Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa on 10th May 1994, one year after being honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize alongside F.W. De Klerk, the South African President at the time.

At the age of 75, Mandela made history as the first non-white and oldest head of state in the history of South Africa.  

In his first speech as President, he said ‘We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.’

Mandela’s presidency was seen as the beginning of the end of apartheid in South Africa and there were numerous key moments which occurred during his term:

1) Rugby World Championship 1995

The Rugby World Cup held in South Africa was more than a sporting event. It developed social and political importance with Mandela encouraging the entire country to support the South African national team. However, many black South Africans were not initially supportive of Mandela’s stance. Mandela himself noted that he was booed when originally asking black South Africans to support the team.

The South African rugby team beat the odds and won the Rugby World Cup final which took place in Johannesburg. Mandela’s decision to wear the national team’s Springbok shirt was perceived as a step to reconciliation between white and black South Africans due to the feelings of animosity felt by black South Africans who had been excluded under the apartheid era.

Although there are still some who do not support the national team, rugby has become one of the most popular sports of all South Africans. It can be said that this shift is part of Mandela’s legacy.  

2) Truth and Reconciliation Commission 1995

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was established at the end of the apartheid era and considered another crucial step to true democracy in South Africa.

The TRC allowed both white and black victims to share their experiences and voice the atrocities during the apartheid era. It also allowed perpetrators to admit to their crimes and request amnesty, although this did not exempt anyone from being charged. Around 7,000 perpetrators asked for amnesty but less than 1,000 people were granted it.  

The amnesty process continues to be one of the more contentious results of the TRC as victims still strive to have their cases heard and many perpetrators have still not been prosecuted despite being denied amnesty.

While the TRC was successful in healing painful wounds and moving South Africa forward, for others it did not go far enough in holding perpetrators accountable for their atrocities.

3) Foreign Policy

Nelson Mandela was popular overseas and took an interest in foreign affairs.

His involvement in Libya, to release two suspects connected to the Lockerbie bombing, and Burundi, showed President Mandela’s clear foreign policy vision and demonstrated his commitment to the rest of Africa. In 1994, Mandela said ‘South Africa cannot escape its African destiny. If we do not devote our energies to this continent, we too could fall victim to the forces that have brought ruin to its various parts.’

However, his relationships with Yasser Arafat, Fidel Castro, and Muammar al-Qaddafi led some to question his commitment to human rights.

4) Term ends on 14th June 1999

On 14th June 1999, Nelson Mandela reached the end of his five-year term as South Africa’s first black president, following the end of apartheid.

He withdrew from national politics but continued his activism through the Nelson Mandela Foundation which seeks ‘to contribute to the making of a just society.’

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