Nelson Mandela, the lawyer

Issue April 2014 By Jane Ceraso

Nelson Mandela's contributions to the cause of social justice are legendary. Less well known is the role Mandela's experience and training as a lawyer played in his successful transformation of a country on the cusp of civil war into a functioning democracy. The son of a Thembu chief, Mandela developed an early interest in the law while watching his father mediating disputes at tribal council sessions.

Mandela was the first in his family to attend college. Later, he enrolled as the only native African law student at the University of the Witwatersrand, and became involved in the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC sought to reform laws, such as The 1913 Land Act, which deprived blacks of most of their territory. Mandela realized that the goals of justice touted by South Africa's legal system could be used to shine a light on the hypocrisy of the country's racist laws.

In 1953, Mandela and a friend from college, Oliver Tambo, opened the only African-run law firm in South Africa. Because many everyday activities were criminalized for blacks under Apartheid laws, blacks often found themselves in court. Mandela and Tambo provided affordable legal representation for many who would otherwise have faced trial without representation.

Mandela discovered that trials could be a powerful instrument of social change. Courts at the time were unconstrained by the restrictions imposed on black South Africans. Mandela's courtroom performances capitalized upon the etiquette he picked up in his British-influenced education, his mastery of debate and his strong belief in justice. Like the tribal council sessions, the courts provided a space where conflicting interests could be deliberated. Through artful advocacy, Mandela took advantage of the tools of the law, and the values of law and liberty, which white authority had claimed for itself.

After spending nearly a decade honing his legal talent, Mandela applied these skills to the daunting task of creating a democratic South Africa. When tried for acts of resistance against the government, he participated in his own defense, showcasing the values of freedom, fairness and democracy and juxtaposing them against a society that dishonored those values. At his Rivonia Treason Trial, rather than take the stand as a witness, he chose to make an impassioned speech for democracy which catapulted him onto the world stage. Although many believed the trial would end in a death sentence, Mandela was given life imprisonment.

During a 27-year incarceration, Mandela and his colleagues, many behind bars, crafted the legal ideas that would eventually birth a modern democracy in South Africa. Emerging from prison in 1990 empowered, and foreseeing no gains from acrimony, Mandela miraculously led the way to peace and democracy with the same regime that had imprisoned him.

In 1994, Mandela became president of South Africa's first multi-ethnic government. Under his leadership, Apartheid was finally dismantled. In 1996, Mandela oversaw the enactment of a new democratic constitution, developed by South Africans from both sides of the political divide. He also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, leading the way for a more lasting civic cohesion.

On Dec. 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died, leaving the world a far better place. For lawyers, Mandela's legacy serves as an example for our own practice through the values he was willing to put his life on the line for: human rights, democracy and equitable laws for all.