela. In 1991, not long after his release from prison, she was found guilty of the kidnapping of a teenage boy who was then murdered by her bodyguards. Following further scandals, including an alleged adulterous affair, she separated from Nelson Mandela in 1992 and was divorced by him in 1996. Subsequent allegations have linked her to a series of murders and violent crimes during the last years of apartheid. In 1998, on his eightieth birthday, Nelson Mandela married his fifty-two-year-old companion Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, Samura Machel (1933–86).
Subjects: Social Sciences — Contemporary History (Post 1945).