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Prisoners Who Inspire Us: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born July 18, 1918, in South Africa. He became an anti-apartheid activist initially committed to nonviolence following the example of Mahatma Gandhi. After repeated and severe violent reaction from the South African regime, he became a leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress as a last resort. In 1956 Mandela was arrested for treason; during his trial, in a speech to the ANC in 1961, Mandela said:

Nelson Mandela, 1961 (

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.”

In 1962 Mandela was convicted of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. He served 27 years, many in the infamous prison on Robben Island. He was allowed one letter every six months—letters that were heavily censored and delayed by prison authorities—though this was not among the harshest treatment he received.

Mandela was released in 1990; in 1994 he became not only South Africa’s first black president, but also the first South African president elected in a fully representative democratic election. He served until 1999. Yet he was barred from US soil until July 2008 because the United States had designated him a terrorist. Today, he is widely esteemed for his steadfast leadership in bringing South Africa out of apartheid.

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