Nelson Mandela, the leader of the struggle against apartheid who became South Africa’s first black president, died Thursday, Dec. 5, after battling a series of illnesses at the age of 95, President Jacob Zuma said in a live televised statement. 

Gist Magazine offers you a look back at the remarkable life of the former South African president.

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1918–1943: Early Years

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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is born on July 18, 1918, in the village of Mvezo, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. The son of a Xhosa tribal chief. Mandela spent his early years preparing to inherit his father’s role of privy councillor to the Thembu kings. In 1925, Mandela becomes the first member of his immediate family to go to school. On his first day at primary school, his schoolmistress gives him the name “Nelson”. He attended  a Methodist missionary school and learning to read and write at an early age. He attends a prestigious black African boarding high school and continues on to the elite Fort Hare University, but drops out after his first year in December 1940 in order to move to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage. He spends three years working in a law firm, during which time he joins the African National Congress political party and becomes involved in the growing South African nationalist movement.

1943–1948: Law Student

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Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela

Mandela enrolls at the University of Witwatersrand to obtain a law degree, pursuing his studies with his high school friend (and future legal partner) Oliver Tambo. During this time, he joins the ANC, and after years of frustration with the party’s leadership, in 1947 Mandela founds the African National Congress Youth League, of which he is elected secretary.

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An apartheid notice on a beach near Capetown, denoting the area for whites only

The National Party of South Africa wins the 1948 general election by advocating a policy of apartheid, meaning “apartness.” Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopts apartheid as a way to preserve white supremacy. The system classifies people as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian and severely limits freedoms based on race. For example, anyone who is not white is prohibited from voting, all races have separate living areas and schools, blacks are required to carry travel passes at all times, and only whites control the legal system.

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1951–1952: From Lawyer to Activist

Mandela is elected president of the ANC Youth League in 1951. Although he failed to obtain his degree from law school, Mandela passes the qualifying exam required to practice as an attorney in South Africa and Mandela and Oliver Tambo open the first black law firm in South Africa in Johannesburg in 1952. In June, Mandela leads a campaign of civil disobedience against the country’s racist apartheid laws. He and 19 others are arrested for their role in the “Defiance Campaign” and are given a suspended prison sentence.

1961: “Spear of the Nation”

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Mandela delivers remarks in this undated photo from the 1960s

Spurred by escalating police brutality against peaceful protestors, the ANC, still active despite being outlawed by the government in April 1960, decides to form an underground guerrilla military wing calledUmkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Mandela, who is now vice president of the ANC, is appointed the group’s first leader.

1962–1990: Life in Prison

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The cell where Nelson Mandela lived for 18 years

Mandela leaves South Africa illegally in January 1962 and is caught and sentenced to five years in prison upon his return in July. In 1963, the imprisoned Mandela ismade to stand trial for sabotage and treason with nine of his comrades after a police raid of an ANC hideout uncovers evidence against him. On June 11, 1964, Mandela and seven others are convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He is sent to Robben Island, where he serves the first 18 of his 27 years in prison.

Violence on both sides escalates during Mandela’s years behind bars. During this time, he becomes an international symbol of South Africa’s black nationalist movement and resistance to apartheid. In 1985, then-President P.W. Botha offers to free Mandela if he publicly denounced violence as a weapon against apartheid.Mandela refuses and tells the government to get rid of apartheid and grant blacks political rights.

February 1990: Freedom

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Mandela and his (second) wife Winnie Madikizela are greeted by large crowds as they leave the prison grounds

Newly elected president F.W. De Klerk legalizes the ANC, relaxes apartheid laws, and orders the release from jail of Mandela and the other political prisoners who were convicted with him. Mandela walks out of prison a free man on Feb. 11, 1990. After 27 years, he has become a fig­ure of myth­ic pro­por­tions among South Afric­an blacks, and his freedom is cause for national celebration. Mandela is known to most in the country as “Madiba,” his clan name.

1990: Peace Talks

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South Africa’s President Frederik Willem de Klerk (left) and Mandela walk to address the press about their negotiations to end apartheid on May 9, 1990

Two months after his release, Mandela meets with President F.W. de Klerk in what will become the first of many meetings concerning the end of apartheid and the establishment of a truly democratic government. In August 1990, the ANC agrees to renounce violence in exchange for the release of all remaining political prisoners.

1991: President of the ANC

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Mandela is elected president of the African National Congress on July 5, 1991, in the first legal gathering of the organization in South Africa in more than three decades. Representing the ANC, Mandela negotiates with de Klerk, members of the governing National Party, and other South African political organizations toward the country’s first multiracial elections. It proves a difficult task — negotiations were often strained.

1993: Nobel Peace Prize

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Mandela and de Klerk are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Dec. 10, 1993, for their efforts to bring stability, equality, and true democracy to their country. As a result of their joint leadership, the remaining apartheid laws are repealed and a date is chosen for South Africa’s first open elections.

April 1994: A Historic Election

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Mandela smiles broadly April 27, 1994, in Oshlange, black township near Durban, as he casts his historic vote

On April 26, 1994, more than 22 million South Africans turn out to cast ballots in the country’s first multiracial parliamentary elections. Mandela votes for the first time in his life and, as leader of the ANC, is elected president of South Africa.

May 1994: President of South Africa

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Mandela is sworn in as president of South Africa

Man­dela is inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president on May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, with de Klerk as his first deputy.

1995: Rugby World Cup

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South African rugby team captain Francois Pienaar (right) is congratulated by South African President Nelson Mandela

In a gesture seen as a major step toward reconciliation, Mandela encourages black South Africans to rally around the once-hated national rugby team, the Springboks. The young republic hosts — and, against all odds, wins — the Rugby World Cup in 1995. (Clint Eastwood made a movie called Invictusabout this historic event.)

1996: A New Constitution

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Mandela joins the choral group at the signing of the country’s new constitution at Sharpeville stadium on Dec. 10, 1996

Mandela signs South Africa’s new constitution into law, establishing a strong central government based on majority rule and guaranteeing the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.

1999: A President Steps Down

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Mandela (left) and his deputy Thabo Mbeki (right) greet the crowd from the stage during an African National Congress rally at the Orlando stadium in Soweto on March 28, 1999

Mandela retires after one term as president. Thabo Mbeki takes over as president of South Africa and goes on to win the 1999 presidential election.

2000–2010: Ambassador for Peace and Advocate for Change

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Mandela smiles from the stage at London’s Trafalgar Square during the South African democracy concert on April 29, 2001

After retirement, Mandela uses his status as a respected statesman to advocate for charities and human-rights organizations and call attention to issues on the world stage. He focuses on the global AIDS crisis, calling for more openness in discussing the condition, particularly after his son dies from the virus. He establishes a number of organizations, including the influential Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders, an independent group of prominent world leaders committed to addressing global problems and easing human suffering.

2010: Last Public Appearance

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Mandela and his third wife Graca Machel wave to the crowds

Mandela’s last public appearance was at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa final match between Netherlands and Spain at Soccer City Stadium on July 11, 2010, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

2011: A Private Citizen

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U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama (center), accompanied by her daughters, Malia (left) and Sasha, meet Mandela at his home in Houghton, South Africa

Increasingly frail, Mandela chooses to stay out of the national spotlight and spends most of his time at his home in his childhood community of Qunu, south of Johannesburg. World leaders and old friends are sometimes invited to visit.

2012: Declining Health

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Children raise their arms against a wall of “Get Well” wishes for 92-year-old Mandela, fondly known as ‘Madiba’

In February 2012, Mandela is briefly hospitalized in Johannesburg to undergo surgery for a stomach ailment. He is released after a few days and returns home. In December 2012, the 94-year-old anti-apartheid hero is hospitalized for three weeks of tests and medical treatment relating to a recurrent lung infection. On both occasions, the South African government reassures its citizens that there is no cause for alarm.

2013: A Legacy of Love

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On Feb. 2, 2013, Nelson Mandela, 94, sits holding his great-grandson Zen Manaway, 1, at home in Johannesburg, South Africa

To reassure the world of her grandfather’s recovery after his three-week hospital stay in January, Mandela’s granddaughter Zaziwe Dlamini-Manaway releases a family photo of the statesman at home on Feb. 2, 2013. The picture shows a smiling Mandela with his youngest great-grandson, 1-year-old Zen Manaway, in his arms.

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Mandela at his home in Johannesburg, April 30, 2013

In March, Mandela again returns to the hospital to be treated for a chronic lung infection and is released on April 6 to his home. President Jacob Zuma visits Mandela on April 30 and releases photos and videos of their meeting. Mandelaappears increasingly frail in this footage, not speaking and barely smiling.

He is admitted to Pretoria Hospital on June 8 after suffering lung complications. On June 10, President Zuma meets with Mandela’s medical team and releases a statement saying that “the former president is still in a serious, but stable condition.”

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The scene outside Pretoria Hospital, June 25, 2013

On June 26, President Zuma cancels plans to travel to Mozambique for a regional summit on June 27. In a statement, Zuma describes Mandela as being “in critical condition” and says he has been briefed by doctors who “are still doing everything they can to ensure Madiba’s well-being.”

Mandela was released from Pretoria Hospital on September 1. “Madiba’s condition remains critical and is at times unstable,” Zuma’s office confirmed. “Nevertheless, his team of doctors are convinced that he will receive the same level of intensive care at his Houghton home that he received in Pretoria.”

On Thursday, Dec. 5, in a live televised statement, President Jacob Zuma confirmed that former President Nelson Mandela had passed away.


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