10 Interesting Facts About Nelson Mandela

What You Didn't Know About the Anti-Apartheid Icon

Nelson and Winnie Mandela Holding Key
Jacques M. Chenet / Getty Images

Nelson Mandela will forever be remembered for the key role he played in dismantling South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. The activist and politician, who died on Dec. 5, 2013, at the age of 95, became an international symbol of peace and tolerance.

While Mandela is a household name across the globe and he's been immortalized in motion pictures documentaries and books, many aspects of his life aren’t particularly well known to the American public. This list of interesting facts about Mandela’s life help to illuminate Mandela, the man. Discover the impact his father’s death from lung cancer had on him as a youth or why Mandela, a good student in spite of his humble origins, was expelled from university.

  1. Born July 18, 1918, Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela. According to Biography.com, “Rolihlahla” is often translated as “troublemaker” in the Xhosa language, but strictly translated, the word means “pulling the branch of a tree.” In grade school, a teacher gave Mandela the Western first name of “Nelson.”
  2. The death of Mandela’s father from lung cancer was a huge turning point in his life. It resulted in the then 9-year-old’s adoption by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo of the Thembu people, which resulted in Mandela leaving the small village he’d grown up in, Qunu, to travel to the chief’s palatial home in Thembuland. The adoption also allowed Mandela to pursue his education at institutions such as the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College. Mandela, the first in his family to attend school, proved not only to be a good student, but also a good boxer and track runner.
  3. Mandela pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare but was expelled from the institution because of his role in student activism. This news upset Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who ordered Mandela to return to school and renounce his actions. The chief also threatened Mandela with an arranged marriage, causing him to flee to Johannesburg with his cousin and pursue a career on his own.
  4. Mandela suffered the losses of two close family members while imprisoned. His mother died in 1968 and his eldest son, Thembi, died the following year. Mandela wasn’t permitted to pay his respects at their funerals.
  5. Although many people associate Mandela with his ex-wife Winnie, Mandela actually married three times. His first marriage, in 1944, was to a nurse named Evelyn Mase, with whom he fathered two sons and two daughters. One daughter died as a baby. Mandela and Mase split in 1955, formally divorcing three years later. Mandela married social worker Winnie Madikizela in 1958, fathering two daughters with her. They divorced six years after Mandela’s release from prison for his anti-apartheid activism. When he turned 80 years old in 1998, Mandela married his last wife, Graça Machel.
  6. While in prison from 1962 to 1990, Mandela wrote a secret autobiography. The contents of his prison writings were published as a book called Long Walk to Freedom in 1994.
  7. Mandela reportedly received at least three offers to be set free from prison. However, he declined each time because he was offered his freedom on the condition that he reject his earlier activism in some way.
  8. Mandela voted the first time ever in 1994. On May 10 of that year, Mandela became South Africa’s first black elected president. He was 77 at the time.
  9. Mandela not only fought against racial apartheid but also raised awareness about AIDS, a virus that has ravaged scores of Africans. Mandela’s own son, Makgatho, died from complications of the virus in 2005.
  10. Four years before Mandela’s death, South Africa would observe a holiday in the activist’s honor. Mandela Day, celebrated on his birthday, July 18, marks a time for people in and outside of South Africa to serve charitable groups and to work towards world peace.
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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "10 Interesting Facts About Nelson Mandela." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/interesting-facts-about-nelson-mandela-2834900. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2020, August 27). 10 Interesting Facts About Nelson Mandela. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/interesting-facts-about-nelson-mandela-2834900 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "10 Interesting Facts About Nelson Mandela." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/interesting-facts-about-nelson-mandela-2834900 (accessed January 23, 2021).