If we ever need a reminder about the legal oppression of Black people, we don’t need to look too far back in time. The United States ended the traditional Jim Crow era in the mid-1960s, legally putting a stop to racial discrimination on paper, while also making way for the new Jim Crow era of today. Still, the optimistic bunch can say we are 50 years removed from those horrendous times. While 50 years is not long, our brothers and sisters in South Africa have only half as many years of legal segregation behind them. 

Apartheid — the institutionalized racial segregation that took place on the Continent — ended just 25 years ago. To put that time frame in context, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love To You” was the No. 1 song in the U.S. and O.J. Simpson was gearing up for the ride of his life. Meanwhile, South African hero Nelson Mandela took his post as the nations first Black leader since its colonization.

Each year, July 18 is remembered as Nelson Mandela Day. In an effort to celebrate Mandela and honor his legacy as a political trailblazer, let’s examine South Africa’s five Black presidents and their contributions to the nation. 

1. Nelson Mandela (1994–1999)

South Africa’s first Black president is a global icon. Born July 18, 1918, Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela spent the majority of his life fighting against racial oppression in his homeland. Before becoming the first Black leader of South Africa, the activist co-founded the nation’s first Black law firm in 1952, Mandela & Tambo. In 1964, the South African government infamously sentenced Mandela to life in prison for sabotage. Mandela was released once the ban imposed by the South African government against his political party, the African National Congress (ANC), had been lifted. At that point, he had spent about 27 years in jail. After taking office as the first president of South Africa on May 10, 1994, he continuously broke barriers and remains among the most influential political activists and philanthropists in history.

2. Thabo Mbeki (1999–2008)

Born June 18, 1942, Thabo Mbeki had tremendous shoes to fill as the next elected successor to follow the Mandela presidency. Also a member of the ANC, Mbeki left South Africa in 1962, returning after the end of the party’s ban. During Mandela’s term, he acted as deputy president.

Although his political reign was not as spotless as Mandela’s — like his 2008 resignation stemming from a multibillion-dollar scandal he was later exonerated from — the leader is known for taking a “for us by us” approach when it came to addressing African conflicts. Though many find his intervention in Zimbabwe controversial, his foundation lists Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo among the many countries he’s assisted.

3. Kgalema Motlanthe (2008–2009)

The third Black president to govern South Africa, Kgalema Motlanthe was born July 19, 1949, and led South Africa for one year. According to South African History Online, Motlanthe was unjustly sentenced to prison in 1977 and served 10 years for his involvement with the banned ANC. It seems as though he was not overly ambitious to lead South Africa, but he remained committed to the role. During his governance, Motlanthe changed his tune and took a more serious approach to the HIV/AIDS epidemic overlooked by his predecessor. After his one-year term, Motlanthe became South Africa’s deputy president, under former President Jacob Zuma.

4. Jacob Zuma (2009–2018)

Born April 12, 1942, South Africa’s fourth Black president took office on May 9, 2009, but stepped down on February 14, 2018, and is currently under investigation for alleged mass corruption. However in 1998, many years before all this controversy, Zuma won the Nelson Mandela award for outstanding leadership. While allegations of deception may taint his political legacy, he’s also been credited with slightly improving the economy, furthering the fight against HIV/AIDS, successfully acquiring the first FIFA World Cup in Africa, and addressing issues in education.

5. Cyril Ramaphosa (2019–Present)

Cyril Ramaphosa , who was born November 17, 1952, acted as deputy president during Zuma’s second term. Listed as one ofTime ‘s 100 Most Influential People, Ramaphosa finished Zuma’s term and was re-elected as South Africa’s fifth Black president in May 2019. With the legacy of the ANC resting on his shoulders, the successful businessman has his hands full in his new political position. Though he’s issued the same promises new presidents make, only time will reveal the effect he has on South Africa.

It seems as though none of Nelson Mandela’s successors have been able to live up to his greatness. Then again, he did set the bar pretty high. Each listed president has sacrificed their comfort, and sometimes their freedom, to build a political party that stands for the people. As South Africa grows and the apartheid era becomes a memory regulated to history books, hopefully future leaders reach and exceed Mandela’s legacy.