Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela quickly rose to leadership positions within the African National Congress (ANC). By the late 1950s he was a prominent public figure and a thorn in the apartheid regime’s flesh. His work as an attorney with Oliver Tambo in South Africa’s first black legal firm mostly involved defending black victims of the apartheid system.
As Volunteer-in-Chief in the 1952 Defiance Campaign of the ANC and the South African Indian Congress, he led thousands to break apartheid laws. He was frequently arrested and banned. The Defiance Campaign Trial saw him and 19 others sentenced to nine months, suspended for two years. He was one of the accused in the Treason Trial (1956-1961), but again walked free. The ANC was banned in 1960 after the Sharpeville Massacre and in 1961 Mandela went underground. He became the first Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto weSizwe, the armed wing of the ANC. The liberation struggle had become Mandela’s life and the ANC his family.
Under the tutelage of Walter Sisulu and working with communists like Michael Harmel, Bram Fischer, Yusuf Dadoo, Ahmed Kathrada and Moses Kotane, Mandela shed his Africanism and embraced the non-racialism of the Congress movement. Mandela sacrificed domestic life to the struggle. His marriage to Evelyn collapsed, and in 1958 he married Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, with whom he had two children. His new family was also to suffer from his absence.