Nelson Mandela and How He Changed South Africa in the 90s


Nelson Mandela is a global icon celebrated worldwide for his remarkable life and enduring impact. Mandela’s influence exceeds the boundaries of his hometown, South Africa, and it’s too important to ignore.

Mandela’s transformation of South Africa is profound. He ushered in a democratic South Africa to replace the oppressive apartheid regime. His lasting legacy is a multiracial South Africa governed by the rule of law. Mandela championed racial reconciliation, notably with white Afrikaners, employing symbolic gestures like publicly supporting the mainly white national rugby team. He even shared tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrick Verwoerd, apartheid’s chief architect. Mandela shunned the African National Congress (ANC) and black African triumphalism, opting for a more measured approach, avoiding wholesale changes to Afrikaner place names during his presidency.

Decades have passed since the dismantling of legalized racial segregation in South Africa, a feat primarily attributed to Nelson Mandela. Young people today may not comprehend the daily reality of legally enforced racial separation that persisted since colonial times.

Mandela played a pivotal role in changing South Africa through his leadership, advocacy for racial equality, and efforts to dismantle the apartheid system. Here are some key ways in which Nelson Mandela changed South Africa:

He’s the key leader in ending apartheid. 

A Nelson Mandela mural at a brick wall

Mandela’s most significant contribution was his role in ending apartheid, the institutionalized system of racial segregation and discrimination that had been in place in South Africa for decades. Through his activism and leadership, he became a symbol of resistance against apartheid.

The transition away from apartheid was made possible by Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, which initiated negotiations with then-president Frederik Willem de Klerk to create a new constitution that would allow a majority rule. Apartheid was repealed in 1991, and in 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) – now a political party – won more than 62% of the votes in a peaceful democratic election. Multiracial elections in 1994 marked the end of apartheid, achieved almost entirely peacefully despite a history of racial violence and a brutal police force. Mandela shared a Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk and became president of South Africa.

Even after his release, Mandela’s African National Congress continued its commitment to an armed struggle against apartheid. The 1993 assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani by right-wing white extremists raised concerns of impending racial violence, but Mandela’s impassioned appeal united South Africans against those who sought to undermine the freedom Hani had given his life for.

The formal transition to democracy marked a significant turning point for his country. It introduced one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, granting black citizens access not only to polling booths but also to positions of political influence. This transformation not only reshaped the nation but also lifted South Africa from its global pariah status. Apartheid-era policies led to international sanctions, including trade embargoes and the suspension of direct flights to numerous countries, including the United States.

He negotiated a peaceful transition and promoted reconciliation.

Nelson Mandela’s most profound impact on the new South Africa was rooted in his unwavering commitment to ensure that the anger and resentment stemming from the injustices of the past, including his own 27 years of imprisonment, wouldn’t shape the future laws and actions of the nation.

Along with other anti-apartheid leaders and government officials, Mandela engaged in negotiations that led to a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule. These negotiations culminated in the 1994 general elections, which marked the end of apartheid and the beginning of a democratic South Africa.

Mandela recognized the importance of forgiveness, but he also understood the vital role of preserving the memory of a troubled history. Rather than seeking revenge for the injustices of apartheid, Mandela emphasized the need to remember and learn from the nation’s painful past. This perspective guided his early actions as South Africa’s president, as he established the Committee for Truth and Reconciliation, a government body dedicated to investigating crimes committed during the period of apartheid from 1960 to 1994.

This program serves as a beacon for human rights advocates worldwide and stands as an exemplary guide for healing from past atrocities and uniting divided populations. Mandela’s commitment to truth and reconciliation remains an enduring testament to his vision for a just and reconciled South Africa.

He became South Africa’s first black president. 

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president in the country’s first multiracial elections. This historic moment symbolized the end of apartheid and the beginning of a new era of democracy, equality, and reconciliation.

Mandela won South Africa’s first elections with universal suffrage and took the oath as the president of the country’s inaugural multiethnic government. In 1995, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate human rights abuses during apartheid. Additionally, he initiated programs for housing, education, and economic development aimed at improving the living conditions of Black South Africans.

In 1996, Mandela oversaw the adoption of a new democratic constitution. Mandela chose not to seek a second term as South African president, and in 1999, he was succeeded by Mbeki. Upon leaving office, Mandela retired from active politics but continued to wield international influence as an advocate for peace, reconciliation, and social justice. His work often centered on the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which he established in 1999.

He was a champion for human rights.

Nelson Mandela is a highly prominent symbol of human rights in the 20th century and remains an enduring inspiration for human rights advocates across the globe. His unwavering commitment to the freedoms and rights of his people serves as a powerful example of the impact one individual can have on the pursuit of justice and equality.

Mandela’s struggle against apartheid and his time in prison made him an international symbol of freedom and justice. He inspired people worldwide to stand up against oppression and fight for human rights.

He changed economic structures.

In his pursuit of equality, it’s argued that Mandela didn’t merely alter political systems but also initiated significant changes in economic structures. During a rally in Cape Town upon his release from prison, he emphasized the necessity for a profound overhaul of our political and economic systems to redress the inequalities ingrained by apartheid. Evaluating the success of this vision requires consideration of various data points.

While overall GDP growth exhibited fluctuations, personal incomes demonstrated a more consistent rise. As a crude indicator of this economic progress, GDP per capita increased from $5,760 in 1990 to $6,679 a decade later. Bloomberg’s obituary delves into the figures and arrives at a noteworthy conclusion: Mandela’s impact extended beyond his moral leadership; his adept management of the transition from apartheid, avoiding widespread violence, repression, or economic collapse, played a pivotal role in building Africa’s largest economy.

South Africa has endured economic isolation for years leading up to the end of apartheid. It faced the challenge of transitioning without jeopardizing economic stability. Mandela aimed to share the nation’s natural resources and ensure opportunities for education and employment for all. They implemented policies aimed at improving access to education, healthcare, and housing for all South Africans, regardless of their race. His five years in leadership saw robust economic growth, marked by an increase in personal incomes and a decline in inflation from 14% before 1994 to 5% within the next decade. However, by 2014, South Africa was surpassed by Nigeria as the continent’s largest economy.

He established a democratic constitution.

Under Mandela’s leadership, South Africa adopted a new constitution in 1996 that enshrined democratic principles, protected human rights, and ensured the equal treatment of all citizens.

The formal transition to democracy marked a significant moment for South Africa, as it ushered in one of the world’s most progressive constitutions and granted black citizens access to polling booths and positions of political influence. In achieving this transformation, South Africa also shed its previous status as a global outcast. The apartheid regime had faced international sanctions, including a trade embargo and a ban on direct flights to many countries, including the United States.

He established a foundation to ensure the continuity of his efforts in promoting justice and peace.

Mandela in his first trip to the United States

Formed in 1999, the Nelson Mandela Foundation stands as Mandela’s enduring legacy. This organization remains dedicated to the core principles that defined Mandela’s life’s work: justice, dialogue, and social cohesion. Like Mandela’s successful endeavors in South Africa, the foundation seeks to employ its Founder’s history, experiences, values, vision, and leadership to offer an impartial platform for public discourse on critical social matters. Through this approach, the foundation aspires to contribute to policymaking by equipping individuals and the political sphere with the necessary tools for informed discussions, ultimately fostering justice and freedom for all.

He pioneered the war against HIV/AIDs.

Mandela delivered a groundbreaking speech in the battle against HIV/AIDS during a pivotal period in South Africa’s history. In 2000, a quarter of South African citizens aged 15 to 45 were found to be HIV/AIDS-positive. In a setting where four million people were affected and where stigma was pervasive, Nelson Mandela called for courageous new actions to combat the AIDS epidemic. While acknowledging his regrets about not doing more during his time in office, Nelson Mandela single-handedly set a new course for the future fight against HIV/AIDS through a landmark address delivered in 2000 at an International AIDS conference in Durban.

In addition to his influential speech, Mandela’s public meeting with the pioneering South African HIV/AIDS activist Zackie Achmat in 2002, along with his unwavering commitment to the cause in the later years of his life, established him as a dedicated advocate for HIV-positive South Africans until his passing in 2013. Some of his extensive charitable work included the creation of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the 46664 – the HIV-AIDS initiative named after his prison number.

Due to HIV/AIDS awareness, life expectancy increased.

South Africa grapples with one of the world’s highest HIV rates, with prevalence skyrocketing from 0.2% of the population in 1990 to impacting 17.9% of those aged 15 to 49 today. This devastating epidemic, in part, contributed to the significant decline in life expectancies in the country until 2006. Over the span of a decade, from 1992 to 2003, the average South African saw ten years shaved off their life expectancy—a profoundly distressing change by any measure. However, there are now signs of a reversal in this trend.

As a proportion of GDP, healthcare spending has steadily increased, rising from 2.9% in 1995 to 3.4% in 2005. This investment reflects the nation’s commitment to addressing the health challenges it faces, including the impact of HIV/AIDS on life expectancy.

He helped bring the country to sporting success. 

After the end of apartheid, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, a momentous occasion for the country as it was the first major sporting event held there since the end of the apartheid-era sporting boycott. Rugby, like cricket, had been predominantly enjoyed by white South Africans, making it a challenging endeavor for Mandela’s newly formed democratic government to promote to a broader population.

Despite initial resistance from various quarters, Mandela successfully rallied the diverse nation behind both the national rugby team, the Springboks, and the tournament itself. South Africa emerged victorious in the tournament, a significant achievement depicted in the 2009 film “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. This triumph not only demonstrated South Africa’s rehabilitation on the world stage but also marked the country’s return to a path of sporting success. South Africa hosted and won that tournament.


Nelson Mandela’s impact on South Africa and the world extends far beyond these things. His legacy is one of resilience, forgiveness, and a commitment to justice and equality. While challenges and inequalities persist in South Africa, Mandela’s contributions played a crucial role in laying the foundation for a more inclusive and democratic nation.

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