Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela: leader among leaders

Chief among African leaders, Nelson Mandela is one of few statesmen to have achieved almost universal respect around the world and across the political spectrum.

His role in fighting apartheid, his imprisonment on Robben Island – where he came to symbolise the struggle of oppressed people around the world – and his ability to steer South Africa through the crisis of its rebirth earned him the international reputation of benevolent negotiator and quintessential peacemaker.

Imprisoned for 27 years for his opposition to apartheid, Mandela came out of prison in 1990 expressing no bitterness towards his tormentors. Instead, he championed reconciliation among South Africa's polarised races, espousing the principles of nation-building and co-operative governance.

Mandela was one of the few leaders capable of inspiring confidence both inside and outside the country. Few others would have managed to unite the disparate warring parties and steer South Africa from what seemed to be the brink of civil war.

To some, Mandela had a near-omnipotent power at the negotiating table, carrying with him an indubitable moral authority and gentle but firm sense of fairness. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with former South African president FW de Klerk.

Mandela as president

As South Africa's first democratically elected President in 1994, Mandela tackled the challenge of uniting both the country's racial groupings and a fragmented public service whose delivery mandate was skewed in favour of the white population.

A significant milestone of the his presidency was the exemplary constitution- making process, which delivered a document that is the envy of the democratic world.

Mandela is equally known for taking a strong stand against the giant world powers – especially in defence of Africa. As president, he was unrestrained in embracing the ANC's former allies, such as Libya's Muammar Gadaffi and Palestinian Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat, in spite of criticism from the United States.

His position also made for fluid relationships with both Russia and China, former communist allies of the ANC.

After handing over the reigns of the presidency to Thabo Mbeki in 1999, Mandela played a key role as middleman in crisis-hit areas such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides campaigning globally for peace, Mandela focused his still prodigious energies increasingly on empowering disadvantaged children and fighting against HIV/Aids.

In June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. His parting gift – a R1- billion endowment to South Africa, to be raised by the three charitable organisations that bear his name: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Nelson Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Early life

Nelson Mandela, whose second name is Rolihlahla, was born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo, near Qunu. He was the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela, chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Tembu. He spent his early childhood in the Transkei, being groomed to become a chief.

Mandela matriculated at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School and enrolled at Fort Hare University College, where he met Oliver Tambo. It was at Fort Hare that he first became involved in student politics, and he was expelled in 1940 after participating in a student protest.

Mandela left the Transkei, partly to avoid an arranged marriage, and moved to Johannesburg where he was employed as a mine policeman. Shortly after this he met Walter Sisulu, who helped him obtain articles with a legal firm.

Completing a BA degree by correspondence in 1941, he then began studying for a law degree, which he didn't complete. In December 1952, Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened the first African legal partnership in the country.

Youth League founder

Together with Sisulu and Tambo, Mandela participated in the founding of the African National Congress Youth League in 1944.

The Youth League invigorated the ANC. Its Programme of Action was adopted by the ANC in 1949, and it provided much of the impetus that led to mass protests and later, the formation of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe.

In 1948 Mandela served as the Youth League's national secretary, and in 1950 became its national president. He became one of four deputy presidents of the ANC in October 1952.

First arrest and banning

In December of the same year, Mandela and 19 others were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their participation in the Defiance Campaign, a national protest against laws curtailing the freedoms of blacks, Indians and coloureds.

The campaign was significant for Mandela. Whereas previously he was wary of working with non-black Africans, the campaign convinced him to move towards coordinating an interracial and united front to fight apartheid.

Mandela was sentenced to nine months' imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years. He was later served with a six-month banning order prohibiting him from attending meetings, or from leaving the Johannesburg magisterial district. For the following nine years his banning orders were continually renewed.

In December 1956 Mandela was one of 156 political activists arrested and charged with high treason for the campaign leading to the adoption of The Freedom Charter in 1955. The trial lasted four-and-a-half years. On 25 March 1961, Mandela and 29 others were found not guilty.

Family life

In 1958 he married Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela. They had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi. It was a turbulent marriage. During Mandela's imprisonment on Robben Island, Winnie spearheaded the struggle outside of prison. During the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings some three decades later, she was linked to the deaths of several young ANC activists. They divorced in 1996.

Mandela has a daughter, Makaziwe, from his first marriage to Evelyn Ntoko, a nurse. Their third child, Thembi, was killed in a car accident in 1969, while Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island. Their other son, Makgatho Lewanika Mandela – Mandela's last surviving son – died on 6 January 2005, aged 54.

Armed struggle

When the apartheid government banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress in 1960, Mandela led the campaign to launch an underground struggle. He emerged as a leading figure in the formation of Umkhonto weSizwe, the ANC's armed wing, becoming its first commander-in-chief.

After working outside of South Africa for a period – a time that included military training in Algeria – Mandela returned to South Africa in July 1962.

On 5 August 1962 the police finally captured the elusive "Black Pimpernel" near Howick in what was then Natal province. He was tried and sentenced to five years' imprisonment for incitement to strike and illegally leaving the country.

Rivonia Trial

While Mandela was in prison, police raided the ANC's underground headquarters at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, and arrested several ANC leaders. Police found documents relating to the manufacture of explosives, Mandela's diary and copies of a draft memorandum – Operation Mayibuye – which outlined a possible strategy for guerrilla struggle.

The Rivonia Trial began in October 1963 and Mandela joined the other accused – Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg and Wilton Mkwayi – being tried for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Mandela's statement from the dock received worldwide publicity. On 12 June 1964, all eight of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison, the rest to Robben Island.

Robben Island

Mandela spent the next 18 years on Robben Island, before being transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town and then to Victor Verster prison, where it was discovered that he was suffering from tuberculosis.

On Robben Island, Mandela, who was kept in isolation along with other senior leaders, continued to play an important role as a political leader behind bars, maintaining contact with the ANC leadership in exile.

From July 1986 onwards, Mandela initiated contact with government representatives, which led eventually to his July 1989 meeting with President PW Botha at Tuynhuys. In December 1989 he met De Klerk.


Mandela was released from jail on Sunday, 11 February 1990. The first images of the president-to-be walking out of prison were relayed live via satellite to ecstatic audiences across the globe.

Mandela led the ANC in negotiations with the South African government which culminated in the adoption of the interim constitution in November 1993. In 1994 the ANC won the country's first multiracial elections with an overwhelming majority.

Mandela's inauguration as President brought together the largest number of heads of state since the funeral of former US President John Kennedy in 1963.

On 18 July 1998 Mandela married Graηa Machel, the widow of former Mozambique President Samora Machel.

After handing over the reigns of the presidency to Thabo Mbeki in 1999, Mandela played a key role as middleman in crisis-hit areas such as Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Besides campaigning globally for peace, Mandela focused his still prodigious energies on empowering disadvantaged children and fighting against HIV/Aids. He gave his prison number – 46664 – to a global campaign to raise awareness about the disease.

Retirement and legacy

In June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. His parting gift – a R1- billion endowment to South Africa, to be raised by the three charitable organisations that bear his name: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and the Nelson Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

In 2007, Mandela, together with Machel and Desmond Tutu, convened a group of world leaders – 'The Elders' – to contribute their wisdom and independent leadership to global problems and to ease human suffering.

In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed Mandela's birthday, 18 July, as "Mandela Day", marking his contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. It called on individuals to donate 67 minutes to doing something for others, commemorating the 67 years that Mandela had been a part of the movement.

With his health increasingly fragile, Mandela has been admitted to hospital for a reoccuring lung infection many times since 2011. In June 2013, he was admitted in a serious condition. The nation held its breath - but Mandela was sent home on 1 September, with President Zuma describing Mandela's condition as "critical and at times unstable".

SAinfo reporter

Reviewed: October 2013

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Life before Robben Island
  • Robben Island and after
  • Nelson Mandela and the 46664 campaign Nelson Mandela addresses the crowd at the inaugural 46664 concert in Cape Town in 2003. The music-led HIV/Aids awareness campaign took its name from his Robben Island prison number (Photo: Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu on Robben Island walter sisulu, robben island, nelson mandela, prison, madiba, 
1966, archive

    Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, Robben Island prison yard, 1966 (Photo: UWC-Robben Island Mayibuye Archives)

    Nelson Mandela in the law office he ran with Oliver Tambo, 1952

    Mandela & Tambo Attorneys: the only existing image of Nelson Mandela in the law office he ran with Oliver Tambo in downtown Johannesburg, 1952 (Image strictly copyright Jurgen Schadeberg)

    Nelson Mandela burns his pass book during the 1952 Defiance Campaign

    Nelson Mandela burning his pass book during the 1952 Defiance Campaign (Photo: South African History Online)

     wedding, nelson, winnie, freedom fighters series, awareness publishing, children's books, mandelas

    Nelson and Winnie Mandela on their wedding day in 1958

    A young Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela in traditional dress

    A young Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela in traditional dress (Image sourced from: History Department, UKZN)

    Nelson Mandela walks out of Pollsmoor prison, 11 February 1990

    Mandela walks out of Pollsmoor prison on 11 February 1990 ... Almost no one outside prison had seen him or his photograph for 27 years (Photo: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

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    "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."

    From Nelson Mandela's statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria Supreme Court, 20 April 1964.

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