1994: The year I was born and the year Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black Prime Minister of South Africa, reflecting the end of apartheid. It has been 22 years since apartheid was abolished in the country, and this man was, and will always be, the symbol of the country’s struggle to attain equality and freedom in a time of great adversity.


Six years before Mandela’s leadership, my parents left South Africa in 1988 due to escalating political turmoil. Mandela had already been in prison for 25 years, only to be released at the age of 72 in 1990, causing civil unrest throughout the nation.

My family and I have reflected on our complicated relationship with South Africa since Mandela’s death; the landscape and people are beautiful, but the scars of the past are still prevalent. According to my parents and countless others, Mandela brought democracy not only to black citizens, but to whites as well.

My parents remember that prior to 1994, apartheid government regime instilled fear in the nation, by tapping citizens’ phone lines, questioning (for months at a time) anyone whom they thought suspicious, and beating and killing anyone deemed a threat.

Given the horrifying circumstances, Mandela’s election not only gave black citizens equality, but provided peace to a country with a history of violence that may never be understood by younger generations today.

In 1948, The National Party (NP), which militantly supported and enforced apartheid, was voted into power; the NP created harsher laws against black citizens and stricter censorship throughout the country.

Citizens began to protest for Mandela’s liberation, calling for the UN Security Council to plan his eventual release from prison. During this time, massacres and violent protests increased, deepening the country’s rooted racial divide.

Mandela strongly believed that black Africans needed their own political determinism. Soon after his release, he became the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), a resistance movement against the white leadership that dominated the political landscape for decades. He was a threat to the political powers of the time and in 1964 he was tried and sent to prison in Robben Island for his affiliations with the ANC and conspiring to overthrow apartheid through violent means.

Twenty million South Africans voted Mandela into office in the country’s first democratic election. Finally, the country’s authoritarian regime was defeated, and a unified South Africa was formed. His election led to the creation of a new constitution, which granted freedom and equality to black citizens who had arduously fought for their rights.

Mandela became a figure of hope and peace on a national and global scale. Under his leadership, the country was desegregated and moved towards multiculturalism. Mandela’s forgiveness and grace toward white oppressors was noticed and admired around the world—as was his eloquence and charisma.

During the five years of his presidency and his proceeding 13 years of activism, Mandela never stopped dedicating his life to philanthropy and human rights, working to improve the social well-being of the citizens of South Africa.

He instated dozens of domestic programs like child healthcare and education. As Prime Minister, he also reclaimed housing for native people and greatly improved international relations and trade. In his later years, Mandela and his wife Graça raised awareness and funds for HIV/AIDS.

Mandela’s ideas still hold true, but racial inequality continues to be a stark reality in South Africa. The remnants of apartheid are still apparent and Mandela’s vision of a unified South Africa will be a work in progress for generations to come.

As Mandela said in his inaugural speech, “We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom.”  

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