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Biography of Nelson Mandela

Renuka Savant Mar 20, 2020
As a revolutionary and guerrilla leader who went on to spearhead a peaceful movement to free his country, the story of Nelson Mandela represents a nation's persistent struggle against discrimination. Here's more about this revered statesman.

Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Born: July 18, 1918

Death: December 5, 2013

Nationality: South African

Noqaphi Nosekeni and
Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Henry
Evelyn Ntoko Mase
(1944-1957; divorced);
Winnie Madikizela
(1958-1996; divorced);
Graça Machel
(1998-2013; his death)

Madiba Thembekile Mandela
Makaziwe Mandela
Makgatho Mandela
Pumla Makaziwe Mandela
Zenani Mandela
Zindziswa Mandela
Order of Merit
Order of Australia
Order of Jamaica
Venerable Order of Saint John
Queen's Counsel
Order of Prince Henry
Bharat Ratna
Royal Order of the Seraphim
Member Of:
African National Congress (ANC)

Offices held:
★ The President of South Africa
10 May 1994 - 14 June 1999
★ 19th Secretary General of Non-Aligned Movement
2 September 1998 - 14 June 1999
Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a former South African anti-apartheid revolutionary was the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the nation's first democratically elected black President.
Mr. Mandela was an African nationalist and democratic socialist who served as the President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997. He was also the Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.
After being imprisoned for 27 years, Mr. Mandela went on to become South Africa's first democratically elected President. His life's journey has been momentous, to say the least, and fetched international attention to the long-winding struggle of an entire nation against inequality and oppression.
His magnetic personality, accompanied by his charming wit and an attitude that was completely devoid of any animosity against his oppressors is what made Nelson Mandela the icon that he was, and perhaps will always be.
The world choose to call him a warrior, a messenger of peace, a master negotiator, but as humble as Mr. Mandela was, he wanted to be known only as a politician.
Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95, in Johannesburg, following a prolonged illness. His death invited glowing tributes from world leaders, who joined millions of Mandela's followers and admirers in mourning the loss of South Africa's greatest anti-apartheid hero.

Early Life

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo, a hamlet close to Mthatha in the Transkei region of South Africa on July 18, 1918, to Noqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela. Mandela's father was the chieftain of the Thembu people.
Mandela's given name, Rolihlahla literally means 'pulling the branches of a tree', but its colloquial interpretation suggests 'mischief monger', not unlike the young Nelson himself. Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Paramount Chief took young Mandela under his wing after he lost his father at a tender age.
Mandela grew up listening to inspiring stories of his ancestors' age-old struggle during the clan wars and yearned to be a part of his country's battle against oppression.
Mandela was one of the earliest person in his clan to be formally educated. He was enrolled in mission school where he was given the English name, Nelson. Mandela completed his Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Africa in 1942 and began to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand.
He couldn't keep himself from entering politics for long and became a part of the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943. In 1944, Anton Lembede brought together a bunch of eager youngsters to launch a more radical wing within the otherwise passive ANC.
Mandela was a part of this rebel clique that was given the task of moving away from the old-school policies that were in line with the traditionalist leaders of the ANC. This group went on to become the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL).


The year 1948 saw the victory of the Afrikaner-led National Party which advocated racial segregation. This government brought in the system of apartheid, with the idea of keeping the people of different races apart.
In retaliation, the ANC launched a Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, and Mr. Mandela was elected the National Volunteer-in-Chief. His job was to travel across South Africa to raise awareness against the system that promoted discrimination.
In the same year (1952), he opened a law firm in Johannesburg along with Oliver Tambo, exclusively for the black people, after having cleared the Attorneys Admission Exam. The autocratic regime did not spare them and they were asked to move their practice to the outskirts, which was just another way that the government used to force them to shut shop.
Throughout the fifties, Mr. Mandela underwent several trials, including a five-year ban in 1956. He reflected upon this period as the most transforming―it was during this time that his attitude towards the atrocities began to change. He had stopped being submissive and decided that it was time to bring about a radical change.

Treason Trial and Beyond

Mr. Mandela was one of the 156 accused in the Treason Trial that went on from 1956 to 1961. The ANC was declared illegal in 1961, around the same time that the government was gearing to turn the country into a republic.
The outlawed ANC went underground and organized an All-African Conference in Pietermaritzburg, where Mr. Mandela gave a rousing speech on the importance of a democratic constitution and urged the people of South Africa to defy the government with a mass strike.
However, the government brought in the military to crack down on any sign of rebellion and the Republic of South Africa came into being.

The Black Pimpernel

Mr. Mandela was on the run, trying to escape from the authorities, and he found enterprising ways to keep in touch with his family.
At times he turned up as a chauffeur, and other times as a laborer, successfully dodging the police as well as their numerous informers. He became a master of disguises and traveled across the country, choosing to live among his steadily swelling number of supporters. This was when the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) movement began its armed rebellion.
Later, at the Rivonia Trial, Mr. Mandela attributed the violent turn of events to the government's high-handedness. Considering the government's rampant use of force to curb the voices of the citizens, the formation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe was inevitable.
Years of peaceful protests had yielded the ANC nothing and the time had come for the people of South Africa to make themselves heard over the chaos.

Prisoner 466/64 on Robben Island

Being on the government's hit list, Mr. Mandela had taken to traveling out of the country under a fake identity, for which he was arrested and charged. Mr. Mandela decided to put up his own defense, as the prosecution composed entirely of whites, which he thought would be prejudiced.
It was also intentioned to be a snub to the laws made by an all-white government that had no representation from the majority of the African population. All those accused at the Rivonia Trial took this as a perfect opportunity to get the international community's attention to the partisan rule of the South African government.
In fact, Mr. Mandela, along with Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki had decided against appealing, even if a death sentence was passed. The following statement made by Mr. Mandela as an under-trial stands out as the most definitive stance against apartheid.
"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."
Not surprisingly, Mr. Mandela was found guilty and sent to prison for life on June 12, 1964. It would take him a little over 27 years to walk out as a free man.


Having rejected two opportunities to get out of prison, Mr. Mandela began talks with the government, insisting that any negotiations would only be possible if the ban on the ANC was reversed completely. On February 2, 1990, President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, and declared that Mr. Mandela would be set free.
In a televised event broadcast all over the world, Mr. Mandela was released from the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on February 11, 1990.
Multi-party negotiations took place in South Africa for the first time ever, but it would take another four years before apartheid officially ended in the country. Elections took place on April 27, 1994; and on May 10, 1994, Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became the first President of a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist Republic of South Africa.
As President, the first task he took up was that of solving the housing crises that plagued the population of his country. His government further concentrated on health care measures, compulsory school education, pension grants, etc. He completed a term before handing over the reigns to his able deputy, Mr. Thabo Mbeki in 1999 and retired from public life.

Personal Life

It was around 1944 that Mr. Mandela met the woman who was to become his first wife. Evelyn Mase and Nelson Mandela got married in 1944 and had four children together - two sons: Thembekile (1946-1969) and Makgatho (1951-2005) and two daughters: Makaziwe (1947 - who died at nine months) and Pumla Makaziwe (1954 - ).
Their long-distance marriage did not survive for long, mostly due to Mr. Mandela's unwavering commitment to the independence struggle. They eventually divorced in 1958. Evelyn Mase passed away in 2005.
He married Winifred Nomzamo Zanyiwe Madikizela (Winne Mandela) after his divorce and the couple had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa. Their marriage crumbled under political pressures and they finally divorced in 1996.
Mr. Mandela married Graça Machel on his 80th birthday in 1998 and maintained a house in his hometown of Qunu. Post-retirement, his health had been a major cause of concern among his well wishers worldwide as his public appearances kept on dwindling.
His presence at the 2010 FIFA World Cup closing ceremony in South Africa, which was to be his last official public appearance was welcomed by a thunderous applause from his countrymen.


★ Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

★ He received the Order of Merit and a Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St. John from Queen Elizabeth II.

★ He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.
★ He was the first living person to be made an honorary citizen of Canada, and was also made an honorary Companion of the Order of Canada.

★ In 1990, the Indian government honored him with the Bharat Ratna, the country's highest civilian award.
★ He also received the last ever Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet government.

★ He received the Nishan-e-Pakistan award in 1992.

★ The United Nations General Assembly announced in 2009 that Mr. Mandela's birthday on July 18 would henceforth be celebrated as Mandela Day.
Today, South Africa is plagued by the triumvirate of high crime rates, unemployment, and AIDS. However, the unification of people belonging to various ethnic backgrounds under a truly non-racial government is for the world to see.
It is true that an entire country cannot reform itself at the press of a button, but the fact that the South Africans are in charge of their fate today can be solely attributed to the person who started it all―Mr. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.