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Nelson Mandela Biography

Last updated date: 17th Apr 2024
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The first President of South Africa to be elected in entirely representative democratic elections was Nelson Mandela. He was a prominent anti-apartheid radical and leader of the African National Congress before his presidency, who spent 27 years in jail for his participation in the activities of clandestine armed resistance and sabotage.

About Nelson Mandela

  • Full Name - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

  • Date of Birth - July 18, 1918

  • Date of Death - December 5, 2013

  • Cause of Death - Prolonged respiratory infection

  • Age - 95 years

  • Nelson Mandela spouse(s) -

  1. Evelyn Ntoko Mase (m. 1944; div. 1958)​

  2. Winnie Madikizela (m. 1958; div. 1996)

  3. Graça Machel ​(m. 1998)

Who is Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela belonged to the Thembu Dynasty cadet branch which reigned (nominally) in the Transkeian Territories of the Cape Province Union of South Africa. He was born in the small village of Qunu in the Mthatha district, the capital of the Transkei. Ngubengcuka (died 1830), the Inkosi Enkulu or King of the Thembu people, was his great-grandfather and was ultimately subjected to British colonial rule. One of the king's sons, named Mandela, became Nelson's grandfather and the source of his surname.

His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (1880-1928) was appointed chief of the village of Mvezo. However, he was stripped of his position after alienating the colonial authorities and he moved his family to Qunu. Gadla, however, remained a member of the Privy Council of Inkosi and was instrumental in the ascension of Jongintaba Dalindyebo to the Thembu throne, who would later return this favor by informally adopting Mandela upon the death of Gadla.

Mandela's father had four wives, with whom he fathered a total of 13 children (four boys and nine girls). Nosekeni Fanny, daughter of Nkedama of the Mpemvu Xhosa tribe, in whose homestead Mandela spent most of his childhood, was born to Gadla's third wife ('third' by a complex royal ranking system). His given name, Rolihlahla, means "one who brings trouble upon himself."

Nelson Mandela Education

Rolihlahla Mandela became the first member of his family to attend a school at the age of seven, where a Methodist teacher gave him the name 'Nelson,' after the British admiral Horatio Nelson. When Rolihlahla was nine, his father died of tuberculosis, and the Regent, Jongintaba, became his guardian. Mandela was attending a Wesleyan mission school next door to the Regent's palace. He was initiated at age 16, adopting Thembu tradition, and attended Clarkebury Boarding Institute, learning about Western culture. Instead of the standard three, he completed his Junior Certificate in two years.

In 1937, Mandela moved to Healdtown, the Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort, which was attended by most Thembu royalty, as he was supposed to inherit the place of his father as a private counselor. He took an interest in boxing and running at the age of nineteen. After registering, he began studying for a B.A. and met Oliver Tambo at Fort Hare University, where the two became lifelong friends and colleagues. He became active in a protest by the Students' Representative Council against university policies at the end of his first year and was forced to leave Fort Hare.

Mandela initially found employment as a guard at a mine upon his arrival in Johannesburg. This was quickly terminated, however, after the employer learned that Mandela was the runaway adopted son of the Regent. Thanks to connections with his friend and fellow lawyer Walter Sisulu, he then managed to find work as a clerk at a law firm. He completed his degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) through correspondence while working, after which he began his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. Mandela lived in a township called Alexandra during that time.

About Nelson Mandela Marriage and Family

Nelson Mandela married thrice and had fathered six children, 20 grandchildren, and an increasing number of great-grandchildren. His first marriage was to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, who, like Mandela, was also from what later became South Africa's Transkei region. They first met in Johannesburg.  The couple had two sons, Madiba Thembekile (born 1946) and Makgatho (born 1950), and two daughters, both named Makaziwe (known as Maki; born 1947 and 1953).

Nelson Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was also from the Transkei region, even though they also met in Johannesburg, where she was the first black social worker in the city. The marriage bore two daughters, Zenani (Zeni), born on February 4, 1958, and Zindziswa (Zindzi), born in 1960. The union, fuelled by political estrangement, ended in separation (April 1992) and divorce (March 1996).

In 1998, on his 80th birthday, Mandela married Graça Machel, née Simbine, the widow of Samora Machel, a former Mozambican president and an ANC ally killed 12 years earlier in an air crash. His traditional sovereign, King Buyelekhaya Zwelibanzi Dalindyebo, born in 1964, carried out the wedding on Mandela's behalf (which followed months of international negotiations to fix the unparalleled bride price sent to her clan). Ironically, it was the grandfather of this paramount leader, the Regent, whose selection of a bride for him compelled Mandela to flee as a young man to Johannesburg. 

About Nelson Mandela Political Activity

Nelson Mandela was influential in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Movement and the 1955 People's Congress. They adopted the Freedom Charter which provided the basic program of the anti-apartheid cause, after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party with its apartheid racial segregation policy. Nelson Mandela and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo ran the Mandela and Tambo law firm during this period, offering free or low-cost legal advice to many blacks who would otherwise have been without legal representation.

Initially influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and devoted to non-violent mass struggle, on December 5, 1956, Mandela was arrested and charged with treason along with 150 others. The 1956-1961 marathon Treason Trial followed, and all were acquitted. As a new class of black activists (Africanists) emerged in the townships seeking more drastic action against the National Party government, the ANC witnessed disruption from 1952-1959. Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu's ANC leadership thought not only that events were moving too rapidly, but also that their leadership was being questioned.

The ANC lost its most militant support in 1959 when, under Robert Sobukwe and Potlako Leballo, most of the Africanists, with financial support from Ghana and major political support from the Transvaal-based Basotho, split away to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Arrest and Imprisonment 

In 1961, Nelson Mandela became the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also abbreviated as MK), the armed wing of the ANC, which he co-founded. He coordinated a campaign of sabotage against military and government objectives and if sabotage failed to end apartheid, made preparations for a future guerrilla war. MK did indeed wage a guerrilla war against the regime a few decades later, especially during the 1980s, in which many civilians were killed. Mandela also collected funds and organized paramilitary training for MK overseas, visiting different African governments.

He was captured after living on the run for 17 months on August 5, 1962, and imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. Three days later, at a court appearance, the charges of leading workers to a strike in 1961 and leaving the country illegally were read to him. Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison on October 25, 1962.

On June 11th, 1964, two years later, a verdict was reached concerning his prior participation in the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for the next 18 of his 27 years in prison. It was there that he wrote the bulk of his 'Long Walk to Freedom' autobiography. Mandela did not disclose anything in that book about the suspected involvement of President F. W. De Klerk, or the role of his ex-wife Winnie Mandela in the brutality of the 1980s and early 1990s. In Mandela: The Authorized Biography, however, he later cooperated with his friend, journalist Anthony Sampson, who addressed these issues.

Mandela remained in jail rejecting an offer of conditional release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle in February 1985 until concerted ANC and international activism came up with the resounding slogan “Free Nelson Mandela!”. President de Klerk simultaneously ordered the release of Mandela in February 1990 and the revocation of the ANC ban.


On April 27, 1994, South Africa's first democratic elections were held in which full enfranchisement was given. In the election, the ANC won the vote, and Nelson Mandela, as ANC leader, was inaugurated as the country's first black president, with de Klerk of the National Party as his deputy president in the National Unity Government.

As South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Nelson Mandela urged black South Africans to get behind the previously despised Springboks (the South African national rugby team). Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey, presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner after the Springboks had secured an epic final over New Zealand. This has been widely seen as a significant step in white and black South Africans' reconciliation.

It was also during his administration when, with the launch of the SUNSAT satellite in February 1999, South Africa entered the space age. It was developed by Stellenbosch University students and was used primarily to photograph land related to vegetation and forestry issues in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela Awards

Nelson Mandela has received many South African, foreign, and international awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, Queen Elizabeth II's Order of Merit and the Order of St. John, and George W. Bush's Presidential Medal of Freedom. In July 2004, during a ceremony in Orlando, Soweto, the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, conferred its highest honor on Mandela by granting him the freedom of the city.

As an indication of his popular international recognition, he had a speaking engagement at the SkyDome in the city of Toronto during his tour of Canada in 1998, where 45,000 school children welcomed him with intense adulation.

He was the first living person to be named an honorary Canadian citizen in 2001.

In 1992, Turkey awarded him the Ataturk Peace Prize. He declined the award, alleging abuses of human rights committed during that period by Turkey, but later accepted the award in 1999. He has also received the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International (2006).

Retirement and Death

Nelson Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in the summer of 2001. Mandela declared in June 2004, at the age of 85, that he would retire from public life. His health had been deteriorating, and he and his family decided to spend more time. 

He passed away on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95, after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection. He died, surrounded by his relatives, at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg.

Some facts about Nelson Mandela

  • From 1994 until 1999, Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa. He was South Africa's first black president and the first to be elected in a fully representative election.

  • The leadership of Nelson Mandela concentrated on overthrowing the country's Apartheid government, which had enforced racial segregation through the law.

  • Nelson Mandela studied law at school and then went on to become one of South Africa's first black lawyers.

  • He was chosen leader of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement's youth section in the 1950s.

  • Mandela established a hidden military movement after the government banned the ANC for racial reasons. He had previously participated in nonviolent protests, but as the government responded with brutality, he moved on to promote an anti-government movement.

FAQs on Nelson Mandela Biography

1. When and Where was Nelson Mandela born?

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, according to his biography. His parents named him Rolihlahla after he was born. This African name was eventually complemented with the English first name Nelson, which was given to him by his teacher, Miss Mdingane, as the name to which he should respond at school. He was born in the Transkei province of South Africa.

2. Why is he also called ‘Madiba’?

Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name, indicating that he was a Madiba clan member (named after an eighteenth-century Thembu tribe chief). "I am commonly addressed as Madiba, my tribal name, as a symbol of respect," Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography.

3. What is his educational background?

Nelson Mandela began his education at a nearby mission school. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University College of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, at the end of 1942. Mandela then enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in early 1943 to pursue a bachelor of law degree, but he never finished it. He chose to take the qualifying exam that would allow him to practice as a full-fledged attorney in 1952 after multiple failed attempts. He graduated from law school in the year 1989.

4. When was Nelson Mandela awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? And why?

Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, the president of South Africa at the time, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 "for their work for the peaceful end of the apartheid regime, and for establishing the foundations for a new democratic South Africa." Visit Vedantu To know more about his contribution to the establishment of a democratic republic.