Last modified 14 January 2014
First published 2 January 2001. Reviewed 14 January 2014
Full name Nelson Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela. AKA 'Madiba'. (Rolihlahla roughly translates to "troublemaker" in English.)
Country: South Africa.
Cause: Ending of apartheid in South Africa.
Background: By 1600 all of what is now South Africa has been settled by indigenous Africans. European involvement in the region begins in 1652 when the Dutch establish a settlement at the Cape of Good Hope on the southwestern tip of Africa. The British seizure of the settlement in 1795 leads to conflict with the established European farmers (the Boer). The conflict eventually boils over into the Boer War of 1899-1902. The British win but ultimately opt to give South Africa independence.
The Union of South Africa is formed on 31 May 1910. Black South Africans have limited voting rights and are subjected to growing discrimination. In 1948 the National Party wins the all-white general election on a campaign promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Opposition to the apartheid system by the black majority is ruthlessly suppressed. The National Party will remain in power until 1994. More background.
Mini biography: Born on 18 July 1918 in the little village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape, into the royal family of the Thembu, a Xhosa-speaking tribe. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, is chief of Mvezo and counsellor to two successive Xhosa kings. Mandela is one of the 13 children of his father's four wives and the youngest of four boys. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, is the third wife.
Shortly after Mandela is born, Mandela's father is deposed as chief of Mvezo by a British colonial magistrate. The family moves to the village of Qunu, about 15 km northeast of Mvezo.
Mandela is the first of his family to go to school, beginning his primary education when he is seven at a Methodist mission. Here his teacher gives him the English name Nelson.
When Mandela is nine his father dies and Mandela's uncle, the paramount chief of the Thembu, becomes his guardian. Under his uncle's guardianship the young Mandela becomes familiarised with the protocols of tribal rule.
Mandela's education continues at the Clarkebury Methodist school and then Healdtown High School, a strict Methodist college. It is here that Mandela hears of the African National Congress (ANC) for the first time.
On his matriculation Mandela starts a bachelor of arts degree at the African Native College of Fort Hare but is suspended with Oliver Tambo in 1940 for participating in a student strike.
When he is 23 Mandela moves to Soweto on the southwestern outskirts of Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage. He works as a nightwatchman at a gold mine.
1941 - Mandela meets Walter Sisulu, an active member of the ANC. The two become firm friends. Sisulu recommends Mandela for employment with a lawyer in Johannesburg. The work, along with loans from Sisulu, enables Mandela to complete his BA degree by correspondence. In 1943 Mandela begins a part-time law degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
1944 - Mandela joins the ANC. Together with Tambo, Sisulu and Anton Lembede he founds the ANC Youth League. During the year Mandela marries his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, a trainee nurse and Sisulu's cousin. The couple will have two sons (Thembekile and Makgatho) and two daughters (Makaziwe and, again, Makaziwe). Their first daughter dies aged nine months in 1948 and their eldest son (Thembekile) is killed in a car crash in 1969.
1947 - Mandela is elected secretary of the ANC Youth League.
1948 - The National Party is voted into power by the white electorate. The party has campaigned on the promise to introduce a system of "apartheid" to totally separate the races. Discrimination against blacks, "coloureds" and Asians will be codified and extended.
All South Africans are legally assigned to one racial group - white, African, coloured or Asian. All races have separate living areas and separate amenities (such as toilets, parks and beaches). Signs enforcing the separation are erected throughout the country. Only white South Africans are allowed full political rights.
Black Africans have no parliamentary representation outside of the supposedly independent homelands created by the state. Mixed marriages are prohibited. Black trade unions are banned. Education is provided only up to a level to which "a native is fitted." Separate universities and colleges are established for Africans, coloureds and Indians. Jobs can be categorised as being for whites only. Travel without a pass is not permitted.
Police powers are expanded. Those charged with dissent are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The Suppression of Communism Act (1950) allows the police to "list" almost any opponent of apartheid as a supporter of the outlawed Communist Party of South Africa.
Opponents can be "banned", an order subjecting them to lengthy periods of house arrest and preventing them from holding public office, attending public meetings and visiting specified areas. The Native Administration Act (1956) allows the government to "banish" Africans to remote rural areas.
During the 1950s there are approximately 500,000 pass law arrests annually, more than 600 individuals are listed as communists, nearly 350 are banned, and more than 150 are banished.
Speaking later about the National Party, Mandela says, "I despised them. ... They dressed in beautiful suits, silk shirts and silk ties, but they were like a grave - beautiful outside and full of evil inside. That's why I despised them. That's why I fought them."
1949 - On 17 December the Youth League's 'Program of Action' to achieve full citizenship and direct parliamentary representation for all South Africans is adopted by the ANC at its annual conference. The program advocates the use of boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and noncooperation.
1950 - Mandela is elected to the ANC National Executive Committee at the ANC's national conference. In 1951 he becomes national president of the Youth League.
1952 - In February the ANC calls on the government to repeal all unjust laws or face a 'Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws'. Mandela is placed in charge of volunteers for the campaign. He travels the country organising resistance to discriminatory legislation. Mass rallies and strikes staged on 6 April and 26 June attract thousands of supporters.
The government reacts by introducing harsher penalties for protests against apartheid. Campaign leaders and opposition newspapers are banned and about 8,500 people are arrested, including Mandela. Because of the disciplined and nonviolent nature of the campaign Mandela receives a suspended sentence, although a banning order confines him to Johannesburg for six months and prohibits him from attending gatherings.
While banned he formulates a plan to break down ANC branches into underground cells to enable greater contact with the African community, the so-called 'M-Plan' or 'Mandela Plan'. He also sits for the attorneys admission examination and is admitted to the bar. A subsequent petition by the Transvaal Law Society to take him off the roll of attorneys is refused by the Supreme Court.
Mandela and Tambo open the first black legal firm in the country. Much of their work involves defending blacks charged with pass law offences.
Meanwhile, the defiance campaign has helped build ANC membership from about 7,000 at the beginning of the year to more than 100,000 by the year's end. Mandela, who is both president of the Youth League and of the Transvaal region of the ANC, is now elected an ANC deputy national president.
1953 - A new banning order forces Mandela to resign officially from the ANC and work underground.
1955 - The ANC writes a 'Freedom Charter' stating that South Africa belongs to all people living within it regardless of race, that all South Africans should be treated equally before the law, and that the country's wealth should be distributed equitably. The charter is being discussed at the 'Congress of the People' held near Soweto on 25-26 June when police surround the meeting, announce that they suspect treason is being committed and take the names and addresses of all those present.
1956 - Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and 153 others are arrested for high treason and charges under the Suppression of Communism Act. During the subsequent 'Treason Trial' Mandela conducts his own defence. The defendants are acquitted on all counts in 1961. The court finds that the ANC does not have a policy of violence.
Mandela's marriage is unable to bear the strain placed on it by his political activities and social life and breaks down after his arrest.
1957 - Mandela meets social worker Nomzamo Zaniewe Winifred "Winnie" Madikizela. After divorcing Evelyn Mase he marries Winnie on 14 June 1958. The couple will have two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi.
1959 - A radical faction of the ANC splits from the parent body and forms the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The PAC advocates direct action against the apartheid regime.
1960 - During the 1960s the regime introduces a program of forced relocation. Africans, coloureds and Asians are moved from areas designated for whites only to the "homelands" and other declared areas. By the 1980s about 3.5 million have been relocated.
In March 1960 the PAC begins a national campaign against the pass laws. Africans are asked to assemble outside police stations without their passes and challenge the police to arrest them.
The confrontation turns violent on 21 March when police open fire on a peaceful protest at Sharpeville, a black township near Johannesburg. Sixty-nine black Africans are killed and 186 wounded. Most have been shot in the back.
After the Sharpeville massacre Mandela and other ANC leaders make a public display of burning their passes and urge others to follow their example. When demonstrations continue, the government declares a state of emergency and arrests about 18,000 protesters, including the leaders of the ANC and the PAC. Both organisations are banned.
The ANC and Mandela go underground. The South African press will dub Mandela the 'Black Pimpernel' because of the disguises he uses to avoid detection.
1961 - International protests against apartheid mount. South Africa is expelled from the British Commonwealth.
On 31 May, after gaining approval in a referendum restricted to whites, the government declares South Africa a republic. Mandela organises a national strike in protest. When the government responds by introducing new and harsher laws, and by mobilising its armed forces to break up the strike, Mandela comes to the conclusion that the time has come for the ANC to move beyond nonviolent protest.
"As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force," he says.
"The idea in my mind was not that we were going to win, but that we were going to focus the attention of the world on our demands."
Mandela and other ANC leaders form Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC, in November. Under Mandela's leadership Umkhonto launches a campaign of sabotage against government and economic targets.
Over the next two years 200 acts of sabotage will be carried out by Umkhonto, targeting power supplies, pass offices and other government buildings. However, the campaign is largely inept and ineffective.
1962 - In January Mandela leaves South Africa illegally to attend a conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement in Addis Ababa. He will also scout for military training facilities for Umkhonto members and attempt to raise funds from African states. He travels to Tanganyika, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana and Senegal. He also visits England.
While away he personally undertakes a course of military training and resolves that the funding drive should be extended to Western and socialist nations.
Mandela returns to South Africa in July, living for a while at Lilliesleaf farm, an ANC safe house in Rivonia, a fashionable suburb on the northern outskirts Johannesburg. On 5 August, while on a trip to Durban, he is arrested for leaving the country illegally and for incitement to strike. He conducts his own defence but is convicted in November and jailed for five years with hard labour.
1963 - In July, while Mandela is in prison, police raid the ANC safe house at Rivonia and discover arms, equipment and documents outlining a scheme for a revolution.
As a result Mandela, Sisulu and other leaders of the ANC and Umkhonto are put on trial for sabotage and for plotting to overthrow the government by violence and then bring about a communist state.
The defendants face the death penalty. They plead not guilty, arguing that the government is responsible because it forced them into their actions.
Mandela's statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case on 20 April 1964 receives considerable international publicity.
He ends his statement by saying, "The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy. This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.
"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Meanwhile, the government acts to crush any further resistance to apartheid, introducing the General Law Amendment Act. The act allows police to detain suspects for 90 days without charge or access to legal advice. Suspects can then be rearrested and detained for a further 90 days.
1964 - On 11 June eight of the Rivonia accused, including Mandela and Sisulu, are convicted. Mandela is found guilty on four charges of sabotage. All eight are sentenced to life imprisonment and sent Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony 7 km off the coast from Cape Town. Mandela is the 466th prisoner to arrive that year. He is given the prison number 46664.
The prisoners are kept in tiny cells measuring about two square metres and with only one small barred window. They sleep on the floor on straw mats and have to use a bucket for a toilet.
By day they work the island's lime quarry where, because of the light and dust, most suffer from "snow blindness." Mandela later has to undergo surgery to restore the lachrymal ducts of his chronically inflamed eyes.
Mandela is allowed only one visit from his wife Winnie every six months. He will not be allowed to see their two daughters for 10 years.
Refusing to be bowed, Mandela continues his studies and encourages the other political detainees to exchange ideas and information. The prison becomes known among the inmates as the 'Robben Island University' or the 'Nelson Mandela University'.
Mandela consistently refuses to renounce his political beliefs in exchange for freedom. He becomes a focus of world attention and a symbol for the struggle of black South Africans. However, despite growing international criticism of the apartheid regime, foreign investment continues to pour into the country and immigration rises.
1973 - The United Nations (UN) declares apartheid "a crime against humanity."
1975 - The withdrawal of the Portuguese colonial administration from Angola and Mozambique sees the foundation in those countries of new independent governments hostile to South Africa's apartheid regime. Umkhonto training and camp facilities are quickly set up in Angola. The ANC military wing now has a base close to South Africa.
On 23 October South Africa invades Angola. The invasion has the blessing of United States President Gerald Ford and US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The South African forces come within 100 km of the Angolan capital but are forced to pull back when Cuba sends 10,000 to 12,000 troops to assist the Angolan resistance.
1976 - The Soweto uprising begins on 16 June when high school students protest against the enforced use of Afrikaans in schools. After the police respond with tear gas and gunfire, demonstrators attack and burn down government buildings.
The uprising leads to weeks of demonstrations, marches and boycotts throughout South Africa. Violent clashes with police leave more than 500 dead, several thousand arrested and thousands more seeking refuge outside the country, many with the exiled forces of the ANC.
1977 - The UN adopts a mandatory embargo on arms sales to South Africa.
1979 - With capital leaving the country because of political instability, and with the economy beginning to slow, the government attempts to reduce industrial unrest by allowing black workers to form unions. The first chink in the apartheid system has appeared.
1980 - Opposition to South Africa on the African continent is further entrenched when Robert Mugabe's antiapartheid government takes power in Zimbabwe.
1982 - Mandela, along with Sisulu, is transferred from Robben Island to the maximum-security Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland.
1983 - The United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of nearly 600 organisations, is formed to persuade the government to abolish apartheid. Bishop Desmond Tutu emerges as one of the front's principal spokesmen. By 1984 the front has a membership of more than three million.
1984 - The National Party introduces a new constitution in an attempt to stem dissent. However, the constitution, which establishes three racially segregated houses of parliament, for whites, Asians, and coloureds, but excludes blacks from full citizenship, has the opposite effect and is denounced as a continuation of apartheid.
1985 - Conflict and violence escalate. In 1984 there are 174 fatalities linked to political unrest. In 1985 the number rises to 879. Capital begins to flee the country. Forty US companies pull out of South Africa in 1984. Another 50 leave in 1985. Inflation rises and standards of living drop.
The government declares states of emergency in various parts of the country; the first time the emergency laws have been used since the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. The laws allow police to arrest without warrant and to detain people indefinitely without charge and without notification to lawyers or next of kin. Censorship of the media is also extended.
South African President P.W. Botha, a National Party hardliner, offers to release Mandela and all other political prisoners if they renounce the use of violence. The offer is refused.
Responding to Botha's offer in a statement read by his daughter Zindzi at a mass meeting in Soweto on 10 February, Mandela says, "I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return." It is the first public statement made by Mandela in 20 years.
1986 - In October the US Congress passes legislation implementing mandatory sanctions against South Africa. All new investments and bank loans are banned, air links between the US and South Africa are terminated and the importation of many South African products is stopped.
1987 - While the union movement becomes increasingly militant, with the number of days lost to strikes reaching 5.8 million in 1987, armed members of the ANC and PAC stage raids on South Africa from their bases in Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.
The regime responds by renewing a series of states of emergency, unleashing its police, and sending its military forces on counter-strike raids.
Media restrictions are tightened and the UDF and other activist organisations are effectively banned.
As a result opprobrium for the regime grows around the world. More foreign investors withdraw, banks call in loans, the currency collapses, economic production declines and inflation becomes chronic.
1988 - Mandela is diagnosed with tuberculosis. He is moved to the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl, 50 km northeast of Cape Town.
In May President Botha directs the head of his intelligence service, Niel Barnard, to meet secretly with Mandela at Verster to discuss the possibility of a peace settlement. More than 60 similar meetings will follow.
1989 - The "secret" talks culminate with a face-to-face meeting between Mandela and Botha at Botha's presidential office on 5 July.
Botha subsequently resigns following a stroke and is replaced by F.W. de Klerk, a moderate within the National Party.
Mandela meets with de Klerk in December. Negotiations on the terms and conditions for Mandela's release begin.
1990 - On 2 February de Klerk announces that Mandela will be released. He also rescinds the orders banning the ANC, the PAC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and other previously illegal organisations. Restrictions on the UDF and the media are lifted.
Mandela is finally released from prison on Sunday 11 February. He is 71 years old and has spent the past 27 years in custody. He immediately reaffirms his statement from the Rivonia trial but refuses to renounce the armed struggle, refuses to call for the lifting of international sanctions against South Africa until further progress is achieved, and refuses to accept an interim power-sharing arrangement proposed by the government.
In March he is elected deputy president of the ANC. He is now faced with the difficult task of reconciling not only the black majority with the white oppressors but also the various factions within the antiapartheid movement.
Representatives of the government and the ANC met in Cape Town in May 1990 to begin planning for formal negotiations on a transition, the so-called "talks about talks." In June Mandela and de Klerk met officially for the first time. In August Mandela announces the suspension of the ANC's armed struggle. In October the government repeals the law requiring the races to use separate amenities.
1991 - Negotiations continue on the transition. By April, 933 of the country's estimated 2,500 political prisoners have been released. On 5 June the government repeals the law making it illegal for Africans to own land in urban areas and the law segregating people by race. A new law allows all races equal rights to own property anywhere in the country. The law assigning every resident of South Africa to a specific racial group is repealed on 17 June. The international community responds by lifting most of the sanctions on South Africa.
On 7 July, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa since the organisation was banned in 1960, Mandela is elected president of the ANC. Sisulu is elected deputy president and Tambo is elected the organisation's national chairperson.
Also in July, Mandela travels to Cuba to personally thank Cuban President Fidel Castro for assisting in the fight against the apartheid regime. Cuban troops helped to drive South African forces from Angola in the 1970s and 1980s, an outcome that secured Angola's independence, paved the way for the independence of neighbouring Namibia and provided added impetus for the final downfall of apartheid in South Africa.
1992 - White South African's overwhelmingly vote "yes" in a referendum asking if the reform of apartheid should be continued. In September, following a request by Mandela, 400 political prisoners are released.
Mandela separates from his now estranged wife Winnie. The couple divorce in 1996.
1993 - The prospect of a race war remains real. Between 1990 and 1993 more than 52,800 South Africans die violently. Incidents like the assassination of black activist Chris Hani by a white extremist on 10 April threaten to tip the country over the edge.
On the night of Hani's death Mandela address the country in a national television broadcast. "Tonight, I am reaching out to every South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being," he says.
"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. ... We must not let the men who worship war, and who lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country into another Angola."
The negotiations on the transition conclude towards the end of the year. It is agreed that a five-year 'Government of National Unity' with a majority-rule constitution will be formed following South Africa's first truly multiracial democratic election, scheduled for April 1994.
The new constitution guarantees all South Africans "equality before the law and equal protection of the law", full political rights, freedom of expression and assembly, and the right to "choose a place of residence anywhere in the national territory."
Mandela and de Klerk are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December for "their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new, democratic South Africa."
"Many people have remarked on the apparent lack of bitterness that characterises Mandela's conduct since he was released from prison," the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee says in his presentation speech.
"He himself has said that perhaps he would have harboured bitter thoughts if he had not had a job to do. Then he adds as an afterthought that if only all those who have made such great sacrifices for the sake of justice could see that they have not been in vain, that would serve to eliminate the bitterness from their hearts."
Accepting the award, Mandela speaks of his hopes for "the renewal of our world."
"Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates," he says.
"Let the strivings of us all, prove Martin Luther King Jr to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.
"Let the efforts of us all, prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
"Let a new age dawn!"
Mandela and de Klerk are also named 'Time' magazine's persons of the year for 1993, along with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.
1994 - The ANC wins the country's first all-race elections.
Over four days beginning on 26 April more than 22 million South Africans, or about 91% of registered voters, go to the polls.
The ANC secures nearly 63% of the vote, missing the two-thirds majority needed to unilaterally change the constitution. The National Party gets about 20% of the vote, becoming the second largest party in the parliament.
On 9 May the National Assembly unanimously elects Mandela president. De Klerk is elected one of two deputy presidents.
Mandela is inaugurated on 10 May at a ceremony in Pretoria, the South African capital. In his inaugural address he stresses the need for reconciliation and once again quotes his own words from the Rivonia trial, reaffirming his determination to create a peaceful, nonracial society.
"We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free," he says, "Their dreams have become reality. Freedom is their reward."
"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another."
The ministry of the new government includes blacks, whites, Afrikaners, Indians, coloureds, Muslims, Christians, communists, liberals and conservatives.
In June the government announces that a Truth and Reconciliation Commission will investigate human rights abuses and political crimes committed by both supporters and opponents of apartheid between 1960 and 10 May 1994. Guidelines for the commission's operations are set and Archbishop Desmond Tutu is appointed as its chair.
Meanwhile, Mandela pledges one-third of his salary for five years for the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund. He will also found the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship Foundation.
1995 - The Rugby World Cup is held in South Africa during 1995. Mandela's support for the South African team before and during the tournament wins him the support of many white South Africans. The final, held at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg on 24 June, is won, against the odds, by South Africa. When Mandela walks onto the field at the end of the game wearing a South African team jersey with the captain's number on the back he is greeted by chants of "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!" from the largely white crowd. The events are later dramatised in the Hollywood film 'Invictus' directed by Clint Eastwood.
1996 - A new South African constitution that bars discrimination against the country's minorities, including whites, is signed into law by Mandela on 10 December. The new constitution contains a bill of rights and ends the Government of National Unity. The ANC takes government in its own right. The National Party becomes the opposition.
1997 - Mandela resigns as president of the ANC.
On 22-23 October Mandela travels to Libya for talks with Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi about ways to end UN sanctions imposed on the country in 1992 following its refusal to hand over two alleged intelligence agents indicted for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. It is Mandela's third trip to Libya since his release from prison.
Gaddafi had provided the South African resistance movement with ongoing support during the apartheid era, a stance for which Mandela feels a debt of gratitude. "This man (Gaddafi) helped us at a time when we were all alone, when those who say we should not come here (Britain and the US) were helping the enemy," Mandela says.
1998 - On his 80th birthday Mandela marries Graca Machel, widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, who was killed in a plane crash 12 years earlier.
1999 - Mandela finally convinces Gaddafi to hand over the two Lockerbie bombing suspects. The two are subsequently tried in a Scottish court convened in the Netherlands. One of the two will be acquitted, the other, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, is found guilty and sentenced to 20 years of solitary confinement in a prison in Glasgow, Scotland.
The ANC wins the general election held on 2 June, increasing its majority.
Mandela bows out of politics, stepping down as president of South Africa and returning to live at his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape. However, his retirement is short-lived and in December he is appointed by the UN to lead talks aimed at ending a six-year old civil war in the African state of Burundi.
"I really wanted to retire and rest and spend more time with my children, my grandchildren and of course with my wife," Mandela will later say. "But the problems are such that for anybody with a conscience who can use whatever influence he may have to try to bring about peace, it's difficult to say no."
2002 - Mandela reenters South African public life when he begins to question the government's approach to the HIV-AIDS crisis in the country.
South Africa has the highest number of HIV infections in the world, with about 4.7 million people, or one in nine of the population, carrying the virus. However, the government refuses to support the widespread use of retroviral drugs to treat the epidemic and suggests that poverty may be the real cause of AIDS.
Mandela calls for strong leadership, stating that it is "the key to any effective response in the war against HIV."
In August Mandela reveals that one of his nieces and two sons of a nephew have died from AIDS. Mandela will later set up the 46664 HIV-AIDS awareness campaign. The campaign is named after the number Mandela was given when he arrived at Robben Island Prison.
On 2 September Mandela joins the growing number of world figures critical of plans by the administrations of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to launch a preemptive, unilateral attack on Iraq.
"We are really appalled by any country, whether a superpower or a small country, that goes outside the UN and attacks independent countries," he says. "No country should be allowed to take the law into their own hands ... What they (the US) are saying is introducing chaos in international affairs, and we condemn that in the strongest terms."
2003 - On 30 April Mandela officiates at a ceremony marking a transfer of power in Burundi agreed to during the negotiations he has mediated. However, fighting between the government and rebel groups continues and it is generally considered that Burundi remains on the brink of civil war.
2004 - Mandela's first wife, Evelyn Mase, dies in May.
On 21 September Mandela opens the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, an archive of his papers and records. The centre is located at the offices of the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.
"The history of our country is characterised by too much forgetting," Mandela says at the opening.
"One of our challenges as we build and extend democracy is the need to ensure that our youth know where we come from, what we have done to break the shackles of our oppression, and how we have pursued the journey to freedom and dignity for all."
Mandela announces that he is finally retiring from public life.
2005 - On 6 January Mandela reveals that his only surviving son, Makgatho, has died of AIDS.
"Let us give publicity to HIV/Aids and not hide it, because the only way of making it appear to be a normal illness just like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died of HIV," Mandela says.
Later in January Mandela backs a plan by British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to establish a "Marshall plan" to tackle poverty and debt in Africa. Mandela says be will travel to London in February to lobby for the proposal at a meeting of G7 (Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and US) finance ministers.
Prior to the G7 meeting Mandela tells a large crowd gathered in London's Trafalgar Square that it is time to free the millions of people in the world's poorest countries who are "trapped in the prison of poverty."
"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. And overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life," he says.
The meeting of the G7 finance ministers agrees in principle to write off up to 100% of debts owed by 37 of the world's poorest nations.
Back in South Africa, the National Party, which introduced the apartheid system after coming to government in 1948, officially disbands on 9 April. The party had received less than two percent of the vote at general elections held in 2004.
2007 - Mandela celebrates his 89th birthday on 18 July, marking the occasion with the launch of a group of eminent world-leaders, to be known as the 'Elders'. The brainchild of entrepreneur Richard Branson and musician Peter Gabriel, the members of the group will, according to Mandela, use "their collective experience, their moral courage and their ability to rise above nation, race and creed (to) make our planet a more peaceful and equitable place to live."
Members of the group include Desmond Tutu, former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, former Irish president Mary Robinson, philanthropist Muhammad Yunas, Indian women's rights campaigner Ela Bhatt, and Mandela's wife Graca Machel. The increasingly frail Mandela will not play an active role in the group.
On 29 August a bronze statue of Mandela is unveiled outside the Houses of Parliament in London. The statue will remain in Parliament Square as a permanent tribute to Mandela, alongside status of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
"The history of the struggle in South Africa is rich with stories of heroes and heroines, some of them leaders, some of them followers. All of them deserve to be remembered," Mandela says at the unveiling ceremony.
"Though this statue is of one man, it should in actual fact symbolise all those who have resisted oppression, especially in my country."
2008 - The US officially removes Mandela and the ANC from its terrorism watch list. Mandela was added to the list in the 1980s.
2009 - In April Mandela comes out of retirement to back the campaign of ANC presidential candidate Jacob Zuma. Zuma wins the election and is confirmed as the third elected president of post-apartheid South Africa.
2010 - The UN General Assembly declares 18 July 'Nelson Mandela International Day' and calls for annual commemorations to recognise Mandela's "leading role in and support for Africa's struggle for liberation and Africa's unity."
Mandela attends the closing ceremony of the FIFA World Cup in Johannesburg on 11 July. It is his last public appearance.
2012 - New South African bank notes bearing Mandela's image are issued in November. The notes will replace those currently in circulation.
2013 -On 8 June Mandela is admitted to hospital because of a recurring lung infection. It is the fourth time in four months he has been hospitalised. He is discharged on 1 September and allowed to return to his home in Johannesburg but remains in a critical condition.
Nelson Mandela dies peacefully at his home in Johannesburg shortly before 9:00pm on Thursday, 5 December, surrounded by his family. South Africa enters a 10-day period of national mourning and celebration.
A memorial service to Mandela, held on 10 December at the Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg, is attended by 91 heads of state, 10 former heads, 86 heads of delegations, 75 "eminent persons" and tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans.
Over the next three days Mandela's body lies in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. Tens of thousands of mourners file past his casket to pay their final respects.
Mandela's body is flown to his ancestral homeland in the Eastern Cape for a state funeral. His body is buried in his home village of Qunu, next to the graves of three of his children, on 15 December.
The following day a nine metre high statue of Mandela is unveiled in Pretoria. The statue stands outside the Union Buildings, the government headquarters where Mandela was inaugurated as president in 1994 and where his body lay in state two days earlier.
Comment: Nelson Mandela was the most inspirational leader of the second half of the 20th Century. He was the most loved and admired world leader of his day. His dignity was breathtaking. He strove to use only the nonviolent methods advocated by Mahatma Gandhi during the struggle to end apartheid and only turned from this path when be became convinced that violence was inevitable. As it was, the final changeover to true representative democracy was achieved without widespread bloodshed.
Despite spending 27 years in prison and despite the appalling crimes committed against black and coloured South Africans by the apartheid regime, Mandela encouraged forgiveness and reconciliation between communities. As the first president of post-apartheid South Africa he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and introduced housing, education and economic reforms to improve the living standards of black South Africans.
Mandela's autobiography, 'Long Walk To Freedom', ends with these words: "After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."
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