Nelson Mandela Day 2012: 7 South African Heroes Who Have Changed the World


July 18marks International Mandela Day and the beloved former president of South Africa’s 94th birthday. Today we pay thanks to the legacy and contributions that ‘Madiba’ did for ending apartheid and helping all South Africans regardless of race. 

Not to diminish the contributions of the ‘Greatest South African’ (yes we did a poll on this back in 2004) here are some other lessor known South Africans who have made contributions to their native or adopted country, as well as to the world.

1) Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870 – 1850) 


A Dutch-Afrikaans statesmen who served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 to 1923, and again from 1938 to 1948. Smuts who had served as a British field marshal during WWI went onto become a vital asset in the fight against Nazi Germany in WWII. Smuts was a member of Churchill’s Imperial War Cabinet. His advice was so highly valued that plans were drawn up during the war that in the event of Churchill’s death, Smuts, a non-British Citizen (though a citizen of the Empire), would become the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Following WWII Smuts helped Britain transition from Empire to Commonwealth. However, what he is perhaps most famously known for is that he was the main proponent to push for the creation of the United Nations as a predecessor of the failed League of Nations. He was the one who wrote the opening to the original and current United Nations Charter and became the only world leader to have signed both charters for the League of Nations and the United Nations.

2) Mahatma Ghandhi (1869 – 1948)


Though born a British-Indian subject in Gujarat, British India, Ghandhi spent more then 20 years as a member of South Africa’s Indian immigrant community. As a young British educated barrister at the age of 23, Ghandhi migrated to South Africa in 1893 to work as a lawyer for the Indian merchant classes of Pretoria. As a victim of Imperial British racism, Ghandhi was motivated to begin his work in social activism and a proponent of non-violent resistance. Despite his resistance efforts, he still encouraged South African Indians to be active citizens. He argued that it was only through active participation that South African Indians legitimize their claims to full citizenship. As a result, Ghandhi organized over 300 people into the Indian Ambulance Corps and enlisted himself as a warrants officer during the Second Boer War of 1899. Ghandhi left South Africa in 1915 and returned to India to fight for the independence of India using the his philosophy of peaceful resistance, a philosophy that has been acknowledged as a huge influence on Mandela’s own fight to end apartheid.

3) J.R.R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)


The famous English-South African born author’s books The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit have long been cherished as masterpieces of literature. Tolkien was born and spent the early years of his life in the South African city of Bloemfontein. It was here as a toddler that the young author nearly died from a deadly baboon spider bite. Though he did not recall this incident as an adult, it has been said by family members to have influenced him when writing his classic tome.

4) Steve Biko (1946 – 1977)


Biko was a famous student leader and founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa. Born of Xhosa descent in King William’s Town in present day Eastern Cape province, Biko attended the University of Natal Medical School (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in Durban. While at university he was a proponent of non-racial elections and formed the National Union of South African Students a multi-racial organization fighting for the rights and political reliance of all South African students. Realizing non-white students required their own separate voice he formed the South African Students Organisation to help push political change in apartheid South Africa. As a result of his political activities he was expelled from school and the government banned him from public speaking. He was famously only allowed to talk to one person at a time. In 1977 in the city of Port Elizabeth, Biko was arrested for terrorism and interrogated for over 20 hours, tortured, beaten, and chained to a grill for more than a day. He was eventually manacled and loaded into a truck for transfer to a prison more than 700 miles away in Pretoria. Upon arrival the barely alive Biko eventually succumbed to his injuries and died. The authorities blamed his death on a hunger strike, but investigative journalist Helen Zille exposed the truth which was supported by autopsy evidence. The high profile story opened the western world’s eyes to the horrors of apartheid and led to South Africa’s eventual UN sanctions. Today Biko is a symbol in South Africa for non-racial elections and is credited with having coined the phrase ‘black is beautiful’.

5) David Charles Howard Bale (1941 – 2003)


South African born Bale was a famous animal rights activist who campaigned for the protection of wildlife in his native South Africa. He was a close friend of the murdered famous American zoologist Dian Fossey and served as head of The Dian Fossey Gorrila Fund, as well as on the board of the Ark Trust, the latter of which is now known as Hollywood’s branch of The Humane Society of the United States. He was famously married to American feminist writer Gloria Steinem and was the father of famous British Hollywood actor Christian Bale, his son from his first marriage.


Dr. Soon-Shiong is a Chinese South African surgeon and billionaire philanthropist who is currently the wealthiest healthcare professional in the world according to Forbes. He is Chairman of the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation and CEO of several other corporations in the United States, as well as a minority owner of the Los Angeles Lakers. Dr. Soon-Shiong was born and grew up in Johannesburg and despite his humble beginnings he went on to receive a medical degree from the University of Witwatersrand. In addition to his many ground breaking scientific contributions to the field of medicine, his foundation has contributed to improving healthcare in both the developing and developed world. He is was responsible for donating $100 million to reopen the Martin Luther King Hospital in Los Angeles, California and he and is wife joined The Giving Pledge with Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. As a result he has committed to donating nearly all of his estimate $7.2 billion wealth to charitable causes.

7) Helen Zille (1951 – present)


Zille is a former major of Cape Town, current premier of the Western Cape and leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Born in Johannesburg to German immigrant parents she spent her youth working as a journalist and anti-apartheid activist. In 1977 she famously exposed the truth about Steve Biko’s death in Rand Daily Mail. In the 1980s she was an active member of Black Sash, a white-women’s apartheid resistance organization and offered her home up as a safe house to anti-apartheid activists. As a result of her actions she was forced into hiding with her two young children and was eventually arrested by the authorities. Since her two-year prison sentence was suspended at the end of apartheid, Premier Zille has gone on to champion for the rights of all South Africans. A vocal proponent for improving healthcare, education, social welfare, and women’s rights, Premier Zille stood as the Democratic Alliance presidential candidate in the 2009 South African general election, losing to current President Jacob Zuma