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Who is Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years imprisoned in South Africa.
Nelson Mandela helped to end apartheid in South Africa.
The nation of South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent.
The flag of the Republic of South Africa, adopted in 1994.
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  • Originally Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Revised By: Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 14 September 2014
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Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba and "the Father of the Nation," was the 11th president of South Africa, holding office from 1994 to 1999. He was the first person of color to gain this position, and his was the first democratic election for the country. His rise to office is even more significant considering that it came after a 27-year imprisonment for treason. Largely credited as having ended apartheid in this region, he is internationally recognized as a leader of economic and social reforms and has received hundreds of significant awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize.

Early Life and Education

On 18 July 1918 in Mvezo, Umtatu, Rolihlahla "Nelson" Mandela was born to Gadia Henry Mphakanyiswa and Nosekeni Fanny. Gadia served as court councilor to the Thembu king — his grandfather had been king of the Thembu Dynasty — and Mandela was one of the 13 children he had by keeping four wives in different villages. As a boy, he grew up with his mother and two sisters in Qunu, where he lived a very simple life playing with other boys and looking after cattle herds.

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Although his father was a follower of Quamata, a god worshiped commonly in southeastern South Africa, his mother was Methodist, and he was raised in the Christian faith and began his education at Wesleyan Mission School when he was seven years old. It was while at this facility that he gained the name "Nelson," which a teacher reportedly gave him because she couldn't say his real forename properly, and because British influences made it fairly customary for academic leaders to give new titles to the children they taught. As was common for the time, he was the first of his family to go to school.

At the age of nine, Gadia died, and out of respect, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his wife, Noengland, adopted Mandela to give him a chance at a better life. His mother took him to live in the "Great Palace" in Mqhekezweni, where he continued his studies and had the same duties and expectations as the chief's other children, Nomafu and Justice. He took only two years to finish the three-year Junior Certificate program at the Clarkbury Boarding Institute. Although it was at this institution that he socialized and learned a great deal about African history and Western culture, he still believed at this point that his destiny was to follow Jongintaba's wishes and become a councilor, and he was, by his own later admission, narrow-minded toward Thembuland.

Life as a Young Adult

In 1937, 19-year-old Mandela began attending Healdtown in Fort Beaufort, which was Methodist school that Thembu royalty traditionally attended. He then moved to the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, to try to get a Bachelor of Arts degree, focusing on law. While there, he was involved in several protests, including one regarding the quality of the food served, and he ended up leaving before completing his degree.

Returning to his guardian family, he discovered that Jongintaba had arranged for him to be married, and in distress, he ran away to Johannesburg in 1941. He completed his bachelor's degree in 1943 using correspondence classes through the University of South Africa (UNISA), working simultaneously as a law clerk, and he became friends with members of both the Communist Party and the African National Congress (ANC). He participated in his first ANC march during this time. Although those close to him still urged him toward being a councilor, he chose to continue his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand.

As his involvement with ANC grew, Mandela recognized the need to involve African youth in the movement toward equality and freedom. He was instrumental in the formation of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), which officially was started in 1944. During the same year, he married Evelyn Ntoko Mase. He and Evelyn had four children: Mandiba "Thembi" Thembekile, Makaziwe (died in infancy), Makaziwe Phumba (named in honor of the first Makaziwe) and Makgatho Mandela. His main place of work was the Terblanche and Briggish law firm for several years, but eventually, he teamed with long-time friend, Oliver Tambo, to form his own firm, Mandela and Tambo, South Africa's first black legal practice.

Apartheid was a way of life in the 1950s, given the political climate of South Africa. He and Tambo gave pro bono and reduced cost legal help to blacks. They were also involved in the cause against apartheid, believing that blacks and whites should not be segregated. Their actions and views brought them significant criticism from the government, eventually causing them to lose their operating permit and requiring them to move the business.

Middle Life and Activism

Members of the government watched Mandela's activities closely in the first few years of the 1950s, trying to ban him from public appearances as his popularity, influence and involvement in political protests grew. They arrested him, along with a group of anti-apartheid supporters, in 1956, but after a lengthy trial, the whole group was acquitted. The strain of these conflicts, along with personality and religious differences, strained his marriage, and Evelyn filed for divorce. She withdrew the filing, but he refiled and completed the proceedings in 1958. Just three months after the divorce was finalized, he married Winnie Madikizela, with whom he had two daughters, Zanani (Zani) and Zindziswa Mandela-Hlongwane.

As peaceful tactics were not successful and the opposition's violence was only getting worse, Mandela soon gave up on non-violent protests. Seeing no other choice, he led an armed division of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. His aggressive strategy amounted to human rights violations, since the guerrilla warfare by the ANC killed many civilians, but he insisted it was the only way to end apartheid.

Imprisonment

Government authorities arrested Mandela for leading a worker's strike in 1962, and he and several other men were charged with sabotage in 1963. He was convicted and sent to Robben Island, where he would spend a majority of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he continued working on his legal studies and debated issues with other political prisoners. He also found ways to maintain many of his communications with the ANC, and over time, the international demand for his freedom grew.

Pro-apartheid South African president, P.W. Botha, offered to set him free in 1985, but only on the condition that he would stop the armed conflict. He would not agree to this. Botha had a stroke in 1989, and his replacement, Frederik Willem de Klerk, arranged for Mandela to be let go. He was released 2 February 1990.

Rise to Presidency

After he got out of prison, Mandela toured multiple countries in opposition to apartheid and became president of the ANC in 1991, taking over for Tambo, whose health was not good. Through his influence, he worked to unify the organization, at the same time negotiating for an end to violent protests. As part of these negotiations, he was able to arrange for a multi-racial general election, and after running a campaign against de Klerk, he was elected as the first black president of South Africa in 1994. Those who attended the May inauguration included political figures such as Hilary Clinton, Yassar Arafat and Fidel Castro, with billions watching via television worldwide.

During his time as president, Mandela implemented many social reforms, ending apartheid once and for all while assuring whites that they were welcome and needed in the country. He lobbied for changes such as better education, increased welfare aid, implementation of more water and electricity systems and additional housing construction. Various grants and pensions also were part of his work, and he established the 1998 Skills Development and Employment Equity Acts, which fought discrimination and helped people learn what they needed to succeed in the workplace.

Although Winnie had stayed married to Mandela through his entire imprisonment, she held even more radical political views, and she was put on trial and found guilty for participation in kidnapping and assaults. She also was rumored to have been unfaithful. These elements drove the couple apart, and they separated in 1992 during the heart of his ANC reorganization. Their divorce was finalized in 1996, two years after he came to power.

Post-Presidency Activities

Upon leaving the presidency, Mandela continued to work for the social and economic good of South Africa. He established the Nelson Mandela Foundation, as well as several scholarship programs, and he worked to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS. It was common for him to meet with celebrities and world political leaders. At the age of 80, he married for the third time in 1998 to Gra├ža Machel. He remains an important political figure, not only in South African history, but in international affairs.

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Discuss this Article

anon359318
Post 47

@anon166486: The treatment of "black" people was disgraceful. Why should "white" people be allowed to do that to such peaceful people, who rightfully belong on the land? So much education is needed and it should start with you. That's just a racist thing to say.

anon342211
Post 46

He remains a convicted saboteur!

anon332302
Post 45

We call this refusal to employ people in South Africa because of colour (black) rather that on merit: Mandela's revenge.

anon290694
Post 40

Nelson Mandela was accused of some horrendous things, but he really is a great leader and my hero so I'm doing an information report about him and how he made a difference.

anon281248
Post 38

How did Nelson Mandela impact lives?

anon267423
Post 37

Nelson Mandela was behind the killing of the South African Communist Party leader, Chris Hani.

anon231478
Post 36

Nelson, like all African leaders who are committing their precious time in order to bring a better world, shall live forever and their spirit will be with us forever. Long live our presidents. We are today committing ourselves to these studies so maybe one day we will show the world what real people, thus the Africans, can do. Love you forever Africa.

anon225741
Post 35

Thanks to Nelson Mandela for everything he has done. I am doing a power point on him and this page helped me a lot. Thank you and peace.

anon199207
Post 34

google won't answer my question. how many people did Mandela kill?

anon180888
Post 33

@anon20912: He was the head of the armed wing of the ANC. He personally OKed the Church Street Bomb of 1983. 19 people died: 17 men, 8 Black, 9 European and 2 women. The armed wing of the ANC killed over 400 leaders of their black opposition Inkatha in the following way. Burning bottles of petrol/gasoline were thrown into the house in the middle of the night. Then as the occupants fled they were shot.

Read "People's War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa" by Anthea Jeffrey, Johnathan Ball Publishers 2009/

anon166486
Post 28

Things are worse now than when they had apartheid. White people made South Africa a great country. They made everything. They were isolated from the world but they were able to create things like airplanes.

With the end of apartheid, the country went down, and soon will be like all other african countries, with very rich people in the government and the others with nothing to eat. The black african people don't know how to live in a modern society. South africa needs apartheid again.

anon163756
Post 27

Nelson Mandela is my hero. I am doing a school speech on him, and this article helped a lot. Thanks, Sheri!

anon148272
Post 23

do you know what? yes, in a war for the apartheid, some people did die. Nelson was a great leader and a hero of all times. africa should be grateful to him forever.

anon104724
Post 20

He was convicted of sabotage and other charges; and therefore sent to jail.

anon104723
Post 19

Nelson Mandela is a true leader who took great pride in Africa, and helped create peace in the nation.

anon101156
Post 18

i heavily admire what he had done; but i don't think it was enough because people of color are still humiliated in some parts of the globe.

anon95266
Post 17

There are hundreds of Nelson Mandelas fighting for freedom and unity in Palestine against the occupying ruthless power of Israel and no one cares to mention their names or their effort. They are even called terrorists! What a shame!

anon93161
Post 15

nelson mandela is a hero. I'm sorry about his granddaughter.

anon84161
Post 12

is he a hero or role model?

anon83496
Post 11

I admire Mandela but i don't know why he was in jail.

anon80274
Post 9

what is he doing today?

anon79914
Post 8

who wrote this article?

Moderator's reply: The author of wiseGEEK articles can be found at the bottom of the page. This article was written by Sheri Cyprus. Thanks for visiting wiseGEEK!

anon78361
Post 7

What type of person was he?

anon77262
Post 6

good stuff.

anon72150
Post 5

it taught me a lot for my speech.

anon67519
Post 4

what exactly led to mandela's arrest? Where was he when he was arrested?

anon49725
Post 2

Where did he stay when he was in jail, or under arrest? was it Robben Island?

anon20912
Post 1

Was Nelson Mandela responsible for any deaths?

Did he kill anyone in his struggle against apartheid?

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