On This Day

Nelson Mandela, president Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela 1994
John Parkin/AP
Nelson Mandela celebrates the electoral victory that swept the ANC into power, May 2, 1994.

On This Day: Nelson Mandela Elected President

May 09, 2012 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On May 9, 1994, South Africa's newly elected parliament chose Nelson Mandela to be the first president of the post-apartheid era.

South Africa’s First Black President

Nelson Mandela was a leader in the African National Congress, an organization dedicated to protesting the South African government’s policy of apartheid. He spent 27 years in prison, during which time he became the central figure of the anti-apartheid movement as an international campaign fought for his release.

In February, President F.W. de Klerk decided to release the Mandela from prison. Together de Klerk and Mandela set out to negotiate the dismantling of the apartheid system while violence between blacks and whites raged in the country. Though their working relationship became tense at times, Mandela and de Klerk were able to establish a system for free, multi-racial elections.

The ANC won a majority of seats in the first multi-racial election on April 27, 1994.  After the victory, Mandela declared, “We are starting a new era of hope, reconciliation and nation building. We sincerely hope that by the mere casting of a vote the results will give hope to all South Africans and make all South Africans realize this is our country. We are one nation.”

There was no doubt who the ANC would choose to become president when Parliament met in Cape Town on May 9. The New York Times wrote, “Unopposed, Mr. Mandela was proclaimed president without a word of dissent or even a show of hands, then sat, strangely grim-faced, while his giddy followers whooped in unparliamentary delight.”

The following day, Mandela was inaugurated in a ceremony in Pretoria. In his inaugural speech, Mandela said, “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the 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.”

The Mandela Presidency

Mandela served as president until June 1999, overseeing South Africa’s transition to full democracy and the reconciliation between the races. At the end of his presidency, the BBC’s Carolyn Dempster wrote, “South Africans across the political and racial divide have come to see in him the symbol of everything they ever hoped for in a leader; an elder statesman of intellect, sincerity and immense moral stature who has delivered them from their darkest hour. If there are criticisms, then it is of his political office, but never of Mandela the person, whose personal quest to promote reconciliation has probably achieved more than any government policy over the past five years.”

Mandela had shortcomings as a leader. Mark Gevisser of Foreign Affairs wrote that “if the Mandela presidency was inspired, it was also incoherent. … Mandela was a far better nation-builder than governor.”

Dempster named Mandela’s naiveté in international affairs as a significant flaw in his leadership. Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga’s “New History of South Africa” listed Mandela’s occasional authoritarian tendencies and his slow response to the HIV/AIDS crisis as the “main failures” of his term.

Overall, however, the Mandela presidency succeeded in building a new South Africa. A June 1999 New York Times editorial wrote, “The five years … have seen a genuine change of political power, widespread respect for the rule of law and none of the political revenge killings that have marked other societies in transition. South Africa has many problems, such as desperate poverty and terrifying crime. But its suffering would have been infinitely greater absent the moral authority and democratic, inclusive spirit that made Mr. Mandela a giant as leader of the liberation movement and as President.”

Biography: Nelson Mandela

Read the full findingDulcinea profile of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

Background: Apartheid

After winning the 1948 elections, the white Afrikaner National Party moved to consolidate its hold on power with the introduction of racially discriminatory measures known collectively as apartheid. Learn more about the history of apartheid with the Apartheid Museum’s page for teachers and students.

Reference: Mandela Documents

The African National Congress’ Mandela Page has a collection of Mandela’s speeches and writings, as well as biographies from other sources, an excerpt from Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom,” and links to other Mandela resources.

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