Nelson Mandela Biography

South Africa's First Black President

Nelson and Winnie Mandela holding key
Jacques M. Chenet / Getty Images

Even after his death in 2013, former South African President Nelson Mandela is revered around the world as one of the most influential and best-loved leaders of our time. He spent his early years fighting against the racial inequality perpetuated by South Africa's apartheid regime, for which he was imprisoned for 27 years.

After his release and the subsequent end of apartheid, Mandela was democratically elected as South Africa's first black president. He dedicated his time in office to the healing of a divided South Africa, and to promoting civil rights around the world.


Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezu, part of the Transkei region of South Africa's Eastern Cape province. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a local chief and a descendant of the Thembu king. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third of Mphakanyiswa's four wives. Mandela was christened Rohlilahla, a Xhosa name that loosely translates as "troublemaker;" he was given the English name Nelson by a teacher at his primary school.

Mandela grew up in his mother's village of Qunu until the age of nine when the death of his father led to his adoption by Thembu regent Jongintaba Dalindyebo. After his adoption, Mandela went through traditional Xhosa initiation and was enrolled in a series of schools and colleges, from the Clarkebury Boarding Institute to the University College of Fort Hare. Here, he became involved in student politics, for which he was ultimately suspended. Mandela left college without graduating and shortly afterward fled to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage.

Politics: The Early Years

In Johannesburg, Mandela completed a BA through the University of South Africa (UNISA) and enrolled at Wits University. He was also introduced to the African National Congress (ANC), an anti-imperialist group that believed in an independent South Africa, through a new friend, activist Walter Sisulu.

Mandela started writing articles for a Johannesburg law firm, and in 1944 co-founded the ANC Youth League alongside fellow activist Oliver Tambo. In 1951, he became president of the Youth League, and a year later, he was elected ANC president for the Transvaal.

The year 1952 was a busy one for Mandela. He set-up South Africa's first black law firm with Tambo, who would later go on to become ANC president. He also became one of the architects of the Youth League’s Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, a program 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 accused of treason in a trial that dragged on for nearly five years before it eventually collapsed.

In the meantime, he continued to work behind the scenes to create ANC policy. Regularly arrested and banned from attending public meetings, he often traveled in disguise and under assumed names to evade police informers.

Armed Insurrection

Following the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the ANC was formally banned, and the views of Mandela and a number of his colleagues hardened into a belief that only armed struggle would suffice. On December 16, 1961, a new military organization called Umkhonto we Sizwe (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, including Mandela himself.

In 1962, Mandela was arrested upon return to the country and convicted to five years in prison for traveling without a passport. He made his first trip to Robben Island but was soon transferred back to Pretoria to join 10 other defendants, facing new charges of sabotage. During the eight-month-long Rivonia Trial—named after the Rivonia district where Umkhonto we Sizwe 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 being found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela's lengthy sojourn on Robben Island had begun.

The Long Walk to Freedom

In 1982, after 18 years of imprisonment at Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and from there, in December 1988, to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl. He rejected numerous offers to recognize the legitimacy of the black homelands that had been established during his imprisonment, which would have allowed him to return to the Transkei (now an independent state) and live out his life in exile. He also refused to renounce violence, declining 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 February 11, 1990, he was released from prison after 27 years, in the same year that the ban on the ANC was lifted. Mandela was elected ANC deputy president. 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.

Life After Imprisonment

In 1993, Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring about the end of the apartheid regime. The following year, on April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first truly democratic elections. The ANC swept to victory, and on May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s first black, democratically elected President. He spoke immediately of reconciliation, saying:

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.

During his time as president, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the purpose of which was to investigate crimes committed by both sides of the struggle during apartheid. He introduced social and economic legislation designed to address the poverty of the nation's black population, while also working to improve relations between all South African races. It was at this time that South Africa became known as the "Rainbow Nation."

Mandela's government was multiracial, his new constitution reflected his desire for a united South Africa. In 1995, he famously encouraged both blacks and whites to support the efforts of the South African rugby team, which ultimately went on to achieve victory in 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Private Life

Mandela 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 and divorced in 1996.

Mandela lost three of his children—Makaziwe, who died in infancy, his son Thembekile, who was killed in a car accident whilst Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, and Makgatho, who died of AIDS. His third marriage, on his 80th birthday, in July 1998, was to Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambican president Samora Machel. She became the only woman in the world to marry two presidents of different nations. They remained married and she was by his side as he passed on December 5, 2013.

Later Years

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 continued to work quietly on behalf of his charities, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's 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 on 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." Mandela published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in 1995, and the Nelson Mandela Museum first opened in 2000.

Nelson Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95 after a long battle with an illness. Dignitaries from around the world attended services in South Africa to commemorate one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. South Africans and foreigners continue to celebrate his life at the many Mandela memorials located around the country.

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