Nelson Mandela was the forerunner for civil rights and equality for Blacks during the period of apartheid under the Presidency that was headed by General Louis Botha of the South African National Party. They basically supported and championed Afrikaner interests such as segregation of the two separate white groups: Dutch and British. In turn, the segregation extended to Blacks, Colored, and Indians as well.
The Act of Union denied Blacks voting rights. Black workers couldn't strike as it was deemed to be illegal. Whites made up a small population while they owned most of the land. Mandela fought against the apartheid government as he took an active part of the African National Congress' Defiance Campaign of 1952. At the same time, he did what he could as a lawyer for his firm "Mandela and Tambo"; representing Blacks in court for a low cost or pro-bono. Before he became a major figure, Mandela did his part with his law degree.
Tambo and Mandela were friends and political activists at the time. Both were kicked out from the Fort Hare University for instigating a student strike in 1940. Along with Tambo, Mandela helped organize the ANC Youth League in 1943.
Inspired by the philosophy of Gandhi and Hinduism, Mandela took a policy of "ahimsa" which is nonviolence. He wanted to use nonviolence as a way to combat the policy of apartheids in South Africa. He was arrested December of 1956 on charges of treason but was acquitted along with the others during the Treason Trial that lasted up for four years.
As the ANC lost its militant support, a group broke away and formed the Pan Africanist Congress. Two years later in 1961, Mandela lead the Umkhonto we Sizwe or "Spear of the Nation" which is the armed wing of the ANC. Mandela changed from nonviolence to a militaristic warfare approach as he waged and coordinated a sabotage campaign against military and government targets. If the campaign failed, Mandela was willing to fight a guerilla war.
The campaign failed and the MK waged war with many civilians getting killed. Mandela during the time was still in prison. Armed fighting was the last thing that Mandela wanted to resort to but had the realistic mindset that they may have no choice if that was the result.
A year later, Mandela was arrested and imprisoned at the Johannesburg Fort. During the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was given a sentence of five years. Two years later, he got another sentence due to his previous dealings with the ANC. He was sent to Robben Island for eighteen years. They tried hard to break Mandela's spirit by revoking his privileges as he was a political prisoner.
There was an attempt to break Mandela free in order to assassinate him. However, British Intelligence stopped the plot. Still, Mandela would continue the struggle to end the apartheid in South Africa. During his stay at Robben Island, Mandela used the University of London's External Programme to take correspondence courses to receive a Bachelor of Laws.
In 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. Eight years later, Botha would suffer a stroke and Frederik Willem de Klerk. Before the stroke, Botha said that he would free Mandela. In return, Mandela would have to renounce armed struggle. Mandela refused the offer and remained in prison believing the struggle was more important than his personal freedom. He wasn't going to turn his back on his comrades to be released from prison.
In turn, Mandela got the much needed sympathy from the international community. The international community saw what Mandela wanted to do and felt that people should be equal in South Africa. In 1993, Mandela and FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. There were the Boipatong and Bisho Massacres in 1992 that spurred fear and violence. Instead of calling for military action, Mandela continued his approach of ahimsa.
Soon, the era of apartheid was over. The ANC that Mandela represented won most of the votes. Mandela became the first Black President of South Africa. He had brought positive changes to South Africa. Instead of unleashing fury on the White population, Mandela sought to make peace for them. One step was getting the Black population to support the South African rugby team, the Springboks.
The struggle was over and Mandela achieved what he and others were striving for, the end of the apartheid in South Africa. This is something that Mandela will be remembered for. But it doesn't stop at the end of apartheid in South Africa; though, Mandela was the heart and soul of the movement. Without Mandela, the movement probably wouldn't have gotten far and hardly anything would be accomplished.
But Mandela is active in the "Make Poverty History" campaign and is supporting a cure for AIDS/HIV. His son died of AIDS early 2005. Mandela's also active in what's going on in the Middle East as he harshly criticized George W. Bush's foreign policy. He was one of the former world leaders that called for the anti-war protestors to continue protesting against the Iraq War. For a long time, Mandela's been at odds against Dick Cheney who voted against Mandela's release.
Also, the Nelson Mandela Foundation was formed to continue his work. Though apartheid in South Africa has been abolished, Mandela's work is far from over.
If it wasn't for Mandela, South Africa would still be segregated and non-Whites wouldn't have the freedoms and privileges.