One of the 20th century’s most important civil-rights change-makers, Nelson Mandela devoted his life—including 27 years in prison—to bringing an end to the cruelly segregationist policies of South Africa’s apartheid system.

Here is Mandela in his own words: excerpts from letters, speeches and memoirs reflecting upon each stage of his life—from the innocence of a tribal village boy to the triumph and pressures of being the first black African president of South Africa.

Mandela was raised in a traditional village of earthen huts in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. He described the singular joys of his wide-open childhood in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire.

I learned to stick-fight—essential knowledge to any rural African boy—and became adept at its various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in one direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork.

From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.

Nelson Mandela
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Nelson Mandela circa 1950 as the national president of the ANC Youth League in South Africa.

As a young lawyer, Mandela helped launch the African National Congress Youth League and led the group’s civil-disobedience efforts against restrictive apartheid laws. The South African government banned him from traveling outside of Johannesburg in 1952. This excerpt is from a letter Mandela wrote to the Minister of Justice in 1959:

If by refusing me permission to leave Johannesburg you think I will be intimidated and cease to oppose the policy of your government, then I must say with all due respect to you, that you stopped reading the contemporary history of South Africa when your party came into power in 1948.

You are apparently not aware of the complete failure of all measures adopted by your government during the past 11 years to destroy its political opponents. In spite of the confinement of many individuals, banning them from organizations and gatherings, and the ruthless suppression of civil liberties by the Nationalists, the demand for democratic changes has become more assertive and powerful.

Your government, which is forcibly imposed on 10,000,000 of its citizens and which is maintained by sheer force and intimidation, must sooner or later give way to a democratic one based upon the will of all the people of South Africa.

In 1961, in response to the government’s killing of 69 unarmed protesters in the Sharpeville massacre, Mandela was asked to create Spear of the Nation, a militant wing of the African National Congress. While in hiding, Mandela published the following open letter to the African people in South African newspapers (excerpted).

I have chosen this course which is more difficult and which entails more risk and hardship than sitting in jail. I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my mother and sisters to live as an outlaw in my own land. I have had to close my business, to abandon my profession, and live in poverty, as many of my people are doing…. I shall fight the Government side by side with you, inch by inch, and mile by mile, until victory is won.

What are you going to do? Will you come along with us, or are you going to cooperate with the Government in its efforts to suppress the claims and aspirations of your own people? Are you going to remain silent and neutral in a matter of life and death to my people, to our people? For my own part I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.

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A group of men, among them anti-apartheid leader and ANC member Nelson Mandela, after being sentenced to life in prison with their fists still raised in defiance through the barred windows of the prison car. 

Already imprisoned in 1962 for leaving the country without a permit, Mandela and several Spear of the Nation conspirators were tried for treason and sabotage at the South African Supreme Court in 1963. At the outset of the trial, Mandela delivered a 176-minute speech, known as the ‘Statement from the Dock’ or ‘I Am Prepared to Die,’ excerpted here:

We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence….

I came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic to continue preaching peace and non-violence. This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did.

The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation. There are two ways to break out of poverty. The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring a greater skill at his work and thus higher wages. As far as Africans are concerned, both these avenues of advancement are deliberately curtailed by legislation…

This then is what the ANC is fighting… It is a struggle for the right to live.

During my lifetime… I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Nelson Mandela
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Nelson Mandela in his confinement cell where he had been incarcerated for 27 years for his views in opposition to the apartheid regime. 

Mandela and his ANC conspirators were sentenced to life in prison. He would serve 27 torturous years, mostly within the walls of the notorious Robben Island prison. He described the inedible food, inhumane living conditions and debasing mistreatment in Long Walk to Freedom.

Like everything else in prison, diet is discriminatory.

In general, Coloureds and Indians received a slightly better diet than Africans, but it was not much of a distinction. The authorities liked to say that we received a balanced diet; it was indeed balanced—between the unpalatable and the inedible. Food was the source of many of our protests, but in those early days, the warders would say, “Ag, you kaffirs are eating better in prison than you ever ate at home!”

In the midst of breakfast, the guards would yell, Val in! Val in!(Fall in! Fall in!), and we would stand outside our cells for inspection. Each prisoner was required to have the three buttons of his khaki jacket properly buttoned. We were required to doff our hats as the warder walked by. If our buttons were undone, our hats unremoved or our cells untidy, we were charged with a violation of the prison code and punished with either solitary confinement or the loss of meals.

After inspection we would work in the courtyard hammering stones until noon. There were no breaks; if we slowed down, the warders would yell at us to speed up. At noon, the bell would clang for lunch and another metal drum of food would be wheeled into the courtyard. For Africans, lunch consisted of boiled mealies, that is, coarse kernels of corn. The Indian and Coloured prisoners received samp, or mealie rice, which consisted of ground mealies in a souplike mixture. The samp was sometimes served with vegetables whereas our mealies were served straight.

Painfully separated from his wife and children, Mandela wrote them letters, trying to keep his family relationships from dimming. Here’s an excerpt from a letter from April 2, 1969 to his wife Winnie, where he comments on some photos he has received.

To me the portrait aroused mixed feelings. You look somewhat sad, absent-minded & unwell but lovely all the same. The big one is a magnificent study that depicts all I know in you, the devastating beauty & charm which 10 stormy years of married life have not chilled. I suspect you intended the picture to convey a special message that no words could ever express. Rest assured I have caught it. All that I wish to say now is that the picture has aroused all the tender feelings in me & softened the grimness that is all around. It has sharpened my longing for you & our sweet & peaceful home. 

I should like you to know that if in the past my letters have not been passionate, it is because I need not seek to improve the debt I owe to a woman who, in spite of formidable difficulties & lack of experience, has nonetheless succeeded in keeping the home fires burning & in attending to the smallest wants & wishes of her incarcerated companion. These things make me humble to be the object of your love & affection. Remember that hope is a powerful weapon even when all else is lost… You are in my thoughts every moment of my life.

He wasn’t always able to hide his sadness, even a dozen years into his imprisonment. Here’s a brief excerpt from an October 26, 1976 letter to Winnie. 

My dearest Winnie,

I have been fairly successful in putting on a mask behind which I have pined for the family, alone, never rushing for the post when it comes until somebody calls out my name. I also never linger after visits although sometimes the urge to do so becomes quite terrible. I am struggling to suppress my emotions as I write this letter.

Mandela was unable to raise his children, but he tried to weigh in on their lives with guidance from his prison cell. In a letter dated November 26, 1978, Mandela advised his daughter Makaziwe on her personal life and professional ambitions.

I would like to tell you again that I am very sorry to learn of the breakdown of your marriage and the rough experiences you have had. Such a turn is always disastrous to a woman. I must remind you, darling, that members of the family and close friends had a high opinion of you as a girl. They were full of hopes for your conduct inside and outside school, for your serious-mindedness and your natural intelligence. I once hoped that the profession of your choice would match you in these qualities and I urge you to develop them.

Divorce may destroy a woman, but strong characters have not only survived but have gone further and distinguished themselves in life. I want to think that you are such a strong person, that far from discouraging you, this experience will make you richer. This is the challenge, darling, please take it. We love and trust you and are confident that a wonderful future awaits you.

Nelson Mandela Release From Prison
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Nelson Mandela and his then-wife Winnie raising their fists and saluting cheering crowd upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1990.

When the ANC was finally unbanned in 1990,Mandela was released from prison and immediately entered talks to end apartheid and minority-white rule in South Africa. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 alongside South African President F.W. de Klerk. Here’s an excerpt from Mandela’s Nobel acceptance speech:

The value of our shared reward will and must be measured by the joyful peace which will triumph, because the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race, will have said to each one of us that we shall all live like the children of paradise.

Thus shall we live, because we will have created a society which recognises that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance…

Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates.

Let the strivings of us all prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.

Let the efforts of us all, prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.

Let a new age dawn!

He further reflected on the fall of apartheid and his faith in humanity in Long Walk to Freedom.

I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur. Not only because of the great heroes I have already cited, but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity.

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.

President Nelson Mandela
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Nelson Mandela greeting young supporters prior to an election rally. The 1994 election was the first democratic and multiracial general elections in the country.

In 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa in the first elections open to black African voters. The following excerpt comes from his inaugural address to the nation.

The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.

We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.

We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace.

We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

FOR FURTHER READING: Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom; Nelson Mandela, Conversations with MyselfNelson Mandela: In His Own Words; Nelson, Mandela, Notes to the Future: Words of Wisdom; The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela;