Year
2013

Nelson Mandela Passes Away at 95

The former activist and president of South Africa overcame 27 years of imprisonment and became one of the world's most revered and respected leaders.

On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela, the former activist who overcame a nearly three-decade prison stint to become president of South Africa, passed away after years of struggling with health issues. He was 95.

"Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father," South African President Jacob Zuma said. "What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."

Mandela was known as a freedom fighter, prisoner, civil rights leader, political leader and symbol of integrity and reconciliation not only for South Africa, but for the world.

His lifelong mission to end apartheid started when he left school early to join the the African National Congress (ANC). He rose quickly in the organization, and was elected president of the organization in 1950. It was in 1960 that Mandela’s efforts turned more militant, sparked when police opened fire on a group of unarmed protestors in the Sharpeville township, killing 69 people.

Soon after, the ANC was outlawed, but that didn’t stop Mandela. After the ban, he went underground to form a new, armed wing of the organization named “Spear of the Nation.” Through this group, which was also known as the MK, Mandela helped plan attacks on government institutions, like the post office.

The violent turn was not one he took lightly. “It would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force,” he said about starting the more militant branch. “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.”

In 1962, Mandela secretly left South Africa, traveling around Africa and England to gain support. He also trained in Morocco and Ethiopia. When he returned, he was arrested and charged with illegal exit of the country and incitement to strike. He was then sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Instead of a testimony, he gave a four hours long speech, ending it by saying: "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 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."

While he was in prison, a “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign fueled the outcry against the regime.

In 1990, newly elected president F. W. de Klerk made a shocking move that broke from the conservatives of his party, lifting the ban on the ANC—and all other formerly banned political parties—and calling for a non-racist South Africa. That February, de Klerk unconditionally released Mandela. The then 71-year-old walked out of prison, fist held above his head. He had served 27 years in prison.

After his release, Mandela resumed his leadership of the ANC in its negotiations for an end to apartheid. Incredibly, just four years after his release, on May 10, 1994, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

As president, Mandela introduced social and economic programs and presided over the enactment of a new constitution that established a strong central government and prohibited discrimination. He also discouraged black South Africans from seeking revenge for the apartheid period, preaching kindness and forgiveness instead. Mandela only served one term in order to set an example for future leaders, but he remained in the nation’s consciousness until his death.

Dozens of officials world leaders expressed their grief over Mandela’s passing. The funeral and burial cap took place over 10 days of national mourning. On December 15, tribal leaders clad in animal skins stood alongside officials in dark suits as Mandela's coffin, which was draped with the South African flag, was buried in his childhood village of Qunu. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY

George Custer born

On this day in 1839, Union General George Armstrong Custer is born in Harrison County, Ohio. Although he is best known for his demise at the hands of the Lakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, Montana,in 1876, Custer built a reputation as a dashing and ...read more

Prohibition ends

The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and bringing an end to the era of national prohibition of alcohol in America. At 5:32 p.m. EST, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, achieving the requisite three-fourths majority ...read more

Roone Arledge dies

On December 5, 2002, the legendary television producer and executive Roone Arledge dies in New York City, at the age of 71. Born in Forest Hills, Queens, Arledge won his first producing job from New York’s Channel 4, where he worked behind the scenes on a puppet show starring ...read more

Van Buren is born

On this day in 1782, Martin Van Buren, America’s 8th president, is born in Kinderhook, New York, to Dutch parents. He left grammar school with his sights set on studying law and pursuing a career in politics. Van Buren married one of his Dutch cousins, Hannah Hoes, in 1807. The ...read more

Rodeo star Bill Pickett born in Texas

On this day, the great steer wrestling rodeo star Bill Pickett is born near Austin, Texas. The son of black and Indian parents, Pickett learned his roping and riding skills working as a cowboy on a Texas ranch. He attracted the attention of the Miller brothers, who ran the 101 ...read more

O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack released

Released on this day in 2000, several weeks ahead of the film itself, the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack would catch on slowly, but it would eventually sell upwards of 7 million copies while winning a broad new audience for contemporary artists performing a style of ...read more

Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez is published

On this day, John Steinbeck’s nonfiction book The Sea of Cortez is published. The book reflects Steinbeck’s serious study of marine biology. He also uses his knowledge of the sea and its creatures in creating Doc, the marine biologist character in Cannery Row (1945). Steinbeck ...read more

Eddie Murphy stars in Beverly Hills Cop

Eddie Murphy stars as the wisecracking Detective Axel Foley in the action-comedy Beverly Hills Cop, released in theaters on this day in 1984. The movie marked the first major starring role for Murphy, who went on to become one of the top-grossing actors in Hollywood. Murphy was ...read more

Hundreds die in Brooklyn theater fire

A fire at the Brooklyn Theater in New York kills nearly 300 people and injures hundreds more on this day in 1876. Some victims perished from a combination of burns and smoke inhalation; others were trampled to death in the general panic that ensued. The play The Two Orphans ...read more

American carrier Lexington heads to Midway

On this day, the Lexington, one of the two largest aircraft carriers employed by the United States during World War II, makes its way across the Pacific in order to carry a squadron of dive bombers to defend Midway Island from an anticipated Japanese attack. Negotiations between ...read more