On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela, became the first black president of South Africa after decades of systemic oppression against black South Africans.
On this day 25 years ago, Nelson Mandela officially became the president of South Africa, delivering the final nail in the coffin of the apartheid regime, a system built on the tenets of discrimination and inequality by the white minority.
But instead of revenge, Mandela came with a very different message.
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” Mandela said during his inauguration speech on May 10, 1994.
His speech was the final chapter in South Africa’s political transition, which began with the country’s last white president, Frederik Willem de Klerk, releasing Mandela from prison in 1990.
His release began a process of negotiation, which eventually ended apartheid, and paved the way for the country’s first-all race elections in 1994.
Mandela ensured the transition from a racist society to a democracy was smooth by campaigning across the country, enthralling adoring crowds of black South Africans and wooing whites with assurances that there was a place for them in the new South Africa.
In fact, reconciliation was the dominant theme of his presidency. Mandela had tea with his former white jailers, and won over many whites when he donned the jersey of South Africa’s national rugby team – once a symbol of white supremacy – at the final of the Rugby World Cup in 1995 at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park stadium.
One of the hallmarks of Mandela’s mission was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the crimes of apartheid on both sides and tried to heal the wounds. It also provided a model for other countries torn by civil strife.
The birth of a statesman
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, the son of the chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people in Transkei.
He chose to dedicate his life to the fight against the white minority rule. He studied at Fort Hare University, an elite black college, but left in 1940 short of completing his studies and became involved with the African National Congress (ANC), founding its youth branch with his friends.
Mandela worked as a law clerk then became a lawyer who ran one of the few practices that served blacks.
Branded as a terrorist by the apartheid officials, Mandela became known among government officials. And eventually paid a heavy price for his activism.
Charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, isolated from millions of his countrymen as they suffered oppression, violence, and forced resettlement under the apartheid regime.
But the violence and discrimination did not stop when he was behind the bars. When the regime realised that it was time to negotiate, after years of violence and oppression, it was Mandela to whom it turned.
From 1994 to 1999, Mandela focused on trying to heal the wounds of the nation, which was segregated for decades.
In 1999, he handed power over to younger leaders he saw as better equipped to manage a fast-growing, rapidly modernising economy – a rare example of an African leader voluntarily departing from power.
“I leave it to the public to decide how they should remember me,” he said on South African TV before his retirement.
“But I should like to be remembered as an ordinary South African who together with others has made his humble contribution.”