Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, world leader and citizen of Johannesburg, was the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election.
He was the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.

What follows, is a fairly detailed biography - with a few pictures, and a link to one of his speeches as well as one to a few of his quotes.

Although born in what was then the Transkei, he came to Johannesburg as a young man, and it was here that he continued his studies, opened the country’s first black law firm and got involved in politics.

During the years leading up to his becoming president, he was an anti-apartheid activist, and the leader of the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) - Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Affectionate graffiti alongside a photo of Nelson Mandela casting his vote.
Affectionate graffiti, alongside a photo of Nelson Mandela casting his vote

He stood trial, but found not guilty of treason after having participated in boycotts, organized protests and mobilizing his people.

In 1962 he was banned from political involvement, disbarred, and sentenced to life in prison after being arrested and convicted of sabotage and other charges.

Mandela was released from prison on 11 February 1990, having spent most of his 27 years behind bars on Robben Island, which is a 5 km² island in Table Bay, seven kilometers off the coast of Cape Town, which had been used as a penal colony for centuries.
Robben is a Dutch word for 'seal'.

The Early Years

He was born Rolihlahla, which ironically translates as "to pull a branch of a tree" or more colloquially, "troublemaker", on the 18th July 1918 of the Madiba clan, in the small village of Mvezo in what is now the Eastern Cape in the then Union of South Africa.

He is of Khoisan ancestry on his mother's side, and Xhosa royalty on his father’s side.

His paternal great-grandfather was king of the Thembu people.

His grandfather, a son of the king by a wife whose children would not be eligible to succeed to the Thembu throne, was named Mandela.

It’s from his grandfather’s name that the surname Mandela originated.

Mandela’s father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, served as chief of the town of Mvezo, but after alienating the colonial authorities, he was stripped of this position, and the family was moved to Qunu.

It was here in Qunu, north of Mvezo, that the five year old Mandela became a herd-boy, looking after sheep and cattle, and where he learnt to sling–shot, stick–fight and gather honey and fruits.
Despite this move, his father remained on the committee of the king's closest advisors, and was involved in Jongintaba Dalindyebo's ascension to the Thembu throne.

At seven years old, Rolihlahla, the first member of his family to attend school, and was given his English name ‘Nelson’, by one of his mission school teachers.
It was widespread at these private schools or mission stations that children were given English names as European teachers could not pronounce or remember the names of the black children.

After his father died of tuberculosis, his mother moved him to Mqhekezweni, where he attended the Wesleyan mission school near to the palace.

It was here that the Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo informally adopted the nine year old and became his guardian.

It was in and around this royal household that Nelson Mandela spent much of his childhood, and it was in this royal household where he would be groomed for high office.

He attended church and listened to chiefs and councilmen holding tribal meetings, and it was these instances that came before the Chief's court, that influenced him in later life.

After his Thembu customary initiation at the age of sixteen, Nelson Mandela attended the Clarkebury Boarding Institute in the district of Encobo, where he completed his Junior Certificate.

In 1937 at the age of nineteen, he moved to the Wesleyan college, Healdtown, in Fort Beaufort, which most of the Thembu royalty attended.

It was here where he first took an interest in boxing and running.

After matriculating at Healdtown, he enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare to study for a Bachelor of Arts degree, and was elected onto the Student's Representative Council.

Nelson Mandela met Oliver Tambo, who would become a lifelong friend and colleague, and also became close friends with Kaiser Matanzima, his nephew by law and custom, and first in line to the throne of Transkei.

This friendship was later challenged when Matanzima embraced the nationalist Government’s Bantustan policies, which put himself and Mandela at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

At the end of Nelson Mandela’s first year of study, he became involved in a Students' Representative Council boycott against university policies, and along with Oliver Tambo, was expelled.

Shortly after leaving Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela was told that Chief Jongintaba had organized an arranged marriage for him, and being unhappy with this, left for Johannesburg.

Once in Johannesburg, Mandela lived in Alexandra Township, and found work as a guard on a mine, but this was terminated once his employer found out about his “runaway” status!

He was then employed as an articled clerk at a Johannesburg law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman.

It was whilst working at Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman, that Mandela completed his B.A. degree at the University of South Africa, via correspondence.

This followed with him enrolling for an LLB at the University of Witwatersrand and where he first befriended fellow students and future anti-apartheid political activists, Joe Slovo, Harry Schwarz and Ruth First.

Slovo would, in Mandela’s government, become Minister of Housing, and Schwarz, the Ambassador to Washington.

Nelson Mandela, along with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, was a founding member of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in 1944
It was during these early days in Johannesburg, that Mandela lived in Alexandra township, north of Johannesburg.


In the 1948 election, the pro-Apartheid stance of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party swept them to power by a narrow majority of only eight seats, despite their loss of the popular vote by 620,682 votes to 462,332!

It was after this result that Nelson Mandela began to actively participate in politics.

In 1949 The Programme of Action (PoA), which was an attempt to make the ANC more militant and appeal to the mass of uneducated and unskilled workers, was adopted.

The PoA called on the ANC to initiate a campaign of mass action and called for strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts and other manners of non-violent resistance.

In 1952 a Joint Planning Committee composed of representatives from the ANC and the South African Indian Congress appointed Nelson Mandela as ‘volunteer in chief’, and Ismael Cachalia, an Indian, as deputy, to lead the Defiance Campaign disobedience.

It was during this time that Mandela, with his friend and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo, set up South Africa’s first black legal partnership of Mandela and Tambo, providing free or low-cost legal counsel to many blacks who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford representation.
In 1952, more than 8,500 people were imprisoned for peacefully refusing to obey apartheid laws during the Campaign of Defiance of Unjust Laws, which carried on into 1953, and attracted a large number of volunteers who joined and disobeyed the laws.

A painted wall mural of Nelson Mandela in Soweto.
A painted wall mural of Nelson Mandela in Soweto

Nelson Mandela was also involved in the Congress Alliance, which was formed to organise the Congress of the People in 1955.

The intention was to gather the wishes of the people for an apartheid-free South Africa - a South Africa that would be free from State oppression and exploitation.

What transpired was unique and had never been done before.

The Freedom Charter, which today forms the backbone of the South African constitution, was endorsed at a mass rally held at Kliptown, Soweto, on June 26th 1955.

This was however regarded as a communist document by the Government, and on 5 December 1956, Nelson Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason, despite, at that stage, being committed to non-violent resistance.

The Treason Trial, which lasted a marathon five years, ended in 1961, with every single defendant being acquitted!

Armed Resistance

On 21 March 1960, South African police opened fire on hundreds of residents outside a police station in Sharpeville, who were peacefully demonstrating against the pass laws.

69 were killed and hundreds injured.

What became known as the Sharpeville Massacre, signaled the start of armed resistance in South Africa.

The following year, after the Government stifled a planned stay-at-home strike, Nelson Mandela, despite being strongly influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s approach of non-violence or satyagraha, co-founded and became leader of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), translated as Spear of the Nation.

A painting of Nelson Mandela, in ANC colours, on a wall in Soweto.
A painting of Nelson Mandela, in ANC colours, on a wall in Soweto

He co-coordinated sabotage campaigns against military and government targets - initially avoiding civilians, but later, and most often in the 1980s, MK waged a guerrilla war in which many became casualties.

In the 1990’s, Mandela did admit that the ANC in its struggle against apartheid, violated those same human rights it was trying to defend, and sharply criticised those in the party who attempted to hide this from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As members of a designated terrorist group, Mandela and ANC party members, were barred from entering the United States, up until July 2008, without a special waiver from the US Secretary of State.
They were however allowed to visit the United Nations headquarters in Manhattan.

Arrest and Rivonia trial

On 5 August 1962 Nelson Mandela was arrested after being on the run for seventeen months, after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) shared information with the South African security police of Mandela's disguise and whereabouts.

He was held in the Johannesburg Fort, when charged with leading workers to strike in 1961, and leaving the country illegally during a court appearance on 8th August 1962.

Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison on 25 October 1962.

Whilst serving this sentence, security police raided the secret ‘headquarters’ of the ANC, Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, and arrested 19 high ranking leaders of the organisation.

During the raid, police found documents incriminating Mandela, and he, along with nine others, were charged by the chief prosecutor Dr. Percy Yutar, in what was known as the Rivonia Trial, with :

  i : recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerrilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage

  ii : conspiring to commit the aforementioned acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the Republic

  iii : behaving in a manner to further the objects of communism, and

  iv : arranging and accepting money for these purposes from sympathizers in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere.

Nelson Mandela admitted to the charges of sabotage, but denied the charge of plotting a foreign invasion of South Africa.

In his statement from the dock at the opening of the defense in the Supreme Court on 20 April 1964, Mandela spelt out the reasoning in the ANC's choice to turn to violence.

He explained how the ANC had used peaceful means to resist apartheid for years - until the Sharpeville Massacre.

That event, in addition to the referendum to establish South Africa as a Republic plus the declaration of a state of emergency along with the banning of the ANC, made it clear to Mandela and the leadership that their only available avenue of resistance was through acts of sabotage.

Doing otherwise would have been synonymous with unconditional surrender.

Nelson Mandela went on to explain how the Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe, set out on the 16 December 1961, was intended to threaten the Nationalist Party policies, by creating an unstable economic environment, and so create a risk for foreign investors investing in the country.

He closed his statement with these words: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. 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."
Mandela, along with eight others, were, on 12 June 1964, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.


He, with the others, was incarcerated on Robben Island, and held there for the next eighteen years under very basic conditions.

Race was used to segregate prisoners, as well as determine their food allocation. Black prisoners received the smallest rations.

Political prisoners were separated from ordinary criminals and were given fewer benefits.

Mandela was a D-group prisoner (the lowest classification), and as such was allowed one visitor and one letter every six months.

Letters, when he got them, were often delayed for long periods and made unreadable by the prison censors.

Whilst in jail, his reputation grew, and he became widely known as the most significant black leader in South Africa.

In prison, Mandela studied for and completed his Bachelor of Laws via correspondence through the External Programme of the University of London

In March 1982 Mandela, along with other senior ANC leaders Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni, was transferred from Robben Island to the maximum security Pollsmoor Prison, in the residential suburb of Tokai in Cape Town.

Speculation was that this was to remove the influence of these senior leaders on the new generation of young black activists imprisoned on Robben Island - the so-called "Mandela University".

National Party minister Kobie Coetsee refuted this, saying the move was to enable discreet contact between the ANC and the South African government.

In February 1985, President P.W. Botha offered freedom to Mandela, on condition that he 'unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon'.

Mandela, as predicted, snubbed the offer, releasing a statement via his daughter Zindzi saying "What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts."

The first meeting between Mandela and the National Party government was in November 1985 when Kobie Coetsee met Mandela in Volks Hospital in Cape Town, where Mandela was recovering from prostate surgery.

Groundwork for further contact and future negotiations was made during meetings over the next four years, but little else materialised.

In 1988 Mandela was moved to Victor Verster Prison, a low security prison on the mainland near Paarl, where restrictions on certain visits were lifted.

President P.W. Botha had a stroke in 1989, and was replaced as president by F W de Klerk, who announced Mandela's release in February 1990.
During his imprisonment on Robben Island and later at Pollsmoor prison, Nelson Mandela was visited several times by delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and mentioned this about these visits : "…to me personally, and those who shared the experience of being political prisoners, the Red Cross was a beacon of humanity within the dark inhumane world of political imprisonment."


The Nationalist Government reversed its ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations, and on 2 February 1990, State President FW de Klerk announced Mandela’s impending release.
He was released just over a week later, when on 11th February 1990, seen by the world on a live TV broadcast, Nelson Mandela walked free from the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl.

The entrance to the Mandela Home Museum in Soweto.
The entrance to the Mandela Home Museum in Soweto

Now free, he returned to the leadership of the ANC and, between 1990 and 1994, led the party in the multi-party negotiations that resulted in the country's first multi-racial elections.

On the 27 April 1994, the ANC won 62% of the votes in the country’s first democratic election, and Nelson Mandela, as leader of the ANC, was inaugurated as President on 10 May 1994 as the country's first black President.

He stood for one term of office, and at the age of 80 years old, retired from a life of politics.

In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held on South African soil after its unbanning, Mandela was elected President and Oliver Tambo, a colleague and close friend who held the movement together in exile during Mandela's imprisonment, was elected National Chairperson.

Nelson Mandela lived in the gracious, established Johannesburg suburb of Houghton Estate


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed away on the 5th December 2013.
He had been treated for a lung condition in the Medi-Clinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, but died at his home, surrounded by family at 8.50pm (6.50pm GMT), on Thursday 5th December 2013.

South Africa observed 10 days of mourning, and before being laid to rest at his traditional family farm near Qunu in the Eastern Cape (Transkei) on Sunday December 15th 2013, his body lay in state for three days at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

He was 95 years old.

Hamba kahle Tata!

Page uploaded : 9th June 2011
Page updated : 5th December 2013

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