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Nelson Mandela International Day

Authored by Rex Cleaver
Published on 18th July, 2023 6 min read

Nelson Mandela International Day

"It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us. Since we have achieved our freedom, there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not." [1]

Today (18/07/2023) is Nelson Mandela International Day (or Mandela Day), a commemoration of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, celebrated each year on the 18th of July, Mandela’s birthday.

Mandela was born in 1918 into the Thembu royal family, leaders of the Xhosa people who comprise South Africa's second-largest ethnic group. Educated at Western-style institutions that emphasised the superiority of European culture, Mandela grew increasingly interested in the native African culture that had been suppressed under British colonial rule. 

Studying law at university, Mandela initially intended to become a privy councillor for the royal house. Later, while working as a lawyer in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial and African nationalist politics, joining the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943. A year later, Mandela had already become a significant voice within the party, cofounding the ANC Youth League, to mobilise young Africans in opposition to their subjugation. 

Mandela was committed to the ANC’s goal of toppling the ruling National Party (NP). Upon taking power after the 1948 general election the NP institutionalised a form of racial segregation which led to extreme inequality within the country. Known as apartheid — an Afrikaans word meaning “separateness” — the system ensured that South Africa was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority white population. Apartheid was broadly delineated into petty apartheid, which entailed the segregation of public facilities and social events, and grand apartheid, which dictated housing and employment opportunities by race. The system had devastating consequences on the country’s non-white populace, leading to intense poverty, violence, and racism. 

Involving himself in numerous political campaigns, Mandela was frequently arrested for seditious activities in his attempts to weaken the NP and to end apartheid. Later drawing inspiration from Marxism, Mandela joined the banned South Africa Communist Party (SACP) and led a militant sabotage campaign against the government. After extensive travelling throughout Europe and Africa, meeting with anti-apartheid activists, reporters, and prominent politicians, Mandela was later captured in 1962 after arriving back in South Africa. 

During his trial in Pretoria, Mandela delivered the famous “I Am Prepared to Die” speech, turning his plea of mitigation into a political declamation: 

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 which I hope to live for and to see realised. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. [2]

Sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela spent the next twenty-seven years of his life incarcerated in various prisons. During his imprisonment, Mandela became a symbol of the injustices suffered under apartheid, garnering widespread support across the globe. The song, “Free Nelson Mandela,” performed by The Specials, became a regular on radio stations around the world and in July 1988, a televised tribute concert held at London’s Wembley Stadium was watched by an estimated two hundred million viewers.

Facing increasing international and domestic pressure, President F.W. de Klerk of the NP finally agreed to Mandela’s release in 1990. Seeing that apartheid was unsustainable, Klerk invited Mandela to collaborate in negotiating an end to apartheid in South Africa. Alongside freeing Mandela, the NP unbanned political parties and initiated negotiations with the ANC and with other anti-apartheid organizations. The Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), held from 1991 to 1993, brought together representatives from various political parties to negotiate a new constitution for South Africa. These negotiations resulted in an agreement on a democratic constitution and paved the way for democratic elections.

In 1994 South Africa held its first democratic elections in which people of all races were allowed to participate. The ANC won a majority and Mandela became the country's first black president. One of Mandela’s first actions was to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1995. The TRC addressed human rights violations committed during apartheid, as well as providing a forum for victims and perpetrators to give testimony and to seek amnesty, thus contributing to the process of healing and reconciliation. A gradual and complex process that spanned several decades, apartheid in South Africa officially ended through a combination of internal and external pressures. It is important to note that while apartheid formally ended, the process of overcoming its legacy and addressing social and economic inequalities is ongoing in South Africa.

Declining a second term, Mandela dedicated himself to his foundation, combatting poverty, HIV/AIDs and pursuing other philanthropic causes up until his death in 2013. Of course, Mandela’s impact extends beyond his political and philanthropic achievements. He embodied the values of forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity, serving as a beacon of hope for people around the world. His unwavering commitment to education, healthcare, and social justice initiatives continues to uplift countless lives and shape the global discourse on human rights. 

Mandela Day serves as a reminder of the enduring power of his values and teachings. It aims to encourage people to reflect on the impact they can make, both individually and collectively, in their communities. The day serves as a call to action. This year, the theme for Mandela Day is “Climate, Food, and Solidarity.” The Mandela Foundation hopes that this theme will raise awareness for these pressing global issues and that people will be encouraged to come together to tackle these challenges. 


[1] Nelson Mandela, “Speech at Durban, 16 April 1999", in Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations (New York: Macmillan, 2011.), 128.

 [2] Nelson Mandela, “I am Prepared to Die” (Rivonia Trial Speech, Palace of Justice, Pretoria, South Africa, 20th April 1964), Nelson Mandela Foundation. 


Authored by Rex Cleaver

Rex Cleaver

Rex is an Editorial Assistant at British Online Archives

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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