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Nelson Mandela, Honorary Life President of the Pan African Lawyers Union

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (born 18 July 1918) is a freedom fighter, a Pan-Africanist, a human rights activist, a lawyer and a lawmaker. While he is many things to many people, he is also, to us, a perfect role model of a lawyer in the legal profession and in the wider society. For this reason, PALU recognised the sacrifices and life work of Mr. Mandela by awarding him Honorary Life Presidency of the Union in 2006.

Nelson Mandela always aspired to become a lawyer. He started studying for a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University College of Fort Hare but was suspended for participating in a student protest. He went on to complete his studies through the University of South Africa (UNISA). After finishing his BA he enrolled for an LLB at the University of Witwatersrand, which he left in 1948 before graduating. Nevertheless, he obtained a two-year diploma in law that allowed him to practice law. In 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, he obtained an LLB through the UNISA. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.

Since the early years of his political and legal career he fought vigorously against apartheid laws. In 1952, together with Oliver Tambo, a fellow lawyer-political activist and later on President of the African National Congress, they established the first black law firm in South Africa, Mandela & Tambo, which often dealt with cases of discrimination and police brutality. In the 1956 Treason Trial Mandela was among 156 activists accused of treason. During the trial the defence team withdrew from the case as a protest against the imposed state of emergency. Nelson Mandela and Duma Nokwe, both accused, undertook the role of the defence

Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial (1963-64). In his statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case he said: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. From within prison, he not only fought against the apartheid but within the microcosm of the community of prisoners, he also fought for the rights of his fellow prisoners.

Released from prison in 1990, Mandela, together with the then President of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa. In 1994 Mandela was allowed to vote for the first time and was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. As he had promised, he stepped down after the end of his first term as President.

National reconciliation was one of Mandela’s priorities during his presidency. During that time he oversaw the formation of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (The Commission), with Archbishop Desmond Tutu appointed as its Chairperson.

At the same time, he worked towards eradicating poverty which was affecting the majority of South Africans, safeguarding human rights including labour and land rights, and restoring equality within laws.

On the African continent and internationally, the greatest contribution of Nelson Mandela was to encourage peaceful resolution of conflicts through diplomacy and reconciliation.

While his life and work is of great significance to the entire African continent, to the struggle for self-determination, freedom, equality, unity and democratic societies world-wide, it is also a bright example for all African Lawyers, on how to lead our lives and the weight bestowed upon our shoulders to fight for the just and equitable rule of law, unity, democracy, good governance and the protection & promotion of human and peoples’ rights.

As African Lawyers, we embrace his continuing legacy and will continue the struggle for a «democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities». Nelson Mandela has entrusted to us a great and very heavy duty with the following words: «where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done. After nearly 90 years of life it is time for new heads to lift the burdens. It is in your hands now.»

Click here to watch this speech on Youtube

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