Nelson Mandela

The Amazing Life of South Africa's First Black President

Nelson Mandela in 2009.
Nelson Mandela (June 2, 2009).

Media24/Getty Images

Nelson Mandela was elected the first Black president of South Africa in 1994, following the first multiracial election in South Africa's history. Mandela was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990 for his role in fighting apartheid policies established by the ruling white minority. Revered by his people as a national symbol of the struggle for equality, Mandela is considered one of the 20th century's most influential political figures. He and South African Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their role in dismantling the apartheid system.

Dates: July 18, 1918—December 5, 2013

Also Known As: Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, Tata

Famous quote:  "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."


Nelson Rilihlahla Mandela was born in the village of Mveso, Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918 to Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa and Noqaphi Nosekeni, the third of Gadla's four wives. In Mandela's native language, Xhosa, Rolihlahla meant "troublemaker." The surname Mandela came from one of his grandfathers.

Mandela's father was a chief of the Thembu tribe in the Mvezo region, but served under the authority of the ruling British government. As a descendant of royalty, Mandela was expected to serve in his father's role when he came of age.

But when Mandela was only an infant, his father rebelled against the British government by refusing a mandatory appearance before the British magistrate. For this, he was stripped of his chieftaincy and his wealth, and forced to leave his home. Mandela and his three sisters moved with their mother back to her home village of Qunu. There, the family lived in more modest circumstances.

The family lived in mud huts and survived on the crops they grew and the cattle and sheep they raised. Mandela, along with the other village boys, worked herding sheep and cattle. He later recalled this as one of the happiest periods in his life. Many evenings, villagers sat around the fire, telling the children stories passed down through generations, of what life had been like before the white man had arrived.

From the mid-17th century, Europeans (first the Dutch and later the British) had arrived on South African soil and gradually taken control from the native South African tribes. The discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa in the 19th century had only tightened the grip that Europeans had on the nation.

By 1900, most of South Africa was under the control of Europeans. In 1910, the British colonies merged with the Boer (Dutch) republics to form the Union of South Africa, a part of the British Empire. Stripped of their homelands, many Africans were forced to work for white employers at low-paying jobs.

Young Nelson Mandela, living in his small village, did not yet feel the impact of centuries of domination by the white minority.

Mandela's Education

Although themselves uneducated, Mandela's parents wanted their son to go to school. At the age of seven, Mandela was enrolled in the local mission school. On the first day of class, each child was given an English first name; Rolihlahla was given the name "Nelson."

When he was nine years old, Mandela's father died. According to his father's last wishes, Mandela was sent to live in the Thembu capital, Mqhekezeweni, where he could continue his education under the guidance of another tribal chief, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Upon first seeing the chief's estate, Mandela marveled at his large home and beautiful gardens.

In Mqhekezeweni, Mandela attended another mission school and became a devout Methodist during his years with the Dalindyebo family. Mandela also attended tribal meetings with the chief, who taught him how a leader should conduct himself.

When Mandela was 16, he was sent to a boarding school in a town several hundred miles away. Upon his graduation in 1937 at the age of 19, Mandela enrolled in Healdtown, a Methodist college. An accomplished student, Mandela also became active in boxing, soccer, and long-distance running.

In 1939, after earning his certificate, Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts at the prestigious Fort Hare College, with a plan to ultimately attend law school. But Mandela did not complete his studies at Fort Hare; instead, he was expelled after participating in a student protest. He returned to the home of Chief Dalindyebo, where he was met with anger and disappointment.

Just weeks after his return home, Mandela received stunning news from the chief. Dalindyebo had arranged for both his son, Justice, and Nelson Mandela to marry women of his choosing. Neither young man would consent to an arranged marriage, so the two decided to flee to Johannesburg, the South African capital.

Desperate for money to finance their trip, Mandela and Justice stole two of the chief's oxen and sold them for train fare.

Move to Johannesburg

Arriving in Johannesburg in 1940, Mandela found the bustling city an exciting place. Soon, however, he was awakened to the injustice of the Black man's life in South Africa. Prior to moving to the capital, Mandela had lived mainly among other Blacks. But in Johannesburg, he saw the disparity between the races. Black residents lived in slum-like townships that had no electricity or running water; while whites lived grandly off the wealth of the gold mines.

Mandela moved in with a cousin and quickly found a job as a security guard. He was soon fired when his employers learned about his theft of the oxen and his escape from his benefactor.

Mandela's luck changed when he was introduced to Lazar Sidelsky, a liberal-minded white lawyer. After learning of Mandela's desire to become an attorney, Sidelsky, who ran a large law firm serving both Blacks and whites, offered to let Mandela work for him as a law clerk. Mandela gratefully accepted and took on the job at the age of 23, even as he worked to finish his BA via correspondence course.

Mandela rented a room in one of the local Black townships. He studied by candlelight each night and often walked the six miles to work and back because he lacked bus fare. Sidelsky supplied him with an old suit, which Mandela patched up and wore nearly every day for five years.

Committed to the Cause

In 1942, Mandela finally completed his BA and enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand as a part-time law student. At "Wits," he met several people who would work with him in the years to come for the cause of liberation.

In 1943, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that worked to improve conditions for Blacks in South Africa. That same year, Mandela marched in a successful bus boycott staged by thousands of residents of Johannesburg in protest of high bus fares.

As he grew more infuriated by racial inequalities, Mandela deepened his commitment to the struggle for liberation. He helped to form the Youth League, which sought to recruit younger members and transform the ANC into a more militant organization, one that would fight for equal rights. Under laws of the time, Africans were forbidden from owning land or houses in the towns, their wages were five times lower than those of whites, and none could vote.

In 1944, Mandela, 26, married nurse Evelyn Mase, 22, and they moved into a small rental home. The couple had a son, Madiba ("Thembi"), in February 1945, and a daughter, Makaziwe, in 1947. Their daughter died of meningitis as an infant. They welcomed another son, Makgatho, in 1950, and a second daughter, named Makaziwe after her late sister, in 1954.

Following the general elections of 1948 in which the white National Party claimed victory, the party's first official act was to establish apartheid. With this act, the long-held, haphazard system of segregation in South Africa became a formal, institutionalized policy, supported by laws and regulations.

The new policy would even determine, by race, which parts of town each group could live in. Blacks and whites were to be separated from each other in all aspects of life, including public transportation, in theaters and restaurants, and even on beaches.

The Defiance Campaign

Mandela completed his law studies in 1952 and, with partner Oliver Tambo, opened the first Black law practice in Johannesburg. The practice was busy from the start. Clients included Africans who suffered the injustices of racism, such as seizure of property by whites and beatings by the police. Despite facing hostility from white judges and lawyers, Mandela was a successful attorney. He had a dramatic, impassioned style in the courtroom.

During the 1950s, Mandela became more actively involved with the protest movement. He was elected president of the ANC Youth League in 1950. In June 1952, the ANC, along with Indians and "colored" (biracial) people—two other groups also targeted by discriminatory laws—began a period of nonviolent protest known as the "Defiance Campaign." Mandela spearheaded the campaign by recruiting, training, and organizing volunteers.

The campaign lasted six months, with cities and towns throughout South Africa participating. Volunteers defied the laws by entering areas meant for whites only. Several thousand were arrested in that six-month time, including Mandela and other ANC leaders. He and the other members of the group were found guilty of "statutory communism" and sentenced to nine months of hard labor, but the sentence was suspended.

The publicity garnered during the Defiance Campaign helped membership in the ANC soar to 100,000.

Arrested for Treason

The government twice "banned" Mandela, meaning that he could not attend public meetings, or even family gatherings, because of his involvement in the ANC. His 1953 banning lasted two years.

Mandela, along with others on the executive committee of the ANC, drew up the Freedom Charter in June 1955 and presented it during a special meeting called the Congress of the People. The charter called for equal rights for all, regardless of race, and the ability of all citizens to vote, own land, and hold decent-paying jobs. In essence, the charter called for a non-racial South Africa.

Months after the charter was presented, police raided the homes of hundreds of members of the ANC and arrested them. Mandela and 155 others were charged with high treason. They were released to await a trial date.

Mandela's marriage to Evelyn suffered from the strain of his long absences; they divorced in 1957 after 13 years of marriage. Through work, Mandela met Winnie Madikizela, a social worker who had sought his legal advice. They married in June 1958, just months before Mandela's trial began in August. Mandela was 39 years old, Winnie only 21. The trial would last three years; during that time, Winnie gave birth to two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa.

Sharpeville Massacre

The trial, whose venue was changed to Pretoria, moved at a snail's pace. The preliminary arraignment alone took a year; the actual trial didn't start until August 1959. Charges were dropped against all but 30 of the accused. Then, on March 21, 1960, the trial was interrupted by a national crisis.

In early March, another anti-apartheid group, the Pan African Congress (PAC) had held large demonstrations protesting strict "pass laws," which required Africans to carry identification papers with them at all times in order to be able to travel throughout the country. During one such protest in Sharpeville, police had opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing 69, and wounding more than 400. The shocking incident, which was universally condemned, was called the Sharpeville Massacre.

Mandela and other ANC leaders called for a national day of mourning, along with a stay at home strike. Hundreds of thousands participated in a mostly peaceful demonstration, but some rioting erupted. The South African government declared a national state of emergency and martial law was enacted. Mandela and his co-defendants were moved into prison cells, and both the ANC and PAC were officially banned.

The treason trial resumed on April 25, 1960 and lasted until March 29, 1961. To the surprise of many, the court dropped charges against all of the defendants, citing a lack of evidence proving that the defendants had planned to violently overthrow the government.

For many, it was cause for celebration, but Nelson Mandela had no time to celebrate. He was about to enter into a new—and dangerous—chapter in his life.

The Black Pimpernel

Prior to the verdict, the banned ANC had held an illegal meeting and decided that if Mandela was acquitted, he would go underground after the trial. He would operate clandestinely to give speeches and gather support for the liberation movement. A new organization, the National Action Council (NAC), was formed and Mandela named as its leader.

In accordance with the ANC plan, Mandela became a fugitive directly after the trial. He went into hiding at the first of several safe houses, most of them located in the Johannesburg area. Mandela stayed on the move, knowing that the police were looking everywhere for him.

Venturing out only at night, when he felt safest, Mandela dressed in disguises, such as a chauffeur or a chef. He made unannounced appearances, giving speeches at places that were presumed safe, and also made radio broadcasts. The press took to calling him "the Black Pimpernel," after the title character in the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel.

In October 1961, Mandela moved to a farm in Rivonia, outside of Johannesburg. He was safe for a time there and could even enjoy visits from Winnie and their daughters.

"Spear of the Nation"

In response to the government's increasingly violent treatment of protestors, Mandela developed a new arm of the ANC—a military unit that he named "Spear of the Nation," known also as MK. The MK would operate using a strategy of sabotage, targeting military installations, power facilities, and transportation links. Its goal was to damage property of the state, but not to harm individuals.

The MK's first attack came in December 1961, when they bombed an electric power station and empty government offices in Johannesburg. Weeks later, another set of bombings were carried out. White South Africans were startled into the realization that they could no longer take their safety for granted.

In January 1962, Mandela, who had never in his life been out of South Africa, was smuggled out of the country to attend a Pan-African conference. He hoped to get financial and military support from other African nations, but was not successful. In Ethiopia, Mandela received training in how to fire a gun and how to build small explosives.


After 16 months on the run, Mandela was captured on August 5, 1962, when the car he was driving was overtaken by police. He was arrested on charges of leaving the country illegally and inciting a strike. The trial began on October 15, 1962.

Refusing counsel, Mandela spoke on his own behalf. He used his time in court to denounce the government's immoral, discriminatory policies. Despite his impassioned speech, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Mandela was 44 years old when he entered Pretoria Local Prison.

Imprisoned in Pretoria for six months, Mandela was then taken to Robben Island, a bleak, isolated prison off the coast of Cape Town, in May 1963. After only a few weeks there, Mandela learned he was about to head back to court—this time on charges of sabotage. He would be charged along with several other members of MK, who had been arrested on the farm in Rivonia.

During the trial, Mandela admitted his role in the formation of MK. He emphasized his belief that the protestors were only working toward what they deserved—equal political rights. Mandela concluded his statement by saying that he was prepared to die for his cause.

Mandela and his seven co-defendants received guilty verdicts on June 11, 1964. They could have been sentenced to death for so serious a charge, but each was given life imprisonment. All of the men (except one white prisoner) were sent to Robben Island.

Life at Robben Island

At Robben Island, each prisoner had a small cell with a single light that stayed on 24 hours a day. Prisoners slept on the floor upon a thin mat. Meals consisted of cold porridge and an occasional vegetable or piece of meat (although Indian and Asian prisoners received more generous rations than their Black counterparts.) As a reminder of their lower status, Black prisoners wore short pants all year-round, whereas others were allowed to wear trousers.

Inmates spent nearly ten hours a day at hard labor, digging out rocks from a limestone quarry.

The hardships of prison life made it difficult to maintain one's dignity, but Mandela resolved not to be defeated by his imprisonment. He became the spokesperson and leader of the group, and was known by his clan name, "Madiba."

Over the years, Mandela led the prisoners in numerous protests—hunger strikes, food boycotts, and work slowdowns. He also demanded reading and study privileges. In most cases, the protests eventually yielded results.

Mandela suffered personal losses during his imprisonment. His mother died in January 1968 and his 25-year-old son Thembi died in a car accident the following year. A heartbroken Mandela was not allowed to attend either funeral.

In 1969, Mandela received word that his wife Winnie had been arrested on charges of communist activities. She spent 18 months in solitary confinement and was subjected to torture. The knowledge that Winnie had been imprisoned caused Mandela great distress.

"Free Mandela" Campaign

Throughout his imprisonment, Mandela remained the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, still inspiring his countrymen. Following a "Free Mandela" campaign in 1980 that attracted global attention, the government capitulated somewhat. In April 1982, Mandela and four other Rivonia prisoners were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. Mandela was 62 years old and had been at Robben Island for 19 years.

Conditions were much improved from those at Robben Island. Inmates were allowed to read newspapers, watch TV, and receive visitors. Mandela was given a lot of publicity, as the government wanted to prove to the world that he was being treated well.

In an effort to stem the violence and repair the failing economy, Prime Minister P.W. Botha announced on January 31, 1985 that he would release Nelson Mandela if Mandela agreed to renounce violent demonstrations. But Mandela refused any offer that was not unconditional.

In December 1988, Mandela was transferred to a private residence at the Victor Verster prison outside Cape Town and later brought in for secret negotiations with the government. Little was accomplished, however, until Botha resigned from his position in August 1989, forced out by his cabinet. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, was ready to negotiate for peace. He was willing to meet with Mandela.

Freedom at Last

At Mandela's urging, de Klerk released Mandela's fellow political prisoners without condition in October 1989. Mandela and de Klerk had long discussions about the illegal status of the ANC and other opposition groups, but came to no specific agreement. Then, on February 2, 1990, de Klerk made an announcement that stunned Mandela and all of South Africa.

De Klerk enacted a number of sweeping reforms, lifting the bans on the ANC, the PAC, and the Communist Party, among others. He lifted the restrictions still in place from the 1986 state of emergency and ordered the release of all nonviolent political prisoners.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was given an unconditional release from prison. After 27 years in custody, he was a free man at the age of 71. Mandela was welcomed home by thousands of people cheering in the streets.

Soon after his return home, Mandela learned that his wife Winnie had fallen in love with another man in his absence. The Mandelas separated in April 1992 and later divorced.

Mandela knew that despite the impressive changes that had been made, there was still much work to be done. He returned immediately to working for the ANC, traveling across South Africa to speak with various groups and to serve as a negotiator for further reforms.

In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their joint effort to bring about peace in South Africa.

President Mandela

On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first election in which Blacks were allowed to vote. The ANC won 63 percent of the votes, a majority in Parliament. Nelson Mandela—only four years after his release from prison—was elected the first Black president of South Africa. Nearly three centuries of white domination had ended.

Mandela visited many Western nations in an attempt to convince leaders to work with the new government in South Africa. He also made efforts to help bring about peace in several African nations, including Botswana, Uganda, and Libya. Mandela soon earned the admiration and respect of many outside of South Africa.

During Mandela's term, he addressed the need for housing, running water, and electricity for all South Africans. The government also returned land to those it had been taken from, and made it legal again for Blacks to own land.

In 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel on his eightieth birthday. Machel, 52 years old, was the widow of a former president of Mozambique.

Nelson Mandela did not seek re-election in 1999. He was replaced by his Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela retired to his mother's village of Qunu, Transkei.

Mandela became involved in raising funds for HIV/AIDS, an epidemic in Africa. He organized the AIDS benefit "46664 Concert" in 2003, so named after his prison ID number. In 2005, Mandela's own son, Makgatho, died of AIDS at the age of 44.

In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly designated July 18, Mandela's birthday, as Nelson Mandela International Day. Nelson Mandela died at his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. 

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Daniels, Patricia E. "Nelson Mandela." ThoughtCo, Mar. 8, 2022, Daniels, Patricia E. (2022, March 8). Nelson Mandela. Retrieved from Daniels, Patricia E. "Nelson Mandela." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).