• History

15 Fascinating Facts About The Brutal, Inspiring Life of Nelson Mandela

Although later in life he was rarely seen without his endearing, warm smile, badass Nelson Mandela was one of the most uncompromising and fearless 20th-century revolutionaries. A tireless defender of human rights, he waged a lifelong struggle against the racially discriminatory institution of apartheid in South Africa. He even spent 27 years imprisoned under harsh conditions, all the while leading a political movement from behind bars.

Eventually successful, Mandela shunned violent retribution, opting instead for a peaceful transition into a united society. It's not surprising that the biography of such a transformative individual features some awesome unbelievably harrowing moments as well as some truly inspiring ones. After all, Mandela was a man of initially modest means who changed the world.  

  • He Said F*ck It To Nonviolence

    Photo: Godfrey Rubens / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    In the '50s, Mandela and the ANC began to be split into factions, one of which was called the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The PAC began an organized campaign designed to protest against the "Pass" system, which was, essentially, an internal passport that black South Africans along with other minority groups were forced to carry within certain segregated territories of South Africa. If their pass was not stamped appropriately, individuals could be detained and arrested. This formal arrangement to impose segregation by geographic access was a major flash point during the apartheid conflict. The head of the PAC announced a nationwide protest against the "Pass," to be held on March 21, 1960.  In the town of Sharpville, a crowd of approximately 5,000 protesters surrounded a police station in preparation to turn themselves in and swamp the legal system. Eventually, though, the protest prompted law enforcement to fire sub-machine guns into the crowd, killing at least 69 people and wounding many more. 

    This action was not only formally condemned by the UN, but it also galvanized the apartheid protest movement in South Africa, including Nelson Mandela. In the aftermath of the massacre, Mandela concluded that non-violence in the face of state violence was ineffectual. So, following the incident, Mandela burnt his passbook before members of the world press.  

  • He Went Underground To Create A Guerrilla Movement

    Photo: Hochgeladen und Bearbeitet von / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    For 17 months, Nelson Mandela went underground to develop an organization that could respond to government violence with sabotage and armed resistance. A formal organization, "Umkhonto we Sizwe", (The Spear of the Nation) became the military organization within the ANC. Mandela left South Africa during much of this time period, spending it receiving training in Morocco with members of the Algerian National Liberation Front, the entity that successfully expelled the French colonial government. Mandela's intent was to establish an external location to train anti-apartheid fighters on an ongoing basis and begin guerrilla warfare in South Africa. During this time period, he further elevated his stature by avoiding arrest from a South African government that was feverishly looking for him. By now being referred to as "The Black Pimpernel," he released a letter that concludes with the words:

    "Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days."   

  • He Became A CIA Target

    Photo: Darren Glanville / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

    On August 5, 1962, at a remote roadblock in the Kwazulu-Natal region of South Africa, police halted a large automobile containing two passengers, one of whom claimed to be a chauffeur named David Motsamayi. Both men were immediately arrested, and the chauffeur was ultimately identified as most-wanted-man Nelson Mandela.

    Ultimately, allegations were made that the CIA was involved in tipping off South African law enforcement about Mandela's whereabouts since the West believed that Mandela was a dangerous communist who would incite a revolution and precipitate a Russian-backed armed conflict that might require American intervention. At the time, Mandela was considered to be a radical working in conjunction with the Soviet Union. Until 2012, the arrest site was marked with a simple plaque. Today, an elaborate sculpture marks the spot where Nelson Mandela began the most difficult part of the journey he ultimately described as "the long walk to freedom."     

  • He Was Fully "Prepared To Die"

    In 1962, Nelson Mandela was charged with "incitement to strike" and "leaving the country illegally." During legal proceedings, he remained defiant, wearing traditional tribal dress made of animal hides, ignoring legal procedure in the courtroom, and using his testimony as an opportunity for political speech. As a result, he was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.  

    While Mandela was incarcerated, police were able to uncover the secret ANC headquarters and meeting place on the outskirts of Johannesburg. 19 members of various anti-government groups were arrested, and incriminating documents implicating Mandela and various other members of the ANC were discovered. In what became known as the "Rivonia" trial, Mandela and 10 other defendants were charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government. Nelson Mandela delivered his most famous speech as an opening statement in this trial. The speech lasted for three hours, included a detailed explanation of the ANC's core beliefs, explained the organization's justification for violence and concluded with the words, "I am prepared to die."

    The speech reverberated around the world, and the final phrase became the credo of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.