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30 Years Since Nelson Mandela Became President of South Africa

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Authored by Tommy Dolan
Published on 10th May, 2024 7 min read

30 Years Since Nelson Mandela Became President of South Africa

Today (10/05/2024) marks 30 years since Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. In 1994, the country held its first democratic elections in which people of all races were allowed to participate. The African National Congress (ANC), which Mandela led, won a majority. He therefore became South Africa’s first black president.

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 his native African culture that had been suppressed under British colonial rule. 

Mandela studied law at university. While subsequently working as a lawyer in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial and African nationalist politics. He joined the ANC in 1943. He quickly became a prominent voice within the party, co-founding its youth league, Inkundla Ya Bantu, with a view to mobilising young Africans in opposition to racial discrimination. 

It is constructive to consider the history of the ANC, and the general outlook of the party during the early 1940s. The party was founded in 1912 as the South African Native National Congress. Much like other nationalist groupings that emerged around this time in regions under British rule, the party sought reform whilst remaining ostensibly loyalist—its structure was based on the bicameral system of Westminster, its members’ speeches and writings typically invoked the ideals of British liberty and justice, and Union Jacks adorned the party’s campaign publications. In 1918, the party’s second president, Saul Msane, implored members to be “inflexibly loyal to their Supreme Chief, His Majesty the King”.[1]

When Mandela joined the ANC, A. B. Xuma was president. Shortly before assuming this position, Xuma likewise issued a vow of loyalty to the king and empire. But during the 1940s, Xuma increasingly pleaded the ANC’s case before “the international court of human justice”.[2] As the historian Stuart Ward has observed, the post-war decades witnessed a surge in international consciousness: “the advent of newly conceptualised moral worlds couched in the language of universal rights and the primacy of human dignity”.[3] Crucially, the Atlantic Charter had been drawn up in 1941. In 1948, the UN issued the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to Ward, post-war internationalism, combined with the near simultaneous advent of the language of universal human rights, undermined the effectiveness of traditional, colonial appeals to the “moral world of British rights”.[4]

Mandela was certainly committed to the ANC’s goal of toppling the far-right, Afrikaner National Party (NP). Coming to power following 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. The system had devastating consequences for the country’s non-white population, leading to intense poverty, violence, and racism. 

The proclamation of the Republic of South Africa on 31 May 1961 by the NP, then led by Dr Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd, was a pivotal moment for Mandela and the ANC. This development signalled that any form of accommodation or compromise with the right-wing government was, at best, unlikely. In the weeks leading up to the inauguration of the republic, Mandela announced a “stay away campaign”—the first instalment of a “head-on clash with apartheid”.[5] He emerged from hiding on 31 May to give his first televised interview. The “time has come for us to consider”, as he put it, “whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate”.[6] Two weeks later, he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC.

Mandela’s recourse to political violence was not taken lightly. He sought an accommodation with the United Party (UP), the NP’s principal opposition. Mandela wrote to its leader, Sir De Villiers Graaff, on 21 May, urging him to grasp the repugnance of the constitution that the NP had inaugurated, as well as the sheer ruthlessness of their common adversary. Importantly, Mandela’s proposed solution was a peaceful one: dialogue. He urged the formation of an elected national convention of all races that would ultimately draw up a new constitution.

“It is time for you Sir [De Villiers Graaff] and your party to speak out”, Mandela wrote,

Silence at this time enables Dr. Verwoerd to lead us onward to the brink of disaster…On our part, the door to such a discussion has always been open…To date we have had no reply. Nevertheless we hold the door open. But the need now is not for debate about differences of detail, but for clarity and purpose. For a National Convention of all races? Or against?[7]

As Ward has argued, Mandela’s call to unite “the overwhelming majority of our people, white, Coloured, Indian, and African, for a single purpose” was an invitation to the UP’s leader “to embrace the moral world of universal human values” that had emerged in the wake of the Second World War.[8]

But Mandela was rebuffed. “We are not prepared to see the Union parliament abdicate its sovereignty in favour of a so-called National Convention”, as Graaff wrote in his disparaging reply.[9] “Nor do we favour adult suffrage for all races, colour and creeds”.[10] Sadly, Graaff condemned Mandela’s attempt to “force your views upon South Africa”.[11]

Mandela consequently opted for political violence as a means of engineering change. He was captured in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison. Facing increasing domestic and international pressure, in 1990 the president of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, agreed to Mandela’s release. Recognising that apartheid was unsustainable, de Klerk invited Mandela to collaborate in negotiating an end to apartheid. The NP also de-proscribed political parties and initiated negotiations with the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations.

Resurrecting the political idea mooted by Mandela during the early 1960s, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) was established. Between 1991 and 1993 it brought together representatives from various political parties to negotiate a new constitution. These negotiations precipitated democratic elections in 1994. Coming to power, Mandela was given the opportunity to realise his longstanding vision of a fairer South Africa, one embracing the concept of universal human rights.

If you would like to explore the histories and themes explored in this short article in more detail, please check out three of BOA’s digital primary source collections— Reporting on Africa: From Apartheid to Pan-Africanism, 1949–1995; Apartheid Through the Eyes of South African Political Parties, 1948–1994; and Establishing the Post-War International Order, 1944–1961.

[1] Stuart Ward, Untied Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023), 200.

[2] Ibid., 201.

[3] Ibid, 197.

[4] Ibid, 211.

[5] Ibid., 224.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 225.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 226.

Authored by Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan

Tommy Dolan is Senior Editor at British Online Archives. He gained his PhD in History from the University of Edinburgh in 2016. Between 2019 and 2022 he was a post-doctoral fellow on the Leverhulme-funded project 'Rethinking Civil Society: History, Theory, Critique' at the University of York. He then joined the metadata team at the University of York library. Tommy has published in the Historical Journal, the Journal of the History of European Ideas, and Studia Hibernica. His research focuses on the way in which readings of history have influenced political thought in Ireland, particularly with respect to the architects of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Tommy is currently also co-editor of Writing the Troubles.

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