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Mandela first came to national prominence in the 1950s as a leader and spokesperson of the African National Congress's (ANC) Defiance Campaign. This was a campaign of civil disobedience against the intensification of laws oppressing black South Africans under the apartheid (apartness, segregation) regime that came to power at the end of the 1940s. Founded in 1912 to work for the expansion of the legal rights of non-white South Africans, the ANC became the leading anti-apartheid organization, and for decades it was officially committed to non-violent resistance against unjust laws and government actions.

On March 21, 1960, police officers opened fire on a crowd gathered in the Sharpeville township outside Johannesburg to protest against newly intensified oppressive laws, killing 69. The Sharpeville Massacre, as it became known, persuaded Mandela that nonviolent resistance was no longer an adequate response to the oppression and violence perpetrated by the apartheid government. With other members of the ANC, Mandela formed its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), popularly known as MK.

In 1962 Mandela was sentenced to prison for life in the Rivonia Trial because of his participation in the activities of MK. In the end he served 27 years in prison, much of it on Robben Island off the coast at Cape Town. At the same time the ANC and most other anti-apartheid organizations were banned—made illegal. During these prison years Mandela became a catalytic symbol of the struggle against the injustice of South Africa's racist political order.

In February 1990 Mandela was released from prison as then-President FW De Klerk unbanned the anti-apartheid organizations and initiated a process of negotiations that eventually led to a relatively peaceful transition to a non-racial constitutional democracy. As a result of the first elections under the new constitution, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president on May 10, 1994.

As president, Mandela not only served as a potent symbol of the newly democratic nation's high hopes (Readers may remember the scenes from the movieInvictus, in which Mandela is—accurately—portrayed wearing the captain's jersey as he hands the victorious South African team the Rugby World Cup trophy). He also proved to be a wise and skillful political leader, deftly negotiating the tensions between the different factions across South Africa's many divides—race, class, faith, age, tribe, and more—and presiding over tectonic shifts in the arrangement of South African society and political life, all with much less bloodshed than most observers had anticipated.

After retiring as president in 1999, Mandela expanded the scope of his concern to the whole of Africa, participating in large-scale efforts to limit the spread of AIDS and intervening in conflicts around the continent, and served as a global symbol of the possibilities of reconciliation in situations of intense conflict, the importance of which had been confirmed earlier in 1993, when Mandela shared a Nobel Peace Prize with FW De Klerk.

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