Nelson Mandela Biography

The Nelson Mandela Biography

Nelson Mandela then went on to become a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician, serving as President of South Africa between 1994 and 1999. He is celebrated as the first black South African ever to hold office as President and the first to be elected in a fully representative, multiracial election. His government took time to focus on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by attempting to tackle the institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality that is endemic in South Africa, and by fostering racial reconciliation. Mandela’s political loyalty is as an African nationalist and democratic socialist, and he served as the President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997.

Nelson Mandela Biography: Early Years

On July 18, 1918 Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei to parents Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela. His father was the principal counsellor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Mandela went on to attend primary school in Qunu and it was his teacher Miss Mdingane who gave him the name Nelson, as it was the custom to give all school children “Christian” names.

Mandela’s sense of political injustice must have started early. His father died when he was very young and so he a ward of Jongintaba, the acting King, at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. He listened to the elder’s stories of the bravery and courage of the Thembu people during the wars of resistance. Mandela dreamed even then of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.

Nelson Mandela Biography: Mandela and the ANC

He began studying for a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University College of Fort Hare but was expelled for joining in student protest. He moved to Johannesburg in 1941 and became more politically active. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 and helped to form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). Nelson Mandela rose through the ranks of the ANCYL and by 1949 was encouraging a more radical mass-based policy, the Programme of Action in response to the Afrikaner nationalists of the National Party who had come to power in 1948 and begun implementing the policy of apartheid.

Mandela rose to prominence in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws. This campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws was a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. The ANC implemented national action based on non-cooperation with certain laws considered unjust and discriminatory. They stated:

“All people, irrespective of the national group they belong to and irrespective of the colour of their skin, who have made South Africa their home, are entitled to live a full and free life …. [the struggle] is for the creation of conditions which will restore human dignity, equality and freedom to every South African”.

Mandela and 19 others were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the campaign and were sentenced to nine months hard labour although this was suspended for two years. Mandela went on to be elected President of the Transvaal ANC Branch and oversaw the 1955 Congress of the People on 26 June, which explained the vision of the South African people through the Freedom Charter which was the core statement of principles of the Congress Alliance.

By now working as a lawyer, Mandela was repeatedly arrested for rebellious activities. In common with all members of the ANC leadership, he was prosecuted in the Treason Trial of 1956. Some 156 activists, men and women of all races and creeds found themselves in the dock in a lengthy trial that ended in 1961. Mandela was acquitted.

On 21 March 1960 police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest at Sharpeville leading to South Africa’s first state of emergency on 31 March. The ANC were banned. Nelson Mandela and his colleagues from the Treason Trial were among thousands who were detained during the state of emergency.

Nelson Mandela Biography: Spear of the Nation

As soon as Mandela and his colleagues were acquitted he disappeared underground and started organising a national strike for 29, 30 and 31 March, however state security was mobilized and the strike was called off. In June 1961 Mandela was approached to lead an armed struggle and to establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation).

Umkhonto we Sizwe (abbreviated to MK) became the armed wing of the ANC launched its first guerrilla attacks against government installations on 16 December 1961. It was subsequently classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African government and the United States, and was henceforth banned.

Mandela adopted a false name and left South Africa in January 1962 travelling through North Africa and visiting England to elicit support for an armed struggle. He received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa in July 1962 but he was arrested in a police roadblock outside Howick on 5 August after briefing the ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli about his trip.

Nelson Mandela Biography: Imprisonment

The authorities charged him with leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Police raided a secret hide-out in Rivonia used by ANC and Communist Party activists and arrested several of his comrades. Mandela joined them on trial in October 1963 for sabotage.  This time he faced the death penalty. His told the court in his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ on 20 April 1964:

“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.”

On 11 June 1964 Nelson Mandela and seven others were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island where he stayed until 31 March 1982 before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. Throughout his imprisonment he had rejected at least three conditional offers of release. But when the then Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee visited Mandela in November 1985 after Mandela had prostate surgery, they initiated talks about an ultimate meeting between the apartheid government and the ANC. In 1988 Mandela was treated for Tuberculosis and transferred to Victor Verster Prison. He was released from its gates on Sunday 11 February 1990, nine days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC.

Nelson Mandela Biography: Presidency

Straightaway, Mandela began official talks to end white minority rule and in 1991 he was elected ANC President. In 1993 he and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize and on 27 April 1994 Mandela was able to vote for the first time in his life. On 10 May 1994 he was inaugurated South Africa’s first democratically elected President, serving one term until 1999. In his time as President he was able to establish a new constitution and initiate the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights abuses from the past. He continued the former government's liberal economic policy and introduced measures that encouraged land reform, expanded healthcare services and tried to combat poverty.

Nelson Mandela Biography: His Legacy

Nelson Mandela has been a true inspiration across the world, his whole life. He has never ever wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning and in spite of his suffering he has never responded to racism with racism. He has worked to free people who are oppressed and deprived and lived, according to his beliefs, with great integrity for over 95 years. His light is dimming but his legacy will live on forever.


Nelson Mandela is a true hero and leader whose legacy will continue on throughout the ages. If you'd like to read more biographies like the nelson mandela biography return to our famous leaders hub.

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