South African Biographies: Nelson Mandela

Figure 1.--Here Nelson Mandela is pictured with South African school children. The occassin was a national peace awards banquet. Mandela was one of nine recipoents of the Golden Dove awards guven for efforts to further peace in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela is one of the important figures in the long, tortured history of freedom. His father was a Thembu nobel who gave up his claims to become a Chistian and a lawyer. From a young age he became interested in freedom for his people. He became a lawyer like his father, founding South Africa's first black law firm and worked to resist injustic through the legal system and non-violent action. When increasing police violence made this impossible, he led the African National Congress' violent action campaign -- Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). He is described as a black nationalist, but in the history of freedom he was much more. The Nelson Mandela Foundation explains, "Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life is an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived; and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation." [Nelson Mndela Foundation] He became the first black president of South Africa (1994–99). His negotiations in the early 1990s with South African Pres. F.W. de Klerk helped end the country’s apartheid system of racial segregation and ushered in a peaceful transition to majority rule. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 for their efforts. Unlike many recipienrs, Nelson Mandela truly earned it.


Rolihlahla's mother was Nonqaphi Nosekeni and his father was Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a nobel man and principal adviser to the Acting King of the Thembu tribe, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. The Tembu are a Xhosa speaking people. Xhosa is a Bantu language.


Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape (1918). Rolihlahla' father died (1930). He was only 12 years old. (Some accounts give a different age.) Jongintaba so honored Rolihlahla 's father that the boy became his ward of at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni1. He recalls being listening to the stories told by the tribal elders valor during the wars of resistance. Prior to the British conquest and incorporation of their territory, called Tembuland (19th century), the Thembu were an indepedent kingdom. The wars of resistance were the fight against British annexation. The young Rolihlahla dreamed of making his own contribution to his people, already thinking about freedom.


He attended primary school in Qunu. His teacher, Miss Mdingane, chose the name Nelson fr him. This was standard at the time, giving schoolchildren English Christian names. Few Africans at the time completed primary school. Nelson obtained his Junior Certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute. He went on to Healdtown, a well regarded Wesleyan secondary school where he graduated. Other important African leaders attended the school. Mandela began university studies at the University College of Fort Hare. He did but did not complete his degree, however, because he was expelled for participating in a student protest. The King was angry when he returned to the Great Place. He ordered him to return to the University and if he didn’t, he would arrange wives for him and his cousin Justice.

Aparteid System

World War II powefully affected the dynamics of world politics. South Africa was one of the previous European colonies affected. The War had severely weakened the colonial powers. Many were occupied by the Germans (Belgium, France, Italy, and the Netherlands). Their ability to maintain their empires were thus severely weakened. And the Japanese had shown how tenuous the European colonial controls were. At the same time, the Axis defeat had undermined concepts which underpinned colonial empires, namely racial supremecy and imperial controls. As a result, colonial peoples throughout Asia and Africa began to press for independence. This process was different in South Africa as the country was already independent. It was the local white population not Britain that maintained an oprresive regime. As in the rest of Africa, the black majority began to demand basic rights. This took the form in South ASfrica of industrial strikes. As black workers were not legally able to form unions, this took the form of poorly organized wild-cat strikes. The Government vwas able to maintain order, but the strikes affected production. More importantly, they unervered the white minority. As a result, the right-wing National Party (NP) attracted a substantial number of English voters for the first time. The result was a decisive victory in the 1948 elections. This gave the Afrikaners who dominated the NP political control for the first time. They moved to expanded and strengthen the already existing Apartheid system. The NP leader was D.F. Malan who advocated stern measures against what he called the "black menace". It was at this time the the concept of "Apartheid" was coined and became the cornerstone of Government policy. The NP moved Apartheid from the economic sphere into the social sphere and attempted to control the private lives of both whites and blacks. The system was further complicated by the exitence of coloreds (mixed race people). The Apartheid sysytem developed by the NP was very complicated and involved, but in essence was based on three core elements. First, non whites were denined the right to vote and ultimately citzenship. Second, there were resrictions on land ownership and where the different racial groups could live. Third, racial intermarriage was prohibited. Marriage or actually any sexual realationship between the different racial groups was prohibited and crimanilzed. The races were separated in all public institutions and offices, public transport, and public toilets. A new education system was introduced. Previously there was very limited schooling available for blacks. Racial segregation was introduced in the public schools. The Bantu Education Act expanded black education, but had the goal of keeping black children at a very low educational standard suitable for menial labor and acceptance of white superority (1953). The Act however contains the seeeds of its own destruction. Whatever the intentions, it expanded black education. It also left black education in the hands of black teachers, many of who did not accept the goals the Afrikaaner Government had in mind for black education. It is notable that the movement to end Apartheid traces its origins from student demonstrations.

Johannesberg and Legal Training

Both Mandela and Justice ran away to Johannesburg (1941). He got a job as a mine security officer. He met Walter Sisulu, another future African National Congress (ANC) leader. Sisulu was an estate agent and introduced him to Lazer Sidelsky. He made significant breaches in the color bar in South Africa's legal profession and metored the young Mandela, setting him toward the legal profession. As a result he did his legal training at the Witkin, Eidelman and Sidelsky, a liberal oriented legal firm. He completed his BA through the University of South Africa and returned Fort Hare for his graduation (1943). He began studying for an law degree (LLB) at the University of the Witwatersrand. He did not do well, not applying himself to his studies. He left the university without graduating (1952). He would begin studying again through the University of London after he was arrested and imprisoned (1962). We were a little surprised that South African officials allowed that.

The African National Council (ANC)

The African National Congress was founded by John Langalibalele Dube, who had studied in America, in Bloemfontein as the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) (1912). The primary mission from the beginning was to obtain voting rights to black and mixed-race Africans. With the advent of of the formal Apartheid System, the ANC made ending the Apartheid a priority goal. Followung the Bohr War, the Union of South Africa was formned and began the systematic legal oppression of black and other non-while people n South Africa. The Land Act was the primary legal instrument (1913). The Act forced many black South Africans from their farms into the cities and towns to work. It also restricted their movement within South Africa. The SANNC led a campaign against passes--ID cards that black South Africans had to carry. The ANNC made little origress in the legal system and greadully began to decline (mid-1920s). Other groups competed for politucal influcence with the black majority including the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union (ICU) and the Communist Party which had been all-white. The name was changed to the African National Congress (1923). The ANC supported a militant mineworkers' strike (1929). ANC President J.T. Gumede suggested co-operation with the Communists as part of an effort to revitalise the organisation (1927). He was voted out of office (1930s). This led to the ANC becoming largely ineffectual. This only began to change after World War II when the ANC was remodelled by young activiusts as a mass movement. The ANC continued to use legal efforts and nonviolent protests to end apartheid. As the protests becamne mire effective, the South African Government responded with increasingly violent police tactics. The Sharpeville Massacre resulted in the deaths of 69 black Africans was a turning point (1960). The Charles Robberts Swart Administration banned the ANC and forced the party to go underground (April 1960). The ANC responded with the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), adopting violence to fight Aapartheid, utilizing guerrilla warfare and sabotage. Over time the ANC turned to Nelso Mandela who had bee imprisoned for nearly three decades. Finally with the Soiuth African economy increasingly affected by international sabctions. State President F. W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and released Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990. Soiuth Afriucans voted to end Apartheid (March 1992). Since the 1994 election the ANC has been the dominant party in South Africam elections.

ANC Youth League (ANCYL)

Mandela took an increasing political direction begining at Fort Hare. He joined the ANC (1944). He helped organize the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Mandela primary focus was ANCYL and he bcame a dominnt influence.

Private Life

Mandela married Evelyn Mase, a cousin of his friend, Walter Sisulu (1944). She was a nurse. They had two sons, Madiba Thembekile 'Thembi' and Makgatho, and two daughters both called Makaziwe. One died in infancy. The couple divorced (1958). Mandela married a social worker, Winnie Madikizela (1958). They had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa. She would loyally support her husband and carry on his work during the long yeaes of his imprisonment, essentially becoming the unoffical first lady of South Africa. They would divorce after his release (1996).

ANC Programme of Action (1949)

Mandela helped formulate a more radical mass-based policy than being pursued by the ANC--the Programme of Action (1949). Mandela was selected as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign. Maulvi Cachalia was chosen as his deputy (1952). The Programme campaign of civil disobedience directed at six unjust laws was a joint effort of the the ANC and the South African Indian Congress.

Initial Government Response and Law Firm

The Government charged Mandela and 19 others under the Suppression of Communism Act for their involvement. They were sentenced to 9 months of hard labour, suspended for 2 years. Madella earned a 2-year diploma which along with his BA gave Mandela the right to practice law, He and Oliver Tambo established South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo (August 1952). The Government banned him for the first time (1952).

The Freedom Charter (1955)

The Freedom Charter was adopted at Kliptown (July 26, 1955). It was a statement of core principles by the South African Congress Alliance, which consisted of the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies -- the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats, and the Coloured People's Congress. Mandela was there, but had to watch in secret as he had been banned. The Freedom Charter became the common program supported by the African majority, the colored (mixed-race) peoples and liberal whites for a free South Africa.

Treason Trial (1956-61)

Soon after, Mandela was arrested. His arrest was part of countrywide police swoop (December 5, 1955). This led to a highly publivized Treason Trial (1956). South African men and women of all races were tried in a marathon trial. Mandela was in final group of 28 defendents. They were aquited (March 29, 1961).

Sharpeville Masacre (1960)

The police killed 69 unarmed protestors Sharpeville in a demonstration against the pass laws -- it has gone down in history at the Sharpeville Masacre (March 21, 1960). Sharpeville was one of the oldest of six townships in the Vaal Triangle, created to move black people away from South African cities as part of the Apartheid System. It had become terribly overcrowded. At the end of a day of demonstrations against the pass laws, a group of some 5,000 to 7,000 protesters went to the police station at Sharpeville to press their demands. The South African Police there opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 people. There are different descriptions as to the behaviour of the crowd. Some accounts say that rge demonstrators were peaceful. Other reports insist that the demonstrators were throwing rocks and that the the police only opened fire when the demonstrators approached the fence surrounding the police station. There were 289 casualties in total, including 29 children. Many had back wounds meaning they were shot as they fled. These differences are largely meaningless, much like the Boston Massacre in American history. What ever the detailks, Sharpeville was a turning point in South African history--both in the police use of violence and in tha ANC's belief that the Apartheid System could be overturned through legal, peaceful means. It meant that the Apartheid System could only be maintained by raw police force and even in South Africa there were limits as to its application. It would take three decades, but the need for mass shooting meant that Apartheid was doomed.

State of Emergency (1960)

The Goverment issued South Africa's first state of emergency. The Government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on (April 8). Mandela and his colleagues in the Treason Trial were among thousands detained during the state of emergency. Mere days before the end of the Treason Trial, Mandela went to Pietermaritzburg to speak at the All-in Africa Conference. The Conference tasked him with writing Prime Minister Verwoerd requesting a national convention on a non-racial constitution. And to warn him that if he inored the request that there would be a national strike against South Africa becoming a republic. At the time responding to Commomnwealth criticism of Apartheid, South Africa was preparing to withdraw from the Commonwealth and declaring a republic.

Strike Preparation

After Mandela and is colleagues were acquitted in the Treason Trial, Mandela went underground anticipating another arrest. He began planning a national strike for March 29-31. As a result of the Government mobilized a massive use of force, the ANC backed down, called off the strike fearing large-scale casualties.

Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation)

Instead of a strike, the ANC asked Mandela to lead the armed struggle with the goal of establishing Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) (June 1961). The strugle began shortly afterward with a seies of urban explosions (December 16).

Foreign Trip (1962)

Mandela using the nom de guerre David Motsamayi Mandela secretly left South Africa (January 11, 1962). He had never been outside South Africa before. He travelled around Africa and visited England to garner support for the ANC's armed struggle. Mandela was a lawyer and had no military knowledge. He obtained some military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. He covertly returned to South Africa (July 1962).

Arrest and Inprisonment (1962-

Shortly after, police arrested him in a roadblock outside Howick (August 5). He was returning from KwaZulu-Natal after briefing ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli about what he had learnd. This time he was charged with leaving South Africa without a permit and inciting workers to strike. This time he was convicted and sentenced to 5 years' imprisonment. He began serving his sentence at the Pretoria Local Prison. He was transferred to bleak Robben Island (May 27, 1963, but returned to Pretoria (June 12). Police raided Liliesleaf, a safe house in Rivonia, Johannesburg. It was used by both the ANC and Communist Party activists. Several of his comrades were arrested and the police leaened much more about his activities. A second high profile trial was staged--the Rivonia Trial (October 9, 1963). The defendents faced the death penalty. It was an open trial and the defendents could make statements and had defense attorneys. His sumation to the court, Speech from the Dock, was one of the great statements of Western democracy (April 20, 1964). “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 and seven other accused (Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni), were convicted and the next day were sentenced to life imprisonment (June 11, 1964) Goldberg who was white was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white. The others were encarcerated at Robben Island. Mandela’s mother passed away (1968) and his eldest son, Thembi (1969). He was not permitted to attend their funerals. Condutions on Robben Island were very severe.


The South African security services were able to maintain the Apartheid system, but in the 1980s some in the Government began to see that economic sanctions by Britain and the other Europeans were affecting the econommy. America enacted sanctions (1986). Slowly it became clear that apartheid South Africa could not continue for ever. They would have to deal with the ANC and Mandela seemed the most reasionble person to deal with. This was a process. The Afrikaaner leadership was opposed to any concessions. But the reality of economic decline gradually began to change minds.

Changing Conditions (1980s)

The authorities transferred Mandela to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town with Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni (March 31, 1982). Kathrada joined them several months later (October). Mandella had prostate syrgery (November 1985). Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee visited him in hospital. Later Mandela initiated talks about a meeting between the apartheid government and the ANC. After this he was held in isolation. He was returned to hospital (August 1988). He was diagnosed with tuberculosis prsumably the austere conditions on Robben Island was a factor. Treatment took more than three months in two hospitals. He was finally transferred to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl where he spent his final 14 months of incarceration (December 1988). Throughout his imprisonment he had refused at least three conditional offers of release. He was finally released 9 days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC and nearly 4 months after the release of the remaining Rivonia defendents still in custody (February 1990).


With Mandela released, negotiations could begin. He refused to negotisate while in prison. Mandela lost no time, immersing in official talks to end white minority rule. He was elected ANC President, replacing his close friend Oliver Tambo wjho was ill. He and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize fot peace (1993).

Democratic South Africa

Mandela voted for the first time in a democratic election (1994). He was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President (May 1994). He married his third wife, Graça Machel (1998).

Final Years

Mandela stepped down after only one term as President (1999). He continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund he set up in 1995 and established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. His grandson, Mandla Mandela, was installed as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council at a ceremony at the Mvezo Great Place (April 2007). Mandela passed away at his home in Johannesburg (December 5, 2013).


South Africa's future is still uncertain, but one can scarcely imagine a man more capable of giving a multi-racial South Africa a chance. As on author explins, "Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life is an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived; and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation." [Nelson Mndela Foundation]


Nelson Mandela Foundation. 'Biography of Nelson Mandela'.


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Created: 5:09 AM 9/4/2018
Last updated: 1:09 PM 9/4/2018