One of the most venerated figures of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela was central to the end of South Africa's system of racial segregation commonly known as apartheid and became the country's first fully democratically-elected president. For his efforts to abolish apartheid, Mandela was awarded one of the highest international awards, the Nobel Peace Prize.
Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, Cape Providence. Although his mother was illiterate, she was also a devout Christian and sent the young Mandela to a local Methodist school, where he was given the first name "Nelson" by his teacher. Smart but also rebellious, Mandela studied at the elite University of Fort Hare and the University of South Africa, both of which were black schools under the country's heavily segregated educational system. He managed to enroll in the University of Witwatersrand to begin his law studies, but faced incredible forms of racism from white students. It was during this period Mandela became heavily interested in the African National Congress, the political party formed in response to the injustice against black South Africans at the hands of the government. Mandela joined the ANC Youth League in 1944 and eventually became its chairman in 1951. As his involvement with the ANC grew, his opposition to the government steadily landed him in trouble. In 1952, the ANC's Defiance Campaign led to his arrest and he was sentenced to nine months of imprisonment but suspended for two years. Four years later, he and 155 others stood on trial for treason in 1956, but would only be acquitted of all charges in 1961. Racial tensions reached a boiling point in 1960. The Sharpeville Massacre led to the deaths of many anti-apartheid protesters, which led to the government's ban of the ANC and declaration of martial law. As one of thousands detained during the state of emergency, Mandela decided to go underground and formed the Umkhonto we Sizwe, a militant group dedicated to sabotaging government facilities. In 1962, he and other members of the group were captured and put on trial. These proceeding became known as the Rivonia Trial, and Mandela was convicted of conspiring against the government and sentenced to life in prison. Over the next 27 years, Mandela continued to protest against apartheid from behind prison walls.
In the late 1980s, a momentous shift in racial ideology occurred when F.W. de Klerk replaced P.W. Botha as the South African president. Believing that apartheid was unsustainable, de Klerk first released all ANC political prisoners except for Mandela. In 1989, de Klerk met with his cabinet as well as Mandela to officially recognize the ANC eventually welcomed it as a legitimate political party in February 1990. In the following week, Nelson Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster Prison after 27 years in prison. However, all those years spent in prison did not harden Mandela's heart. Upon release, Mandela publicly forgave his captors in order to begin the first steps of reconciliation and spur the end of apartheid. After a series of negotiations between the National Party and the ANC amidst a backdrop of political and racial upheaval, unilateral steps taken by the government began to repeal the apartheid system. These negotiations led to Mandela being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1993, and resulted in South Africa's first multi-racial election in 1994. With every citizen of any race finally allowed to vote, the ANC won a complete victory over the National Party and ensured Mandela's election as the first truly democratically elected president, as well as South Africa's first black president. During his presidency, Mandela took a major step towards reconciliation between white and black South Africans in 1995 when he presented the Rugby World Cup trophy to Francois Pienaar, the captain of South Africa's rugby team, Springboks. In that same year, he also established the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, an international charitable organization dedicated to helping children orphaned by the AIDS crisis. When his five-year presidential term ended in 1996, Mandela chose not to run for reelection and to step down from public office.
After he left politics, Mandela engaged in a number of philanthropic activities. He began a renewed crusade to combat AIDS in South Africa and in 1999 established the Nelson Mandela Foundation, specifically dedicated to fighting the disease. In addition to fighting AIDS, he established the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2003 to provide postgraduate scholarships to African students as an attempt to improve higher education. However, his health declined considerably enough that he announced that he was retreating from public life in 2004. He still remained involved in international affairs, and even made a rare public appearance in London to attend his 90th birthday tribute held in New Hyde Park where he urged future generations to continue to fight for social justice. When the World Cup was held in South Africa in 2010, Mandela hoisted the Fifa World Cup trophy before it embarked on a tour of the country and he made his last public appearance at the World Cup's closing ceremonies, where he was greeted by a standing ovation.
On February 2011, Mandela contracted a respiratory infection that plagued him during the last years of his life. By early 2013, Mandela's health began to rapidly deteriorate and spent many weeks in and out of hospitals. His health reached a critical, but stable state by mid-year and he spent his 95th birthday in the hospital. However, the treatments only delayed the inevitable. On December 5, 2013 Nelson Mandela passed away at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, surrounded by his family. Nearly 90 official representatives of foreign states travelled to South Africa to pay tribute to the man whom many considered the father of his country's modern democracy.