Mandela Is Freed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nelson Mandela, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 on charges of sabotage against the South African government, was released from prison and resumed negotiations with the National Party to dismantle apartheid.

Summary of Event

Although Europeans had practiced discrimination, taken valued lands, and waged war against the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa prior to the mid-twentieth century, it was the rise to power of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party National Party (South Africa) in South Africa in 1948 that ushered in full-blown apartheid (an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness”). The Population Registration Act (1950) Population Registration Act (South Africa, 1950) provided the mechanism for classifying every person into one of four “racial” groups: white, colored, Indian, or African. Apartheid also controlled the movement of Africans through measures such as pass laws (requiring passports for travel within the country) and influx control laws, outlawed virtually every form of political protest through laws such as the Suppression of Communism Act (1950), Suppression of Communism Act (South Africa, 1950) and controlled the content of Africans’ educations through laws such as the Bantu Education Act (1953). Bantu Education Act (South Africa, 1953) Apartheid;resistance and protest Human rights abuses;South Africa South Africa;human rights abuses [kw]Mandela Is Freed (Feb. 11, 1990) Apartheid;resistance and protest Human rights abuses;South Africa South Africa;human rights abuses [g]Africa;Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela Is Freed[07620] [g]South Africa;Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela Is Freed[07620] [c]Government and politics;Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela Is Freed[07620] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela Is Freed[07620] [c]Human rights;Feb. 11, 1990: Mandela Is Freed[07620] Mandela, Nelson De Klerk, F. W. Sisulu, Walter Botha, Pieter W.

Despite these draconian attempts on the part of the National Party to suppress challenges to apartheid, various organizations did campaign for majority rule. One of the oldest was the African National Congress African National Congress, South African (ANC), formed in 1912. Initially, the ANC was a small organization with several thousand members from the professional and middle classes who adopted a strategy of peaceful protest, primarily through electoral politics. The growth of an African working class, the deterioration of conditions facing rural Africans, and the emergence of a new generation of activists prompted a change in ANC strategy in the 1940’s.

Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Tambo, Oliver and Walter Sisulu were the major ANC leaders who formed the ANC Youth League in 1944 with the purpose of reinvigorating the struggle against apartheid, made particularly necessary in the face of the National Party victory. Mandela and others in the ANC, along with organizations such as the South African Communist Party, the South African Indian Congress, and the South African Coloured People’s Organization, organized days of protests, national stay-at-homes, and the Defiance Campaign Defiance Campaign (South Africa) in 1952. The Defiance Campaign, a civil disobedience effort, was an organizational success (particularly in the Eastern Cape) and demonstrated the benefits of multiracial organization. The government responded by issuing Mandela the first of several banning orders.

Growing interorganizational coordination culminated in the Congress of the People in June, 1955, in Kliptown, a black township outside Johannesburg. It was at this congress that the Freedom Charter was discussed and one year later adopted, with some dissent, as the guiding document of the liberation movement. The Freedom Charter Freedom Charter (1955) states that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” and it describes a commitment to the realization of basic human rights such as equality before the laws and freedom of movement, assembly, religion, speech, and press. It remained the basic document governing the ANC’s philosophy.

Before the Defiance Campaign, Mandela had been general secretary of the ANC Youth League (1947), a member of the Executive Committee of the ANC (1949), president of the Youth League (1951), president of the ANC’s Transvaal branch (1952), and deputy national president of the ANC (1952). The success of the Defiance Campaign led to a government crackdown against all antiapartheid organizations, and in 1955, Mandela, along with 155 other activists, was charged with treason.

During the course of the five-year treason trial, which ended in acquittal because of insufficient evidence, Mandela managed to remain active within the ANC and to provide trenchant criticism of apartheid. His writings during this period deplored the conditions faced by Africans in the reserves, the decision to bar non-Europeans from attendance at European universities, and the move toward the creation of self-governing Bantustans, separate “tribal homelands,” by Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd’s Verwoerd, Hendrik Frensch government in 1959. Mandela predicted with great prescience that “behind the ’self-government’ talk lies a grim programme of mass evictions, political persecution, and police terror. It is the last desperate gamble of a hated and doomed fascist autocracy.” Despite massive domestic and international condemnation of the homelands policy, four homelands were given independence: Transkei (1976), Bophuthatswana (1977), Venda (1979), and Ciskei (1981). No government apart from South Africa recognized the sovereignty of these homelands.

Nelson Mandela (left) and his wife, Winnie, the day after his release.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Failure to end apartheid in the late 1950’s produced divisions within African political organizations and culminated in 1959 with the formation of the Pan-Africanist Congress Pan-Africanist Congress[Panafricanist Congress] (PAC). In 1960, the PAC called for a massive campaign against the pass laws, and the government responded brutally at Sharpeville (a township near Johannesburg) on March 21, 1960. Approximately 69 Africans were killed and 186 wounded. Sharpeville Massacre (1960) A state of emergency was declared, and the ANC and PAC were banned. Shortly thereafter, Mandela went underground.

In 1961, the ANC, with some cooperation from the PAC and other antiapartheid organizations, called for a strike to coincide with the government’s declaration of a republic. Republic status would sever all links with Britain and thus for Europeans in South Africa constituted an act of independence and defiance. Although the May 31, 1961, strike was somewhat successful in garnering African support and participation, at the same time it highlighted the government’s intransigence.

On December 16, 1961, a wing of the ANC called Umkhonto we Sizwe Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) Spear of the Nation issued a manifesto explaining the need for an organization to respond with violence against state-sponsored violence. As a founding member and commander in chief of Umkhonto, Mandela helped to elaborate the group’s strategy, which focused on sabotage and destruction of property rather than violence against persons. Umkhonto’s activities were severely curtailed after Mandela and other top leaders of the group were arrested. Security forces were also able to infiltrate the group with spies.

In August, 1962, Mandela was arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years in prison for inciting an illegal strike and for leaving the country without valid travel documents. In July, 1963, he was arrested for sabotage along with nine other antiapartheid activists, and in 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison. Various National Party leaders made him offers of release on the condition that he renounce violence and live in the Transkei “homeland,” but Mandela rejected all such offers.

By 1980, apartheid was in crisis. Neighboring states had achieved independence, the international community viewed the homelands policy as a sham and refused to accept the homelands as separate entities, Africans viewed homeland leaders as illegitimate, and sharp splits were becoming obvious within the white minority. Given these circumstances, Pieter W. Botha, who became the leader of the National Party in 1978, embarked on a series of reforms. For example, a three-chamber parliament providing for representation of whites, coloreds, and Indians was established in 1983; the pass laws were repealed in 1986; and elections to local councils, in which Africans could participate, were held in 1988. These reforms were rejected by most antiapartheid organizations, including the United Democratic Front United Democratic Front (South Africa) (UDF), a coalition of trade unions, women’s organizations, and community groups founded in 1983 to coordinate opposition to apartheid. The ANC also refused to support the reforms and encouraged Africans to boycott elections and continue to protest government policy.

After Botha suffered a stroke in February, 1989, F. W. de Klerk became the leader of the National Party, and he soon made a series of changes. In October, 1989, he released from prison a number of key antiapartheid activists, including Walter Sisulu. In December, 1989, de Klerk met with Mandela. On February 2, 1990, de Klerk legalized the ANC and thirty other previously banned antiapartheid organizations, and on February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The next day, Mandela gave a rousing speech at Cape Town City Hall in which he called for a continuation of the armed struggle against apartheid, maintenance of sanctions, and ANC-South African Communist Party collaboration in the struggle. In time, however, he moved from this defiant posture to one of reconciliation and negotiation with de Klerk—a strategy that produced an almost miraculous peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa. In 1994, in the first fully representative democratic elections held in South Africa, Mandela won the presidency and formed a national unity government dominated by the ANC.


Although Nelson Mandela’s release from prison did not bring about the immediate abolition of apartheid, significant changes began to occur soon after Mandela was freed. Although groups such as the PAC continued to oppose discussions with the government, the ANC maintained a substantial amount of legitimacy. In fact, with the unbanning of the ANC, the UDF dissolved itself, thus ensuring general support for ANC efforts to engage in negotiations with the government on behalf of the majority of Africans.

After talks between the ANC and the National Party government began in May, 1990, several significant pieces of apartheid legislation were repealed, including the Separate Amenities Act (1950), Separate Amenities Act (South Africa, 1950) the Group Areas Act (1950), Group Areas Act (South Africa, 1950) and the 1913 and 1936 Native Land Acts, which had reserved 87 percent of South African land for whites. This was followed in 1991 by the repeal of the invidious Population Registration Act. Such actions were met with intense opposition by conservative organizations of whites, such as the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, Afrikaner Resistance Movement but de Klerk proved to be masterful in maneuvering toward the necessary changes, as the government under his leadership steered a course through negotiations that produced a new constituent assembly, a new constitution, and the multiracial elections of 1994.

Negotiations were complicated by continuing violence in the townships, but South Africa was finally on a road that inexorably led to the realization of the long-awaited goal of full political participation for the black population. That goal was achieved with the country’s first multiracial election in late April, 1994, with the victory of Nelson Mandela and the ANC. Falling short of two-thirds of the vote, Mandela opted to form a national unity government that included both the National Party and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, Inkatha Freedom Party (South Africa) signaling his desire to work with both the South African white population and Zulu chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, Buthelezi, Mangosuthu Gatsha who had opposed the elections until the last minute. In an act of magnanimity and reconciliation, Mandela named Buthelezi as his minister of home affairs in the new government despite the Zulu leader’s previous disruptive behavior. At last, South Africa could enjoy the fruits of genuine majority rule, although economic, social, and political problems associated with the long legacy of apartheid lingered, posing an ongoing challenge to the government and the wider society. Apartheid;resistance and protest Human rights abuses;South Africa South Africa;human rights abuses

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guelke, Adrian. Rethinking the Rise and Fall of Apartheid: South Africa and World Politics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Discusses the nature and significance of South African apartheid and the reasons the apartheid system ended, with particular attention paid to the international antiapartheid movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lodge, Tom. Black Politics in South Africa Since 1945. New York: Longman, 1983. Excellent account of the origins and development of African opposition to apartheid. Provides a wealth of detail on the different philosophies guiding the ANC and the PAC and accounts for the organizations’ varying strengths. Especially informative regarding resistance to apartheid in the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Mandela: A Critical Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Comprehensive biography examines how Mandela’s private and public lives combined to influence his activism and analyzes his achievement of the status of political hero. Includes photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mandela, Nelson. The Struggle Is My Life. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1986. Provides a short introduction to Mandela’s life and presents his major speeches and writings until 1985. Includes the ANC Youth League Manifesto, transcripts from the treason and Rivonia trials, and the Freedom Charter. Also contains brief and useful text on events that preceded and followed Mandela’s speeches and trials.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meer, Fatima. Higher than Hope: The Authorized Biography of Nelson Mandela. New York: Harper & Row, 1990. Interesting account of Mandela’s life until the late 1980’s by a sociologist and activist from South Africa who has known Mandela since the 1950’s. Strongest in its discussion of Mandela’s early years and the effects of the liberation struggle on his personal life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mermelstein, David, ed. The Anti-apartheid Reader: The Struggle Against White Racist Rule in South Africa. New York: Grove Press, 1987. Informative compendium of readings on apartheid contains classic accounts of such elements of life under apartheid as forced removals, life in the Bantustans, and African education. Includes a good section on apartheid in the international arena.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Covers South African history from precolonial times to the end of the twentieth century. Provides a masterful summary of the archaeological and anthropological information on South Africa prior to European settlement. Includes excellent discussion of the rise and fall of apartheid in the post-1948 period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thörn, H �kan. Anti-apartheid and the Emergence of a Global Civil Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Sociological study examines the power of collective action and places the antiapartheid movement within the context of global politics.

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