Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s Life and Times: The Revolutionary

It has been 101 years today since the legend was born. Nelson Mandela was a lot of things, from a revolutionary to a political leader, philanthropist and what not. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela or popularly known as Nelson

Mandela was born in the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape, on 18 July 1918. His father, Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, was the principal councilor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his mother’s name was Nonqaphi Nosekeni.

“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. ” A quote from ‘Speech from the Dock’ by Nelson Mandela on 20th April 1964

Nelson Mandela was 12 years old when his father died, and then he became a ward of Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni.

Rolihlahla was given the name Nelson, by his teacher, Miss Mdingane, when he attended primary school in Qunu. This name was given to him as per the custom of giving all school children “Christian” names. 

Mandela dreamed of making his contribution to the freedom struggle of his people from Hearing the elders’ stories of his ancestors’ valor during the wars of resistance. He went on to Healdtown after completing his Junior Certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute.  He matriculated in the Wesleyan secondary school of some repute in Healdtown.

At the University College of Fort at the Hare Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree. He was not able to complete this degree though as he was expelled for joining in a student protest.

When Nelson Mandela returned to the Great Place at Mqhekezweni, the king was extremely angry and hence said that if Nelson didn’t return to Fort Hare he would arrange wives for him and his cousin Justice. Instead, they ran away to Johannesburg and reached there in 1941.

In Johannesburg, he worked as a mine security officer. He then met an estate agent named Walter Sisulu who introduced him to Lazer Sidelsky. Nelson then did his articles through a firm of attorneys – Witkin, Eidelman, and Sidelsky.

In 1943 he went back to Fort Hare for his graduation after completing his BA through the University of South Africa. In the meantime, he began studying for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand.

He was a poor student and without graduating in 1952 he left the university. After his imprisonment, in 1962, he started studying again through the University of London but didn’t complete this degree either.

Nelson obtained an LLB through the University of South Africa in 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment. In Cape Town, he graduated in absentia at a ceremony.


Entering Politics

It was around in 1942 that Mandela was increasingly involved in politics. In 1944 he joined the African National Congress. He helped in the formation of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) during this time. In the same year, he married Evelyn Mase, a nurse who was Walter Sisulu’s cousin.

They had four children, two sons named- Madiba Thembekile “Thembi” and Makgatho, and two daughters both called Makaziwe, the first of whom died in infancy. In 1958, he and his wife got divorced. 

Nelson accelerated through the ranks of the ANCYL. It was through the efforts of ANCYL that, in 1949, the ANC adopted a more radical mass-based policy, the Programme of Action. 

He was chosen as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign with Maulvi Cachalia as his deputy, in 1952. This campaign of civil disobedience was against six unjust laws.

This was a joint program between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. Under the Suppression of Communism Act, Nelson and nineteen others were charged for their part in the campaign and sentenced to nine months of hard labor, and suspended for two years. Overall it was for 27 years that Mandela served in prison.

Mandela was able to practice law after a two-year diploma in law in addition to his BA. In August 1952, Nelson and Oliver Tambo established “Mandela & Tambo”, which was South Africa’s first black law firm.

He was banned for the first time by the end of 1952. He as a restricted person was only permitted to watch in secret because the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown on 26 June 1955.


The Treason Trial

On5th December 1956, Mandela was arrested in a countrywide police swoop. This led to the 1956 Treason Trial. The police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest in Sharpeville against the pass laws, on 21 March 1960.

This not only led to the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on 8th April but the country’s first state of emergency as well. During the state of emergency, Mandela and his colleagues in the Treason Trial were among thousands detained.

On 14 June 1958, Nelson married a social worker, named- Winnie Madikizela, during the treason trial. They had two daughters, named- Zenani and Zindziswa. In 1996, the couple divorced.

A few days before the end of the Treason Trial, Nelson traveled to Pietermaritzburg to speak at the All-in Africa Conference.

This conference resolved that Mandela should write to Prime Minister Verwoerd requesting a national convention on a non-racial constitution. This was also to warn that if the Prime Minister would not agree there would be a national strike against South Africa becoming a republic.

After Nelson and his colleagues were acquitted in the Treason Trial, he went underground and began planning a national strike for 29, 30 and 31 March.

Although, the strike was called off early in the face of a massive mobilization of state security. He was asked to lead the armed struggle, in June 1961. He helped to establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), which launched on 16th December 1961 with a series of explosions.

Mandela secretly left South Africa on 11 January 1962, using the adopted name David Motsamayi.

To gain support for the armed struggle he traveled around Africa and visited England. In Morocco and Ethiopia, he received military training and returned to South Africa in July 1962.

He was convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, during which he began serving at the Pretoria Local Prison. He was transferred to Robben Island on 27 May 1963 and returned to Pretoria on 12 June.

Mandela joined 10 others on trial for sabotage on 9th October 1963. This became to be known as the Rivonia Trial. While facing the death penalty his words to the court at the end of his famous “Speech from the Dock” on 20 April 1964 became eternal:

“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. ”

A quote from ‘Speech from the Dock’ by Nelson Mandela on 20th April 1964

Mandela along with seven other accused, named- Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, were convicted, on 11 June 1964.

The next day they were sentenced to life imprisonment. As Goldberg was white, he was sent to Pretoria Prison, while the others went to Robben Island.

In 1968 Mandela’s mother died and in 1969 his eldest son, Thembi. He was not allowed to attend their funerals.

Along with Sisulu, Mhlaba, and Mlangeni, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town on 31st March 1982. In October, Kathrada joined them. Mandela was held alone, when he returned to the prison in November 1985 after his prostate surgery. He was visited by the Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee in the hospital.


Release From Prison

On 12 August 1988, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the hospital. After over three months in two hospitals, he was transferred to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl on 7 December 1988. He spent his last 14 months of imprisonment over there.

To end the white minority rule, Mandela immersed himself in official talks. In 1991 he was elected ANC President to replace his ailing friend, Oliver Tambo. In 1993 Mandela and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. On 27 April 1994, he voted for the first time in his life.


Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President, on 10th May 1994. He married his third wife, Graça Machel, on his 80th birthday in 1998. After one term as President and being fair to his promise, Mandela stepped down in 1999.

Although he continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund he set up in 1995. He also established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Nelson Mandela never fluctuated in his devotion to democracy, equality, and learning. Regardless of terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life is an inspiration to all those who are oppressed and deprived, and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.

On 5 December 2013, he died at his home in Johannesburg. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *