12 June 1964
Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment
South African anti-apartheid leader and world human rights activist Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12, 1964 for his political activism by the South African establishment. He was freed from prison only after 27 years during which time he became the face of the anti-apartheid movement.
- Nelson Mandela was born on 18th July 1918 into a royal family of the Thembu tribe in the village of Mvezo in Cape Province. The tribe spoke the language Xhosa.
- His birth name was Rolihlahla. Aged nine, Mandela was adopted by another high-ranking member of the tribe who groomed him for a leadership role in the tribe.
- Mandela became the first member of his family to receive formal education when he attended the local missionary school. He was given the English name ‘Nelson’ at the school, as was the custom then.
- For his secondary education, he went to another missionary school. The Christian faith was to have a profound impact on him.
- In 1939, Mandela entered the prestigious University of Fort Hare which was the only western-modelled institute of higher learning for black African students then.
- However, he never completed his education as he was expelled for boycotting against the policies of the institute. Mandela returned home only to find out that his marriage had been arranged. To escape this, he fled to Johannesburg and started work as a night watchman.
- He also studied for his bachelor’s degree by correspondence and found employment as a law clerk.
- At the University of Witwatersrand, where he enrolled to study law, Mandela befriended many activists, both black and white.
- He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944. He also established its youth wing along with other leaders like Oliver Tambo, called the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL).
- In the 1948 elections in South Africa, the National Party came to power and implemented harsh segregation policies. The non-whites were placed under severe restrictions and denied basic rights. They were even barred from the government.
- The ANC started its campaign for full citizenship for all South Africans through peaceful, non-violent means.
- Mandela travelled the length and breadth of the country advocating equal rights. He led the ANC’s Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952. He, along with Tambo, also started the country’s first black law firm to fight cases for black people affected adversely by unjust segregation laws.
- In 1956, Mandela was arrested. He was released in 1961 after the trial but the situation was becoming increasingly tensed. The Pan Africanist Congress (PAN) had been formed in 1959 which advocated armed resistance against apartheid.
- In 1960, the police opened fire at a group of peaceful black protestors in Sharpeville. 69 people were killed. Riots ensued in different parts of the country. The ANC and the PAC were banned by the government. It was also during this time that Mandela gave up peaceful resistance and started a more radical approach.
- In 1961, he founded the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) with his colleagues. This was an armed wing of the ANC.
- The MK under Mandela’s leadership started a sabotage movement against the government.
- He travelled abroad in January 1962 despite being banned from doing so and met Tambo who was exiled in London. He also received guerrilla training in Algeria.
- In August 1962, he returned to South Africa and was arrested. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
- The next year, police raided an ANC refuge in Rivonia and found material incriminating Mandela in several activities.
- He was then taken to trial for treason, sabotage and violent conspiracy. The ‘Rivonia Trial’ lasted 8 months. From the dock of the defendant in the courtroom, Mandela gave his famous 3-hour speech, now called the “I Am Prepared to Die” speech. The concluding words of his historic speech were, “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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
- The trial garnered international attention and many global organisations called for the release of Mandela and his associates.
- Nevertheless, he was sentenced to life imprisonment narrowly escaping the death sentence.
- The first 18 years of his incarceration was spent at the Robben Island Prison where he underwent brutal hardships. He had to do hard labour in a lime quarry and spent his days at a tiny cell without bedding or plumbing. He also received fewer rations than other white inmates. He and his associates also received harsh punishments for the slightest of ‘offences’.
- He somehow got a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of London studying through correspondence.
- He also wrote his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ from the prison.
- Despite being in prison, Mandela became the face of the anti-apartheid movement. In 1980, Tambo started a ‘Free Mandela Campaign’.
- The international community also put pressure on the government of South Africa by isolating them. The government also presented Mandela with the chance for freedom in exchange for political compromises. But he rejected all such offers.
- In 1982, Mandela was shifted to Pollsmoor Prison, and in 1988, he was placed under house arrest in the compounds of a minimum-security prison.
- In 1989, the then South African President F.W. de Klerk cancelled the ban on the ANC and announced the formation of a non-racist country.
- In February 1990, Mandela was released from prison after 27 years.
- Mandela and de Klerk received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993.
- The first fully democratic elections were held in the country in April 1994, and Mandela was elected as the first black President of South Africa. He was president till 1999 when her retired from politics.
- He died of a lung infection on 5th December 2013 aged 95.
- He had received many awards and accolades in his lifetime from various countries and organisations. India awarded him the Bharat Ratna in 1990.
See previous ‘This Day in History’ here.