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What were the Major Turning Points in Nelson Mandela’s Life?

Nelson Mandela was a black lawyer who played a significant role in the struggle against apartheid. His incredible life story was filled with many turning points – influential moments and events that caused a significant change in South Africa. The first central turning point in Mandela’s life was when he arrived in Johannesburg to take part in the times of significant change in South Africa. He was well educated and believed there was more out there for him so he ran away from an arranged marriage to move to the city. He emerged into streets of white prosperity and black poverty and violence. Here he experienced racial discrimination for the first time.

This changed his life because having had his eyes opened to the actual state of segregation in South Africa; he became determined to make a change and throw off the chains of white supremacy. Mandela began working as a lawyer’s clerk by Walter Sisulu and later set up his all-black firm with a friend Oliver Tambo. The second turning point was when Sisulu persuaded Tambo, Mandela and Lembede (another friend) to join the African National Congress – a major, non-violent protest organization created to unite all blacks against white rule. Together they formed the Youth League in 1943 to inject some life into the ANC and get youngsters interested in their cause.

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This was an essential point in Mandela’s life as he became more politically involved and started to gain power – he was made President of the Transvaal section of the ANC. He had stepped onto the first rung of the ladder to achieving his dreams of equality for all by joining the ANC. His enrolment in this organization led to much change in his own life and that of other South Africans. In 1959 a splinter group of the ANC was formed-the Pan African Congress. Both the ANC and PAC wanted to campaign against the pass laws, but while the ANC called for marches, the PAC called for mass disobedience at Sharpeville. As a result, the police shot dead 69 and wounded 180- it was described as a ‘massacre.’ This formed another turning point for Mandela- it was the end of the line for non-violence.

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In his autobiography Mandela made it clear he wanted to achieve the aims of the ANC with little violence however, after the government made no statement of regret, Sharpeville became a turning point in the way non-violence wasn’t working effectively. He argued that the violence had already begun- started by the government. After discussions with the ANC, he set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, to carry out an armed struggle against apartheid. Mandela had always been against violence, but Sharpeville caused him to change his mind. This was a critical moment in his life as it led to his troubles later on.

The following central turning point came after Mandela had gone into hiding while organizing the MK. The MK base was discovered, and much evidence linking him and others to violence and sabotage. He was caught and sentenced. During the Rivonia Trial, Mandela made a four-hour opening speech that rose above self-defence- it appealed to white South Africans to understand their black fellow country people and to try to deal with their fears and the idea of a ‘one person, one vote’ democracy. This heart-wrenching, the eye-opening speech was critical as it saved Mandela and seven fellow defendants from death but made many realize the actual state of apartheid and how much better life could be if it were to change.

This changed Mandela’s life as he had inspired millions of blacks and helped the government become conscious of the fact that he was not merely a troublemaker- he was a well-loved, passionate and educated activist who was determined to achieve his aims. He was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. The prison was a new way of life for Mandela. Although he was ill-treated at first, and he experienced great sadness when his son died, he did not want revenge. Mandela discovered that he still had influence even from behind bars and realized he could still be strong and do something- think and plan.

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The next major turning point came when he was released after 27 years imprisonment along with his fellow prisoners. The ANC and PAC were also unbanned. He immediately captured the initiative by another extraordinary speech, showing he hadn’t abandoned his principles, and that he was not calling for revenge. Some white South Africans were horrified he was talking of a “non-racial and unitary South Africa” but many were reassured, even overwhelmed to discover he wasn’t bitter. His time in prison and finally his release allowed Mandela the opportunity to make changes, leading to the last and most significant turning point in his life. Becoming President in 1994, Mandela was at last able to help with the breakdown of apartheid.

There were many turning points in the colourful and vibrant life of Nelson Mandela, and I feel they are a chain of events that all lead onto each other. Firstly discovering the true state of apartheid on his arrival in Johannesburg, which caused him to become involved in politics and the ANC, then the Youth League. Here he gained publicity and the love of the people. Sharpeville made Mandela realize he would have to go a step further to achieve his dreams and take up violence, there was no other choice. His involvement in the MK landed him in front of a judge where he gave an eye-opening speech about apartheid and his simple wishes- he was saved from death but received 27 years imprisonment. As President, he was able to make the changes he had dreamed of for so long.

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All these turning points are important, as they lead from one to the next but I believe that the major turning point was Mandela’s turn to violence. Having always been against violence, he was abandoning one of his principles, but it was this turn that really got the wheels spinning. With his move to violence, the government was forced into action, and many other blacks took up the struggle. His involvement led him to his trial, the Rivonia Trial, where he was given the opportunity to open eyes, publicize his cause and inspire others before being sentenced to life.

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What were the Major Turning Points in Nelson Mandela's Life?. (2021, Sep 26). Retrieved August 14, 2022, from