Born in 1918, Rolihlahla Mandela spent the early part of his life in Mvezo, South Africa. His father was a polygamist, having four wives, nine daughters and four sons, and his mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was a member of the amaMpemvu clan of Xhosa. He was the first of his family to attend school and his teacher followed the normal tradition of giving each pupil an English name, bestowing the young Rolihlahla with the moniker of Nelson.

His mother gave guardianship of Mandela to the Thembu regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who took him to church services each Sunday. This began an interest in Christianity and he attended a Methodist mission school where he studied a number of subjects, including history. At the age of 16, Mandela underwent the ritual of circumcision, marking his passage into adulthood.

Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Tribute to Nelson Mandela in the square of 3 chimneys, Barcelona, Spain Photo: Toniflap

Early Activism

The advent of 1937 saw Mandela move first to Methodist College and then to the University of Fort Hare where he studied anthropology, politics, native administration and Roam Dutch law. It was here that he met Oliver Tambo, and in 1944, together with Ashley Peter Mda and Walter Sisulu the four men founded the African National Congress Youth League. Mandela’s stubbornness and sense of fair play started to become more noticeable and he was soon involved in a boycott over the food quality at the University which led to a temporary suspension.

The African National Congress (ANC) had, up to that time, furthered its cause by peaceful petition and demonstration but the Youth League advocated more direct tactics, including strikes and civil disobedience.
1944 proved to be an eventful year for Mandela, since he also met and married his first wife, ANC activist Evelyn Mase. They had two children, the younger of which died from meningitis in 1947.


In the same year Mandela’s career with the ANC developed further with him being elected to the executive committee. In the 1948 South African general election selected the Herenigde Nasionale Party. Led by Daniel Francois Malan, the party was dominated by white Afrikaners and was openly racialist. Racial segregation was expanded with the introduction of the now infamous apartheid legislation. This was the time when the development of Nelson Mandela as a major opponent of racialism and his transition to a major figure on the world stage began.

By the time of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950, Mandela had been elected national president of the ANC Youth League. This act introduced major restrictions on all protest groups but had little practical effect such was the growing discontent within the country. Membership of the ANC grew fivefold to 100,000 and set them on a collision course with the government who responded with increasing arrests and legislation permitting martial law if required.
Government suppression and the trials

In July 1952 the ruling government used the provisions of the Suppression of Communism Act to arrest Mandela and he stood trial with 20 co-accused. Found guilty the sentence was nine months hard labour suspended for two years. The sentence had little effect on Mandela’s increasing political rallying and further government action such as a six month ban from attending meetings were handed down. These simply increased his determination to improve the country of his birth. After an unsuccessful protest to prevent the demolition of an all-black suburb in Johannesburg he eventually concluded that there was no other option but “armed and violent resistance”. Further bans on public appearances were frequently broken and during the late 1950’s his marriage to Evelyn eventually broke down and they divorced amidst accusations of adultery.

On 5th December 1956, Mandela was arrested and charged with high treason. A political and legal battle followed, resulting in the prosecution withdrawing the indictment. Not to be outdone the prosecution submitted a further charge of high treason by violent revolution and the trial commenced, being dubbed the “Treason Trial”.

The screws were being turned and an increasingly desperate government and police became more direct in their response to the various demonstrations being held, including shooting dead 69 protestors at Sharpeville in the Transvaal. This led to mass violent protest and the government introduced a state of emergency and martial law. Mandela was arrested and incarcerated in the local prison of Pretoria, only being released when the state of emergency was lifted 5 months later. This was to be a prelude to further, much longer incarceration.

The “Treason Trial” concluded in March 1961, after an incredible six years, and Mandela was acquitted. In the following year he was less fortunate. He was charged with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission following an ANC inspired visit to Ethiopia, Egypt, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Senegal. He also visited London, England to meet with anti-apartheid activists and politicians. Choosing to represent himself, Mandela used the trial as a showcase for the ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy but was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment.

Decades of imprisonment

A police raid at Liliesleaf Farm led to various papers implicating Mandela in “The Spear of the Nation”, a militant group that he had founded and led as chairman. This group were later to become the armed wing of the ANC. Mandela was again put to trial, charged with conspiracy to violently overthrow the government and sabotage. This trial raised his profile around the world with many protests against his subsequent treatment and eventual imprisonment for life, after a guilty verdict.

Outside Robben Island

Outside Robben Island prison where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, Cape Town, South Africa Photo: Meunierd

Robben Island prison was to become Mandela’s home for the next 18 years. Kept in a cell measuring just 8 feet by 7 feet and with a straw mat on which to sleep, he was consistently harassed by the white warders. His days were spent breaking rocks and working in a lime quarry. By night he studied for a law degree, made slightly more difficult by a ban on newspapers and news in general. Visits and mail were limited to one of each in each six month period although he was visited by, and met, a number of foreign politicians including MP Dennis Healey from the Labour Party in the UK. During this time he also lost his mother and his first born son. He was denied permission to attend either funeral.
Various changes in prison commander over the years led to Mandela having his privileges increased and in particular an increase in the number of letters and visitors allowed. He started his autobiography but parts of it were discovered by the authorities who stopped any study privileges for four years. Undeterred he resumed his studies after the enforced absence.

Mounting pressure against apartheid

As the 1970’s closed there were an increasing number of calls for his release including the UN Security Council. Surprisingly, some major world leaders supported the government of South Africa and Mandela’s retention. These included US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Conditions improved further when Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, and he was allowed one letter a week. He was appointed patron of the United Democratic Front (UDF), it was designed to oppose reforms implemented by President P.W. Botha. These reforms excluded black Africans from voting for their own parliaments unlike other races and nationalities such as Indians.

The situation is South Africa became increasingly volatile and the government came under increasing pressure to release Mandela to defuse the situation. He was offered release if he “rejected violence as a political weapon”. He refused stating that “only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter contracts”.

Release and the South African Presidency

Botha’s government and the ANC fought increasingly bitter battles through the 1980’s and Mandela was offered further opportunities for conditional freedom. By 1988 Mandela was 70 years old and international acclaim and attention remained undiminished. In that same year he was moved to Victor Verster prison and completed his law degree. After a stroke Botha stepped down as leader of the National Party, to be replaced by F.W. de Klerk. The new leader quickly realised that apartheid was unsustainable and by February 1990 all ANC prisoners, including Mandela, were released and previously banned political parties were made legal. It was the beginning of the end for apartheid.

In July 1991 Mandela was elected ANC President but the internal violence and civil unrest in South Africa continued unabated. Relations between de Klerk and Mandela became strained as de Klerk insisted on a post-apartheid federal system of rule and Mandela demanding a unitary system governed by majority rule. Mass action and demonstrations continued while de Klerk and Mandela struggled to find common ground for negotiation. They eventually agreed that a coalition government of national unity be formed after a multiracial general election. They also agreed an interim constitution and a bill of rights. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”

The general election was set for 27th April 1994 and campaigning began in earnest. The press generally opposed Mandela’s election and both party leaders appeared in a televised debate at which Mandela offered to shake de Klerk’s hand. This was widely seen as a positive move and the election went ahead with the ANC taking 62% of the vote.
Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black President on 10th May 1994, watched by a billion television viewers worldwide. De Klerk became Deputy President as demanded by the earlier agreements. In typical fashion Mandela donated one third of his half million Rand annual salary to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which he founded in 1995 to help young people up to the age of 22, and in particular children who had been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic.

Difficult times: economic reforms and reconciliation

Despite his advancing years Mandela set about transforming the country into a true democracy. He used the Springbok’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup to present the trophy to Captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, while wearing a Springbok shirt. Such a gesture was viewed extremely positively by the massive audience for the event. He also appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu as chair of the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” with the remit to investigate crimes committed during the apartheid years, irrespective of the perpetrator.


Details of Painting on the Berlin Wall with the name of Mandela. Berlin, Germany Photo: Watchtheworld

South Africa was a nation with inadequate electricity supply, sanitation and clean water with significant proportions of the population unable to read and write. One third of the entire population was unemployed. The new government adopted economic policies which were specifically designed to attract foreign investment and introduced various grants for disability, child maintenance and old age with equal applicability for all. Free healthcare for pregnant women and children under six was introduced, clinics upgraded, water access improved and a housing project aimed at 3 million people completed. A “Skills Development Act” was introduced in 1998 to promote skills development in the workplace. Collective bargaining was legalised and basic conditions of employment defined, legislated and enforced. Despite the extensive program of reform there were still problems to resolve, including the AIDS pandemic.

Nine and half decades come to a close

An aging Mandela stepped down from the ANC Presidency in December 1997, being replaced by Thabo Mbeki. Never one to sit on his laurels Mandela married again on his 80th birthday in 1998! In 2004 and aged 85 he retired formally from public life, although he was involved in the successful attempt by South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup. Despite this his public appearances decreased amid increasing ill health and frequent spells in hospital for various ailments. He died 5th December 2013, aged 95 years.

As we look back over Mandela’s life, we see someone who has demonstrated an insatiable determination to succeed in driving racism from his country and the desire to build it into a democracy where all could live in relative harmony. We see someone who cared deeply about his people and who suffered dreadfully for their cause. He was committed to learning and democracy. He answered continuing racism with courage, determination and an unwavering commitment to equality for all and an end to deprivation.

Nelson Mandela: “We shall never see his like again”.