Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the small village of Mvezo, on the Mbashe River, district of Umtata in Transkei, South Africa. His Father named him Rolihlahla, which means “pulling the branch of the tree“, or more colloquially “troublemaker.” The name Nelson was not given until his first day at school.
Nelson Mandela’s father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was the chief “by blood and custom” of Mvezo, a position confirmed by the paramount chief of the Thembu, JongintabaDalindyebo. Although the family is descended from Thembu royalty (one of Mandela’s ancestors was paramount chief in the 18th century) the line had passed down to Mandela through lesser ‘Houses’, rather than through a line of potential succession. The clan name of Madiba, which is often used as a form of address for Mandela, comes from the ancestral chief.
Until the advent of European domination in the region, chieftaincy of the Thembu (and other tribes of the Xhosa nation) was by patrimonial decent, with the first son of the major wife (known as the Great House) becoming automatic heir, and the first son of the second wife (the highest of the lessor wives, also known as the Right Hand House) being relegated to creating a minor chiefdom. The sons of the third wife (known as the Left Hand House) were destined to become advisors to the chief.
Nelson Mandela was the son of the third wife, NoqaphiNosekeni, and could have otherwise expected to become a royal advisor. He was one of thirteen children, and had three elder brothers all of whom were of higher ‘rank’. Mandela’s mother was a Methodist, and Nelson followed in her footsteps, attending a Methodist missionary school.
When Nelson Mandela’s father died in 1930, the paramount chief, JongintabaDalindyebo, became his guardian. In 1934, a year during which he attended three month initiation school (during which he was circumcised), Mandela matriculated from Clarkebury Missionary school. Four years later he graduated from Healdtown, a strict Methodist college, and left to pursue higher education at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa’s first university college for Black Africans). It was here he first met his lifelong friend and associate Oliver Tambo.
Both Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were expelled from Fort Hare in 1940 for political activism. Briefly returning to Transkei, Mandela discovered that his guardian had arranged a marriage for him. He fled towards Johannesburg, where he obtained work as a night-watchman on a gold mine.
Nelson Mandela moved into a house in Alexandra, a Black suburb of Johannesburg, with his mother. Here he met Walter Sisulu and Walter’s fiancée Albertina. Mandela started working as a clerk in a law firm, studying in the evening through a correspondence course with the University of South Africa (now UNISA) to complete his first degree. He was awarded his Bachelor’s degree in 1941, and in 1942 he was articled to another firm of attorneys and started upon a law degree at the University of Witwatersrand. Here he worked with a study partner, SeretseKhama, who would later become the first president of an independent Botswana.
In 1944 Nelson Mandela married Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Walter Sisulu. He also began his political career in earnest, joining the African National Congress, ANC. Finding the existing leadership of the ANC to be “a dying order of pseudo-liberalism and conservatism, of appeasement and compromise.“, Mandela, along with Tambo, Sisulu, and a few others formed the African National Congress Youth League, ANCYL. In 1947 Mandela was elected as secretary of the ANCYL, and became a member of the Transvaal ANC executive.
By 1948 Nelson Mandela had failed to pass the exams required for his LLB law degree, and he decided instead to settle for the ‘qualifying’ exam which would allow him to practice as an attorney. When DF Malan’s HerenigdeNationale Party (HNP, Re-united National Party) won the 1948 election, Mandela, Tambo, and Sisulu acted. The existing ANC president was pushed out of office and someone more amenable to the ideals of the ANCYL was brought in as a replacement. Walter Sisulu proposed a ‘programme of action’, which was subsequently adopted by the ANC. Mandela was made president of the Youth League in 1951.
Nelson Mandela opened his law office in 1952, and a few months later teamed up with Tambo to create the first Black legal practice in South Africa. It was difficult for both Mandela and Tambo to find time for both their legal practice and their political aspirations. That year Mandela became president of the Transvaal ANC, but was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act – he was prohibited from holding office within the ANC, banned from attending ANY meetings, and restricted to the district around Johannesburg.
Fearing for the future of the ANC, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo initiated the M-plan (M for Mandela). The ANC would be broken down into cells so that it could continue to operate, if necessary, underground. Under the banning order, Mandela was restricted from attending meeting, but he drove down to Kliptown in June 1955 to be part of the Congress of the People; and by keeping to the shadows and the periphery of the crowd, Mandela watched as the Freedom Charter was adopted by all the groups involved. His increasing involvement in the anti-Apartheid struggle, however, caused problems for his marriage and in December that year Evelyn left him, citing irreconcilable differences.
On 5 December 1956, in response to the adoption of the Freedom Charter at the Congress of the People, the Apartheid government in South Africa arrested a total 156 people, including Chief Albert Luthuli (president of the ANC) and Nelson Mandela. This was almost the entire executive of the African National Congress (ANC), Congress of Democrats, South African Indian Congress, Coloured People’s Congress, and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (collectively known as the Congress Alliance). They were charged with “high treason and a countrywide conspiracy to use violence to overthrow the present government and replace it with a communist state.” The punishment for high treason was death. The Treason Trialdragged on, until Mandela and his 29 remaining co-accused were finally acquitted in March 1961. During the Treason Trial Nelson Mandela met and married his second wife, Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela.
The 1955 Congress of the People and its moderate stance against the policies of the Apartheid government eventually led to the younger, more radical members of the ANC to break away: the Pan Africanist Congress, PAC, was formed in 1959 under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe. The ANC and PAC became instant rivals, especially in the townships. This rivalry came to a head when the PAC rushed ahead of ANC plans to hold mass protests against the pass laws. On 21 March 1960 at least 180 black Africans were injured and 69 killed when the South African police opened fire on approximately demonstrators at Sharpeville.
Both the ANC and PAC responded in 1961 by setting up military wings. Nelson Mandela, in what was a radical departure from ANC policy, was instrumental in creating the ANC group: Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK), and Mandela became the MK’s first commander. Both the ANC and PAC were banned by the South African government under the Unlawful Organisations Act in 1961. The MK, and the PAC’s Poqo, responded by commencing with campaigns of sabotage.
In 1962 Nelson Mandela was smuggled out of South Africa. He first attended and addressed the conference of African nationalist leaders, the Pan-African Freedom Movement, in Addis Ababa. From there he went to Algeria to undergo guerrilla training, and then flew to London to catch up with Oliver Tambo (and also to meet members of the British parliamentary opposition). On his return to South Africa, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years for “incitement and illegally leaving the country“.
On 11 July 1963 a raid was undertaken on Lilieslief farm in Rivonia, near Johannesburg, which was being used by the MK as headquarters. The remaining leadership of the MK was arrested. Nelson Mandela was included at trial with those arrested at Lilieslief and charged with over 200 counts of “sabotage, preparing for guerrilla warfare in SA, and for preparing an armed invasion of SA“. Mandela was one of five (out of the ten defendants) at the Rivonia Trail to be given life sentences and sent to Robben Island. Two more were released, and the remaining three escaped custody and were smuggled out of the country.
At the end of his four hour statement to the court Nelson Mandela stated:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
These words are said to sum up the guiding principles by which he worked for liberation of South Africa.
In 1976 Nelson Mandela was approached with an offer by Jimmy Kruger, the Minister for Police serving under President BJ Vorster, to renounce the struggle and settle in the Transkei. Mandela refused. By 1982 international pressure against the South African government to release Nelson Mandela and his compatriots was growing. The then South African president, PW Botha, arranged for Mandela and Sisulu to be transferred back to the mainland to Pollsmoor Prison, near Cape Town. In August 1985, approximately a month after the South African government declares a state of emergency, Mandela was taken to hospital for an enlarged prostate gland. On his return to Pollsmoor he was placed in solitary confinement (having a whole section of the jail to himself).
In 1986 Nelson Mandela was taken to see the Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetzee, who requested once again that he ‘renounce violence’ in order to win his freedom. Despite refusing, restrictions on Mandela were somewhat lifted: he was allowed visits from his family, and was even driven around Cape Town by the prison warder. In May 1988 Mandela was diagnosed with tuberculosis and moved to Tygerberg hospital for treatment. On release from hospital he was moved to ‘secure quarters’ at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.
By 1989 things were looking bleak for the Apartheid regime: PW Botha had a stroke, and shortly after ‘entertaining’ Mandela at the Tuynhuys, the presidential residence in Cape Town, he resigned. FW de Klerk was appointed as his successor. Mandela met with De Klerk in December 1989, and the following year at the opening of parliament (2 February) De Klerk announced the unbanning of all political parties and the release of political prisoners (except those guilty of violent crimes). On 11 February 1990 Nelson Mandela was finally released.
By 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, CODESA, was set up to negotiate constitutional change in South Africa. Both Mandela and De Klerk were key figures in the negotiations, and their efforts were jointly awarded in December 1993 with the Nobel Peace Prize. When South Africa’s first multi-racial elections were held in April 1994, the ANC won a 62% majority. (Mandela revealed later that he was worried that it would achieve the 67% majority that would allow it to re-write the constitution.) A Government of National Unity, GNU, was formed – based on an idea proffered by Joe Slovo, the GNU could last for up to five years as a new constitution was drawn up. It was hoped that this would allay the fears of South Africa’s whites population suddenly faced with majority Black rule.
On 10 May 1994 Nelson Mandela made his inaugural presidential speech from the Union Building, Pretoria:
“We have at last, achieved our political emancipation. we pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another… Let freedom reign. God Bless Africa!”
Shortly after he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
In 1997 Nelson Mandela stepped down as leader of the ANC in favour of Thabo Mbeki, and in 1999 he relinquished the post of president. Despite claims to have retired, Mandela continues to have a busy life. He was divorced from Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1996, the same year that the press realised he was having a relationship with GraçaMachel, the widow of Mozambique’s former president. After heavy prompting by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela and GraçaMachel were married on his eightieth birthday, 18 July 1998.