12 June 1964: Nelson Mandela sentenced to life in prison

Nelson Mandela in the early 1960s © Getty images
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years on Robben Island before being released

Throughout South Africa’s early history as Dutch (Orange Free State) and British (Cape) colonies, native Africans were discriminated against. Slavery was formally abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833, but indentured servitude persisted for decades. Even in 1936, nearly all non-whites were effectively banned from voting in South Africa. This discrimination grew worse after the National Party came to power in 1948.

The government’s apartheid laws enforced political and social separation of the country’s racial groups. Apartheid discriminated against non-whites, who were forced into slums on the edge of towns, pushed into menial jobs, and had inferior schools and hospitals. Millions were stripped of South African citizenship and moved to tiny “homelands”, or Bantustans. The backlash led to a growing civil rights movement, spearheaded by the African National Congress (ANC).

Fearing the ANC’s growing popularity, the government in Pretoria arrested its leaders, including Nelson Mandela. Mandela was acquitted of high treason in 1961, but convicted at a later trial in 1962. His five-year sentence was raised to life imprisonment in June 1964, after another trial on separate charges. He spent 27 years on Robben Island, before being released – after huge global pressure – in 1990.

Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first multi-racial elections four years later. In office, he combined modest redistribution with pro-business policies and national reconciliation. However, while the per-head incomes of black South Africans (around 80% of the population) have gone up by 169% in the last decade, they are still a sixth of those of whites.