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Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela served as South Africa’s first democratically elected black president from 1994 to 1999. Famous for his refusal to sacrifice his political beliefs even when imprisoned, Mandela and his government ended apartheid and worked toward achieving a racial accord by combating institutionalized racism.

The Early Years

Nelson Mandela was born into an upper class family in South Africa with ties to the Thembu Royal Family.

Nelson Mandela began life as Rolihlahla Mandela in Mvezo, Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918.[1] As an infant, his family moved to Qunu when his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, lost his job as local chief and advisor to the Thembu royal family.[2] Mandela attended the Methodist Church and mission school where he received his English name, Nelson.[3]

Mandela’s father died when he was about nine and Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people, became his guardian.[4] Jongintaba raised Mandela with his own two children, Justice and Nomafu, in Mqhekezweni.[5] Mandela attended the Clarkebury Methodist High School, where he excelled in academics, track, and boxing.[6]

In 1939, Mandela pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree at University College of Fort Hare, the most elite institution for black students in South Africa.[7]


Mandela returned home in December 1940 to discover Jongitntaba arranged marriages for both him and Justice.[8] They fled to Johannesburg where Mandela finished his Bachelor's then began studying law at the University of Witwatersrand.[9]

Nelson Mandela spent 18 years imprisoned on Robben Island.

Mandela joined the African National Congress soon after enrolling where he met one of his biggest influences, Anton Lembede. An ANC member involved with the Africanist branch of African nationalism, Lembede’s friendship solidified Mandela’s belief in an entirely independent revolution of solely black activists.[10] Mandela helped form the African National Congress Youth League in 1944 armed with this sentiment.[11]

Receiving several bans on public appearances, Mandela was arrested in 1956 for his political advocacy.[12] By 1961, frustration led to his co-founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, which later became the militant branch of the ANC. MK relied on sabotage that minimized casualties, including night bombings of different military and government stations without civilians present.[13]

In 1963, at the Rivonia Trial, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.[14] He spent 18 years incarcerated on Robben Island but remained in the public mind.[15] Through his international fame and collective campaigning, Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982.[16] Negotiations with the government finally began in May 1988, they offered Mandela release if he renounced ANC’s violent tactics. He refused and no agreement was reached. [17] Frederik Willem de Klerk replaced President Botha in 1989 and, on February 11, 1990, Mandela walked free.[18][19]

Mandela’s Release from Prison and Presidency

Nelson Mandela returned to his role as revolutionary immediately upon release and encouraged the world to enforce sanctions on the South African government. He toured around the world meeting leaders in the United States, France, the Vatican, and the United Kingdom.[20] The African National Congress elected Mandela as their president in 1991.[21] He helped negotiate South Africa’s first multiracial elections, even through armed struggles and violent protests, including the assassination of Chris Hani, leader of the ANC.[22]

Both Mandela and President de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their joint effort in dismantling apartheid.[23] Their success led to South Africa’s first democratic presidential elections on April 27, 1994.[24] Finally, on May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela swore in as the first black president.[25]

Mandela served from May 1994 to June 1999.[26] He focused on guiding the country towards black majority rule from the former apartheid government. Mandela’s Reconstruction and Development plan stabilized the shaky economy through funding basic health care, housing, and job creation.[27] He signed a new constitution into law in 1996. This enacted legislation to guarantee the freedom of speech, rights for minorities, and instituted a stable government united by majority rule.[28]

Retirement, Personal Life, and Death

Nelson Mandela retired from politics in 1999 but continued to be actively involved in his community through his foundation and publishing several books.[29] In 2001, he underwent treatment for prostate cancer and he retired from public life entirely in 2004 to return to Qunu.[30][31] He reemerged on July 18, 2007, with a collective of world leaders dubbed “The Elders” to support humanitarian crises and promote human rights and democracy.[32]

Mandela married three times and bore six children in total. His first marriage was from 1944 to 1957 with Evelyn Ntoko Mase and they had four children: Maki, Makaziwe, Makgatho, and Madiba Thembekile. His son, Makgatho, died from AIDS in 2005. His second marriage was from 1958 to 1996 with Winnie Madikizela. They had two daughters: Zenani and Zindiziswa. His final marriage began in 1998 with Graca Machel and ended with his death in 2013.[33]

Mandela died at his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013.[34] In memory of his great legacy, Mandela’s birthday, July 18, is now internationally recognized as Mandela Day.[35]



Benson, M. (1986). Nelson Mandela. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Meredith, M. (2010). Mandela: A Biography. New York: PublicAffairs.

Mandela, N. (1994). Long Walk to Freedom Volume I: 1918–1962. Little, Brown and Company.

Muthien, Y.; Khosa, M. ; Magubane, B. (2000). "Democracy and Governance in Transition". In Yvonne Muthien, Meshack Khosa and Bernard Magubane. Democracy and Governance Review: Mandela's Legacy 1994–1999. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council Press.

Sampson, A. (2011) [1999]. Mandela: The Authorised Biography. London: HarperCollins.

Smith, D. J. (2010). Young Mandela. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


  1. Smith, 2010, p. 17
  2. Smith, 2010, p. 19
  3. Mandela, 1994, pp. 18-19
  4. Government of South Africa. Nelson Mandela - Biography.[1]
  5. Meredith, 2010, p. 5
  6. Sampson, 2011, p. 15
  7. Mandela, 1994, pp. 62-65
  8. Mandela, 1994, pp. 73-76
  9. Mandela, 1994, pp. 100, 127-131
  10. Smith, 2010, p. 53-54
  11. Meredith, 2010, pp. 44-46
  12. Mandela, 1994, pp. 283–292
  13. Mandela, 1994, pp. 397-398, 411-412
  14. Sampson, 2011, pp. 183-186
  15. Smith, 2010, pp. 307-308
  16. Meredith, 2010, p. 340
  17. "Mandela Moved to House at Prison Farm". The New York Times.[2]
  18. Sampson, 2011, pp. 392-397
  19. "Mandela free after 27 years". The Guardian (London).[3]
  20. Sampson, 2011, pp. 415-418
  21. Meredith, 2010, pp. 439-440
  22. Meredith, 2010, pp. 476-480
  23. Sampson, 2011, p. 474
  24. Sampson, 2011, pp. 467-477
  25. Sampson, 2011, pp. 492-493
  26. Government of South Africa. Nelson Mandela - Biography.[4]
  27. Sly, L. (1995, January 01). After A Year, South Africa Finds A Place In The Sun.[5]
  28. Muthien, Khosa & Magubane, 2000, p. 366
  29. Meredith, 2010, p. 576
  30. Mandela 'responding well to treatment'". BBC. 13 August 2013.[6]
  31. Meredith, 2010, p. 593
  32. Mandela joins 'Elders' on turning 89". MSNBC. Associated Press. 20 July 2007.[7]
  33. "Genealogy". Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. Nelson Mandela Foundation.[8]
  34. "South Africa's Nelson Mandela dies in Johannesburg". BBC News. 5 December 2013.[9]
  35. Nelson Mandela Foundation. Mandela the Public Servant.[10]

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