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Nelson Mandela Resource Guide: Nelson Mandela Biography

Nelson Mandela and Anti-Apartheid South Africa. Guide by Tiana Taliep.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela at the Gracie Mansion, 1990

Nelson Mandela Portrait Collection. 

Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

©Chester Higgins/chesterhiggins.com

Nelson Mandela Biography

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a small village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the Eastern Cape Province. He was born into the Madiba clan, son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Gladla Henry Mphakanyiswa, the chief of Mvezo and an advisor to the kings.

Mandela was the first in his family to receive a formal education; After primary school, he attended the University of Fort Hare, the only Western-style academic education for South African blacks at the time. At Fort Hare, he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law. Due to his involvement in a student protest, he was expelled in 1940 and did not complete his degree at the University. However, Mandela later completed his degree at the University of South Africa.

Following his expulsion, Mandela moved to Johannesburg in 1941. This move opened his eyes not only to an industrial city but to a nation of injustice separated by races. For the first time in his life, he saw himself as a black man in a white society. He began working as a law clerk with Walter Sisulu, a prominent black businessman active in the African National Congress (ANC). It wasn’t until 1944 when Mandela joined the ANC and helped form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). In 1947, he was elected to his first position in the ANC as the Executive Committee.

After the election of 1948, the National Party gained power in South Africa. Consequently, this began a formal system of racial classification and segregation; this formal system, apartheid, restricted nonwhites’ basic rights and barred them from the government, while also maintaining white minority rule. Mandela’s commitment to politics and the ANC grew stronger after this election.

By 1952, he was the President of the ANCYL and had drawn much attention from the South African government. Subsequently, he was served a banning order that restricted his freedom of speech and movement. This banning order forced Mandela to not attend public meetings, or discuss an important matter with no more than one person at a time. This was an attempt by the government to break apart the ANC. As the oppression increased, so did Mandela’s efforts. In June 1952, he led the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, where groups throughout South Africa executed various acts of defiance in main cities. It was the first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilization against the apartheid laws. Mandela fought the Apartheid politically and professionally. That same year, he and his colleague Oliver Tambo, an ANC leader, established the first black law practices that specialized in cases affected by the apartheid legislation.

The South African government was putting pressure on the ANC, and on December 5, 1956, Mandela’s house was raided and he was arrested amongst 155 other activists being charged with high treason. The Treason Trials dragged on for almost five years, however, the defendants were finally acquitted in 1961. During this time, Mandela met his wife Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela when she was 22, standing at a bus stop in Soweto. They married on June 14, 1958, and had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi.  

On March 21, 1960, police opened fire on a massive, organized demonstration against the Pass Laws, killing 69 unarmed peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville. The country erupted into a state of emergency and numerous activists were arrested. Days later Mandela burnt his pass book in front of numerous journalists. The following month the ANC was declared an illegal organization, which caused Mandela and other ANC leaders to go underground and form a separate military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) also referred to as MK. He became the first commander-in-chief of the guerrilla army and began to train to fight, obtain weapons for the group. Mandela came to be known as the Black Pimpernel.

Mandela traveled abroad illegally in 1962 gaining support, money and military training from various African countries. On his return, he was arrested for leaving the country and for orchestrating strikes. On the day of his court case, he entered court wearing traditional Xhosa clothing making a statement of African nationalism. Mandela was sentenced to five years imprisonment for incitement to strike and leaving the country without official documents.

While imprisoned, the police raided the ANC underground headquarters on a farm in Rivonia and its military commanders were arrested. Based on the collected evidence, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them. Known as the Rivonia Trials, on October 8, 1963, they were charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the state violently. The trial lasted for months. On April 20, 1964, Mandela gave his famous speech where he exclaimed that he was “prepared to die” for a free and democratic South Africa. The trial ended on June 12, 1964, and Mandela and the other accused were found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mandela arrived on Robben Island in the winter of 1964 where he spent 18 of his 27 prison years (1964 to 1982). The South African government built a new maximum security building especially for political prisoners to keep them away from the other prisoners. The security believed the political prisoners would influence the other prisoners. At the prison, the prisoners were categorized from A to D, and due to his transgressions, Mandela was ranked D, which allowed him the least amount of privileges. He was allowed to send and receive one letter in six months and have only one visitor. Winnie Mandela visited in 1965 and wasn’t allowed to visit again until December 1968. He eventually worked his way up the prison ranking system and was able to receive four visits a year, where his mother visited before her death in 1967.

He and other political prisoners were assigned work at the Lime Quarry where they dug limestone. The daily routine was to work eight hours a day breaking the limestone slate boulders into stone that was used to pave roads. The work was strenuous and unsafe since the glare from the white rocks caused impairment to the eyes.   

In 1982, Mandela and others were moved off Robben Island to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in a suburb of Cape Town, Tokai. Conditions were better here and he was allowed contact with his family. Due to the damp conditions at the jail, Mandela came down with tuberculosis in 1988 and as a result, he was admitted to the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town and spent six weeks recuperating. That following December he was transferred to the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, where he would stay for fourteen months before he was released from prison.

February 11, 1990, after 27 years behind bars, Nelson Mandela emerges from prison a free man; his release promised a new chapter in South Africa. The president at the time, F.W. de Klerk, helped dismantle the apartheid laws, including the removal of the ban on leading liberation organizations such as the Mandela delivered his first speech at the Cape Town’s City Hall on his release day. Mandela continued to immerse himself in politics, holding meetings and giving official talks and speeches. He was elected president of the ANC in 1991 in South Africa’s first non-racial election. Mandela and President de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their work towards abolishing apartheid.

May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president at the Union Building in Pretoria. The ceremony was televised internationally, while numerous people gathered to see in the inauguration speech. During his presidency, he worked towards rebuilding South Africa’s economy that was in crisis from the apartheid, as well as poverty, inequalities, unequal access to social services, and infrastructure.

At the end of one term, Mandela gave his last address to the South African nation and retired from active politics in February 1999. After leaving office, he continued to lend his efforts to humanitarian services. However, his health deteriorated and Mandela was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. Despite his prognosis, Mandela remained active. In 2009, on his 91st birthday, the United Nations declared July 18th, as Mandela Day, in recognition of his contribution to the culture of peace and freedom. In 2010, he moved back to his home in Qunu, Eastern Cape where he receives numerous visitors, including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, South Africa President Jacob Zuma, and ANC members. Mandela made a last public appearance at the World Cup final, at Johannesburg's Soccer City on July 11, 2010.

In March 2013, Mandela was admitted to the hospital for a lung infection. For the next months, he is in and out of the hospital and spends his 95th birthday there surrounded by love and support. Mandela passed away on December 10, 2013. South Africa was in deep mourning and self-reflection, and the nation observed this death for a period of 10 days. Numerous memorial services were conducted across the country. His legacy remains throughout South Africa and the world.