Nelson Mandela Biography – The Life of Nelson Mandela

 Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008.
Nelson Mandela, 2008.
Credit: South Africa The Good News // CC BY 2.0

Rolihlahla ‘Nelson’ Mandela is a man of many titles, a revolutionary, the first Black President of South Africa, a philanthropist, and a social rights activist. He is immortalized forever as one of the most iconic revolutionaries of the 20th century. A man recognized for his perseverance in the face of severe oppression, he was one of the foremost figures leading the charge against Apartheid in South Africa. He was imprisoned for 28 years, becoming a global icon in the process. He has received more than 200 awards in his life but most notably he is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Mandela was so extraordinary that the UN declared 18 July Nelson Mandela International Day in 2010, and announced the Nelson Mandela prize to be awarded to those who dedicated their lives to the services of humanity. 

Nelson Mandela’s Early Life

Nelson Mandela in Umtata at the age of 19.
Young Nelson Mandela, 1937.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Rolihlahla was born into the Royal House of the Thembu Kingdom, in the remote village of Mvezo in Umtata on 18 July 1918. His great-grandfather was the ruler of the Thembu Kingdom, but Mandela was not in the direct line of succession. In Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela famously acknowledges that “Apart from life, a strong constitution and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name”. Rolihlahla translates to “troublemaker”, and that was indeed what he grew up to become, at least, for the Apartheid leaders of South Africa. His parents, though illiterate themselves, sent Rolihlahla to a local Methodist school where his English teacher gave him the name Nelson. Emulating the custom for African children to get English names to make it easier for the British colonials to identify them by a name more familiar to them. Although, as was typical in the Apartheid Regime where most people with black skin could never make it to college, Nelson Mandela through his royal blood and connections got access to Fort Hare, the only university in the entire country for Black people. In 1939, he enrolled at the university to study law and also enrolled in courses studying anthropology, politics, English, Roman-Dutch Law, and native administration. While at Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela met many other future anti-apartheid leaders like Oliver Tambo and Kaiser Matanzima. This is also where Mandela got his first taste of politics, participating in a student protest over the poor quality of food and ultimately getting expelled for his role in the protest. He later relocated to Johannesburg and completed his BA at the University of South Africa. 

The Journey towards Activism

Nelson Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn, in 1944.
Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase on their wedding day, 1944.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While still in Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela was introduced to a future African National Congress (ANC) leader Walter Sisulu. And in Johannesburg, while completing his BA degree, he joined a Jewish Legal firm by the name of Witkin, Sidelsky, and Edelman. Later in 1944, Mandela married his first wife Evelyn Mase (Sisulu’s cousin) and he had 4 children with her. This is coincidentally also the time when Mandela first entered the world of politics by joining the African National Congress. In 1948, the exclusively Afrikaner Nationalist Party (NP) won the general election, it is important to note here that the election exclusively had white candidates participating in the elections. They soon introduced new legislation that institutionalized and codified racial segregation, dividing even further an already fractured South-African nation. The ANC, with Nelson Mandela one of the many leaders leading the charge, proposed a plan of mass protest called the Programme of Action. This plan aimed to conduct non-violent strikes, boycotts, and other similar actions to protest the racist policies introduced by the NP. This movement would then lay down the groundwork for future activism that Mandela would be involved in. 

These non-violent protests and demonstrations would become the norm for the ANC over the following years as they would constantly oppose various forms of legislation that the NP would introduce, culminating in 1952 with the Defiance Campaign, where Nelson Mandela and several other prominent ANC leaders, along with 8000 people would be arrested for actively encouraging greater protests against the South African Government. They were jailed for violating curfews, refusing to carry identification passes, and other such offenses. The protests would only result in more violent action by the Apartheid government in response, leading to common instances of voter suppression, attacking protestors, and police brutality against Black civilians in the country. By 1955, Nelson Mandela steadily grew convinced that the only way to respond to the violence of the apartheid violence was with violence, abandoning the stance initially adopted by some Gandhians and Liberal Nationalists in the party such as the president of the ANC Albert Lutuli. Although, even at this point, Nelson Mandela and other leaders of the ANC acknowledged that even though violence could be the answer, and would also be fair – in principle, they recognized that the overwhelming strength of the state apparatus under the control of a racist regime that was not opposed to the idea of brutally suppressing dissent could have disastrous consequences for minorities in South Africa. So, while passively acknowledging the need to be prepared for violence, Mandela and the ANC continued preaching pacifism and non-violence in public gatherings and speeches. 

The Freedom Charter and Nelson Mandela’s Imprisonment

By 1955, the ANC had become a movement allied with other white and Indian movements in the country. Together this coalition of political parties and freedom groups adopted the Freedom Charter. By 1956, Mandela along with 155 other leaders of the African National Congress was arrested and put on trial for high treason. The accused faced charges of being involved in a violent coup of the current government to establish a communist state. They viewed the close ties of the ANC with the Soviet Union and China along with the Freedom Charter’s demand for an end to racial discrimination and the granting of equal rights to all as the formation of a classless communist society. Nelson Mandela was left out on bail close to two weeks later, but the trial continued until his eventual acquittal in 1961. During his trial, he met and married Winnie Madikizela in 1958, and together they had two children. On March 21, 1960, however, the Apartheid regime opened fire on a group of people protesting oppressive laws, killing 69 people.  This became known as the Sharpeville massacre and is remembered all around the world as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. After the Sharpeville massacre, there was a split in the ANC, with Nelson Mandela breaking away from Congress to form an independent organization “Spear of the Nation” abbreviated as MK under the ANC for violent resistance against the Apartheid regime. 

The Rivonia Trial and the 28 Years in Prison

people attending a Free Mandela protest in 1986
Free Mandela Protest in East Berlin, 1986.
Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1986-0920-016 // CC-BY-SA 3.0

In 1962, Nelson Mandela was captured by South African Police and charged with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission. He had left in 1962 to attend the meeting of the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central, and Southern Africa in Ethiopia. Donald Rickard, a former US vice-consul in Durban admitted that it was the CIA that tipped off the South African government about Mandela’s whereabouts, although this is still unconfirmed by the CIA. During this trial, an MK hideout was raided where paperwork documenting MK’s activities was discovered and over the next 2 years, Nelson Mandela was deemed guilty on charges of having plans to sabotage the government and initiating guerilla war against the state. This is when Nelson Mandela gave his historic 3-hour speech “I am prepared to Die”. Mandela was eventually found guilty and spent 28 years in prison. This speech, however, was heard around the world and led to widespread condemnation of the apartheid regime and a lot of support for Nelson Mandela. Despite this speech, however, Mandela would be jailed and would stay in jail until 1990, by the time he was released, Mandela was 72. 

Release from Prison, the Nelson Mandela Presidency, and Legacy

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992
Nelson Mandela shakes hands with F. W. de Klerk, 1992.
Credit: World Economic Forum // CC BY-SA 2.0

It was not until 1990 that Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison. He had rejected several conditional offers (asking him to stop resisting the apartheid government) of freedom and eventually served 28 years as a symbol of resolute strength, standing firm in the face of continued, senseless violence by the apartheid state. In the period after he was freed up until 1994 when there were finally general elections, apartheid rule gradually came to an end. After an immense struggle for more than 40 years, Nelson Mandela succeeded in dismantling the apartheid government that had oppressed his people for so long. As President, he instituted a historic Commission aimed at helping reduce tensions among the white and black populations of South Africa. He accepted the Nobel Peace prize in 1994 for his efforts in eliminating the apartheid rule in South Africa. He has his own autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” and has two authorized biographies titled Higher than Hope by Fatima Meer and Anthony Sampson’s Mandela, along with a few other biographies. He was immortalized in Invictus played by the legendary Morgan Freeman and was also the subject of the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. There are also two documentaries Mandela and The 16th Man that have Mandela as the main focus. 
Nelson Mandela, although a controversial figure throughout much of his life, is now rightly remembered as one of the greatest humanitarians of the 20th century. He is rightly called the “Father of the Nation” in South Africa for bringing democracy to South Africa. 


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