IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

7 ways Nelson Mandela changed South Africa

Former South African president Nelson Mandela waving to the media as he arrived outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, for a meeting with the British Prime Minister, on Aug. 28, 2007.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela waving to the media as he arrived outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, for a meeting with the British Prime Minister, on Aug. 28, 2007.Leon Neal / AFP - Getty Images file

Almost two decades have passed since the end of legalized racial segregation in South Africa, yet the abolition of apartheid remains the biggest legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Anyone aged 18 or under will not have witnessed the public separation of whites and blacks enshrined in law, yet that was the daily reality in a country where races had been kept apart since colonial times.

South Africa continued to enforce racial division, denying blacks the right to vote, until Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 allowed him to begin negotiations with then-president Frederik Willem de Klerk. Apartheid ended with the arrival of multi-racial elections in 1994.

This transformation was achieved almost entirely peacefully despite the country’s long history of racial violence and a brutal police force.

On his release from captivity in 1990, Mandela’s African National Congress continued its historic commitment to an armed struggle against apartheid.

The 1993 assassination of ANC figurehead Chris Hani by right-wing white extremists heightened fears that the country was destined for a racial bloodbath, but Mandela issued an appeal: “Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”

Here are six other ways Mandela changed his country:

Forsaking bloodshed

The renunciation of violence was one of the defining moments of the political process, and earned Mandela and de Klerk the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

Forging a political path

The transition formally turned South Africa into a democracy, bringing in one of the world's most progressive constitutions and allowing blacks not only into polling booths, but also into the corridors of power.

In doing so, South Africa also lost its global pariah status. Apartheid had been punished by sanctions including a trade embargo and a ban on direct flights to dozens of countries, like the United States.

A global player

In his inauguration speech in 1994, Mandela heralded the country’s re-entry onto the world stage, saying it should become “a rainbow nation” that would never again be seen as “the skunk of the world.”

He said: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

Peace and forgiveness

Mandela’s biggest influence on the new South Africa was his personal determination that anger over the crimes of the past, including his 27 years as a political prisoner, should not motivate future laws and actions. Key to this was his 1995 establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that investigated historic human rights violations and gave vent to grievances.

A cultural power

That same year, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup – the first event of its kind to be held there since the end of the apartheid-era sporting boycott. Along with cricket, rugby was a game played and enjoyed almost exclusively by whites, making the event tough for Mandela’s fledgling democratic government to "sell" to a wider population.

Despite resistance on both sides, Mandela swung the rainbow nation behind both the team – the Springboks – and the tournament, which South Africa won. That achievement, documented in the 2009 film “Invictus” starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, illustrated the extent of South Africa’s rehabilitation and also set the country back on the path of sporting success.

A generous soul

Mandela’s other key legacy is his extensive charitable work, including the creation of the Nelson Mandela Foundation,  the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and 46664 – the HIV-AIDS initiative named after his prison number.

In 2009, the United Nations declared that July 18, Mandela’s birthday, would be a worldwide day of community service known as Nelson Mandela International Day.