Nelson Mandela was born in Mvezu, near Mthatha in the Transkei, then one of the ‘homelands’, now part of the Eastern Cape in South Africa, on 18 July 1918. He belongs to the Thembu tribe, a sub-group of the Xhosa people. He is commonly known to the South African people by the honorific title, Madiba, the name of the 18th century ancestor from whom his Thembu clan is descended.
He is a man of many names. He was originally named Rolihlahla Dalibhunga, but was given the English name Nelson on his first day at school, as this was too hard for his teachers to say.
Brought up at the Thembu royal court, he studied law at the University College of Fort Hare, Unisa (South Africa’s correspondence university) and the University of Witwatersrand, but eventually left without graduating. He eventually qualified as a lawyer in 1952, setting up his own practice with Oliver Tambo.
Politics – The Early Years
Nelson joined the African National Congress in 1943, founding the ANC Youth League, with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, the following year. In 1952, he became one of the architects of the Youth League’s Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, a programme of mass civil disobedience. His efforts earned him his first suspended conviction under the Suppression of Communism Act.
In 1956, he was one of 156 defendants named in a massive Treason Trial which dragged on for nearly five years before it eventually collapsed. Meantime he continued to work behind the scenes to create ANC policy. Regularly arrested and banned from attending public meetings, he often travelled in disguise and under assumed names to evade police informers.
Following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the views of Mandela and a number of his colleagues hardened into a belief that only armed struggle would suffice. On 16 December 1961, the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, a cataclysmic battle between the Boers and Zulus in 1838, a new military organisation, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK; Spear of the Nation), was set up. Mandela was its commander-in-chief. Over the next two years they carried out over 200 attacks and sent some 300 people abroad for military training.
Travelling out of the country on false papers in 1962, Mandela was arrested on his return and convicted to five years in prison. He made his first trip to Robben Island, but was soon transferred back to Pretoria to join ten other defendants, facing new charges of sabotage. During the eight-month long Rivonia Trial – named after the Rivonia district where the MK had their safe house, Liliesleaf Farm – Mandela made an impassioned speech from the dock. It echoed around the world:
‘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'.
The trial ended with eight of the accused, including Mandela found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. His lengthy sojourn on Robben Island had begun.
In 1982, after 18 years, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and from there, in December 1988, to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl in the Cape Winelands. He rejected numerous offers to recognise the legitimacy of the so-called Homelands and go back to settle in ‘exile’ in the Transkei. He also refused to renounce violence, refusing to negotiate at all until he was a free man.
In 1985 however he began ‘talks about talks’ with the then Justice Minister, Kobie Coetsee, from his prison cell. A secret method of communication with the ANC leadership in Lusaka was eventually devised. On 11 February 1990, he was released from prison, after 27 years. His euphoric speech from the balcony of Cape Town City Hall and triumphant shout of ‘Amandla!’ (‘Power!’) was a defining moment in African history. Talks could begin in earnest.
In 1993, Mandela and President FW de Klerk jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring about the end of the apartheid regime. The following year, on 27 April, 1994, South Africa held its first truly democratic elections. The ANC swept to victory.
On 10 May, 1994, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black, democratically elected President, talking immediately of reconciliation.
‘Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign.’
Mandela has been married three times. He married his first wife, Evelyn, in 1944 and had four children before divorcing in 1958. The following year he married Winnie Madikizela, with whom he had two children. Winnie was massively responsible for creating the Mandela legend through her robust campaign to free Nelson from Robben Island. The marriage couldn’t survive Winnie’s other activities however. They separated in 1992, after her conviction for kidnapping and accessory to assault, divorcing in 1996. His third marriage, on his 80th birthday, in July 1998, was to Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambiquan President Samora Machel. She became the only woman in the world to marry two Presidents of different nations. They are still married.
Mandela stepped down as President in 1999, after one term in office. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001 and officially retired from public life in 2004. However he continues to work quietly on behalf of his charities, the Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Childrens’ Fund and the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation.
In 2005 he intervened on behalf of AIDS victims in South Africa, admitting that his son had died of the disease. And for his 89th birthday he founded The Elders, a group of elder statesmen including Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu amongst other global luminaries, to offer ‘guidance on the world’s toughest problems’.
He published his autobiography, Long Road to Freedom, in 1995. The Nelson Mandela Museum first opened in 2000.