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Nelson Mandela: Celebrating Human Rights

Nelson MandelaThe death of celebrated political activist Nelson Mandela has led many to reflect on his life, which he spent fighting for human rights and the end of apartheid. His work unequivocally changed our world and improved the lives of countless South Africans.

EducationWorld takes a look back at Mandela’s triumphs and what they can teach us. Use the timeline to open discussion with students and celebrate the legacy of a remarkable leader.

First, define apartheid for students:

Apartheid is an Afrikaans word meaning “apartness.” Apartheid is the name for South Africa’s policy of discrimination (racial, political, and economic) against the country’s nonwhite people in the second half of the 20th century. In other words, racial discrimination was officially a part of the country’s laws.



1943 - Mandela begins his pursuit of a law degree while at the same time becoming more involved in the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League. Despite being the only native African attending the school and facing harsh racism, he befriends several European classmates with whom he’d remain close for decades.

What We Can Learn:  Mandela’s defiance and refusal to accept racist treatment led to his enrollment at the University of Witwatersrand. Despite the university’s official denial of his degree in 1949, the friendships and contacts that he made during his years there left an indelible mark on his life, and helped start him on his history-making path.

1950 - Mandela continues his ascension through the ranks of the ANC. Despite being banned from public speaking several times and facing other obstacles to his political work, he rises to the highest levels of the organization.

What We Can Learn:  Mandela’s determination allowed him to succeed when others may have given up. Rather than meekly accept censure, he would cleverly use his prosecution as a platform for making political speeches. He let it be known that speaking bans and arrest warrants would not be enough to silence him.

1964 - After a series of arrests and convictions on a variety of charges, Mandela, along with several colleagues, is convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. He is sentenced to life in prison, despite the international community’s calls for clemency.

During his years in prison, Mandela occupies himself with many initiatives. In addition to politically charged hunger strikes and other actions designed to draw attention to his cause, Mandela also fights for the right to organize a prison soccer league. The league is critical to his and his fellow inmates’ mental well-being, and the league is so well organized that its constitution later serves as the foundation for the constitution he helps draft for South Africa’s post-apartheid government.

What We Can Learn:  This is yet another example of Mandela’s perseverance in the fight for human rights. Even while in prison, he never stopped pursuing his goal. And even as he suffered himself, he continued to show compassion for others.

1990-1994 - After over 20 years of incarceration, Mandela is unconditionally freed. His release is met with almost universal praise, as he immediately resumes his political work. Just four years later, he is elected South Africa’s first black president and presides over his country’s first racially equal society.

What We Can Learn:  Mandela’s optimism in the face of harsh prison life allowed him to keep his eye on the goal of a racially equal South Africa. In addition, his story shows how success often follows adversity and struggle. While most view his incarceration as unjustified, his decades in prison indirectly helped him to later attain his country’s highest office. Also, were it not for the notoriety generated by his conviction, it’s possible that his work would not have gained as much attention on the international stage.

Continue to explore Mandela’s significance using the following discussion questions:

  1. What is apartheid? How did it start?
  2. How long did apartheid last in South Africa? What was life like under apartheid?
  3. How did the international community view apartheid?
  4. What actions and events led up to the abolishment of apartheid?
  5. What honors did Mandela receive for his work?
  6. What is South Africa’s government like today?
  7. Is racism still a problem in South Africa?


Related resources

President Obama’s Eulogy of Nelson Mandela

Searchable Database of Mandela’s Speeches

South Africa’s Future Foreign Policy

Biography For Kids: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela: Freedom Fighter

Celebrating Mandela’s 93rd Birthday


Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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