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Essay About Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Background

In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared, 18 July Nelson Mandela International Day, to honour his birthday. This is the first time that the United Nations (UN) has designated a day dedicated to a person.

The UN has also asked the people of the world to set aside 67 minutes of their day to undertake a task that would contribute to bringing joy or relief to the millions of disadvantaged and vulnerable people of the world.

Mandela’s fame rests on his role as a revolutionary leader who spent nearly seven decades of his life in the struggle against white minority rule and for a free and democratic non-racial society. His greatness lies in the fact that he is a visionary, a democrat and international political leader who exercises his influence and leadership with humility and respect for his colleagues and opponents alike. He is, above all, a man who is stubborn in his resolve to fight all forms of discrimination, injustice and inequality.

South African History Online’s contribution to celebrating the life and times of Nelson Mandela has been, since 2008, to add to the Mandela feature on our website. Together, with the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s website, this constitutes one of the most authoritative and up to date online resources on Mandela.

2012 marks the 100th year anniversary of the African National Congress (ANC).  Our aim is to create a feature that will not only look at the liberation struggle but also celebrate the achievements of the peoples and organisations that shaped our freedom and democracy.

On the 5th of December Mandela passed away at 8.50pm at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, surrounded by his wife, Graça Machel and members of his family. 

Read about the South Africa in the 1900s (1900-1917)

Childhood and education (1918-1930s)

Mandela in Umtata, in his first suit, presented to him by the Regent, Jongintaba. © Mayibuye Centre.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela, a chief and chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu and a member of the Madiba clan.

Mandela’s middle name is Rolihlahla, which literally means ‘pulling the branch of a tree’, or colloquially, ‘troublemaker’. His was given the name Nelson by his white missionary school teacher.

In 1930 when his father died, Mandela was placed under the care of his father’s cousin, David Dalindyebo, the acting paramount chief of the Thembu. Mandela was the first member of his family to attend high school and when he matriculated at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School in 1938 he formed part of a very small number of black pupils who had attained a high school education in the country.

The patronage of Mandela’s relative the paramount chief resulted in Mandela joining the chief’s sons, Justice when they were sent to the only university for Blacks (African, Coloured and Indian) at Fort Hare near Alice in the Eastern Cape. At Fort Hare, Mandela befriended African, Indian and Coloured students, many of whom went on to play leading roles in the South African liberation struggle and in the anti-colonial struggle in some African countries. One of Mandela’s fellow students was Oliver Tambo. They would become business partners, close comrades and lifelong friends.

Mandela did not complete his degree at Fort Hare. He was involved in a dispute related to elections of the Student Representative Council. Mandela refused to take his seat on the council because he disagreed with the way the elections were run. After he rejected the university’s ultimatum to take the seat to which the was elected or face expulsion, the university gave him until the end of the student holidays to think the matter through, but he felt there were principles at stake that could not be compromised. He informed his guardian that he was not going back to Fort Hare and stubbornly stood his ground when the Regent, Jongintaba, pleaded with him.

The Regent had coincidently also made arrangements for his son Justice and Mandela to marry two young women chosen by the Regent. Both young men decided to defy the Regent, stole two of his cattle and used them to raise funds to secretly leave for Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, they contacted a ”homeboy“ who was employed at a gold mine as an Induna. He gave them shelter and jobs in the mine compound, but within days both were dismissed when the Induna learnt they had defied the chief and had left the Great Place without the chief’s permission.

Mandela found temporary lodging in Alexandra townships and communicated to the Regent his regret about defying and disrespecting him. Mandela convinced the Regent that he wanted to further his study in Johannesburg and received the Regent’s consent to remain in Johannesburg as well as financial support.

A few months into his stay in Johannesburg Mandela was introduced to a young estate agent named Walter Sisulu who immediately took him under his wing. Mandela moved in with Sisulu and his mother in their home in Orland, Soweto. Sisulu became Mandela’s lifelong friend, political mentor and closest political confident.

Sisulu found Mandela a white firm of attorneys who were prepared to give him a job and register him as an articled clerk, an exceedingly rare offer in segregated South Africa. While working at the firm Mandela enrolled for a BA degree in law at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits). At Wits he befriended fellow students I.C. Meer, J. Singh, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, all of whom were members of the South African Communist Party. Mandela became very close to I.C. Meer and J.N. Singh, both of whom played leading roles under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo in making the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congress becoming mass-based and militant organisations. Both Meer and Singh served prison terms during the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance campaign.

An African Nationalist comes of age (1940s)

In 1944 Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and soon became part of a group of young intellectuals that included Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, and Ashley Mda. The group articulated its dissatisfaction with the way the ANC was being run, critiqued its policy of appeasement, and became the driving force in the formation of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) in April of the same year. Influenced by the militant action of the Natal and Transvaal Indian Congresses’ Passive Resistance campaign of 1946 and the mineworkers strike, the ANC Youth League began drafting what came to be known as the Programme of Action for the ANC.

Nelson Mandela and Evelyn Mase at Walter Sisulu's wedding in 1944. Photograph: Eli Weinberg.

On 15 July 1944 Mandela married Evelyn Mase, a nurse and Walter Sisulu's cousin. The newlyweds moved to live with Evelyn's married sister and became neighbours with Es'kia (Es'kia) Mphalele, a teacher and later a noted scholar, journalist, writer and activist. In 1945 Evelyn Mandela gave birth to the couple's first child, a boy named Madiba Thembekile (Thembi for short). They were able to get a council house in Orlando, No 8115 which had three rooms, but neither electricity nor an inside toilet. Mandela's younger sister, Nomabandla (Leaby), came to live with them and enrolled at Orlando High School. Evelyn was the breadwinner in the family while Mandela studied law at Wits where he devoted much of his time to politics.

In 1948 the National Party narrowly won a Whites-only national election on the platform of a new policy of total racial segregation called apartheid (which literally means apartness). By that stage, Mandela was National Secretary of the ANCYL. Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo began lobbying the ANC to embark on militant mass action against a plethora of new laws that the Nationalists were drawing up to give effect to apartheid. The lobbying paid off as at the ANC’s annual conference in December 1949, the Youth League’s Programme of Action adopted by the parent organization. Perhaps more importantly for the influence of the ANCYL, Walter Sisulu was elected Secretary General of the ANC.

From its inception, the ANCYL was heavily influenced by the strident African nationalism espoused by Anton Lembede, the League’s foremost ideologue. Mandela was a strong advocate of the Lembede line that the ANC should stand on its own and not enter into alliances with the Indian congress, the Communists Party or the Non-European Unity Movement. The Youth League’s policy of going it alone brought it into conflict with the ANC and led to the League opposing some of the most important campaigns of the 1940s, including the Mine Workers Strike, the Passive Resistance Campaign and the cooperation pact signed between the ANC President Dr Xuma and the South African Indian Congress (the ‘Doctor’s Pact’).

In 1950, when the Communist Party, the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses, and the ANC jointly endorsed the Free Speech Convention, Mandela was strident in his criticism, believing that the endorsement undermined the ANC Programme of Action and the ANC’s position as the leading liberation organisation. Notwithstanding his Africanist political stance, Mandela did not allow the issue to influence his personal relationships with Indian, White and African communist leaders.

A pivotal moment came in May 1950. The ANC, Communist Party and South African Indian Congress jointly called a national strike to protest the proposed banning of the Communist Party. The 'May Day' (1 May) strike was immensely successful and the government responded with unrestrained brutality. This experience was the spark that convinced Mandela that freedom would only come from forging a broad-based non-racial alliance against apartheid and white minority rule. Confronted by opposition from the ANC’s Africanist wing, Mandela stuck by this new position and together with Tambo and Communist Party general secretary Moses Kotane, they joined their friend Walter Sisulu in forging what came to be known as the Congress Alliance.

In 1952 the Congress Alliance embarked on the first of its national campaigns against a select number of Apartheid governments laws. The campaigns were modelled on the earlier passive resistance campaigns of the 1940s. In 1952 the Congress Alliance launched the Defiance Campaign, which continued for two years. While the Defiance Campaign did not succeed in changing any laws, the campaign transformed the ANC into a mass-based and militant organization and the largest of the liberation movements, growing from 7000 to over 100 000 by the time the campaign ended in 1954. The Defiance Campaign and the increasing stature of the ANC changed the nature of the South African freedom struggle.

'Volunteer in chief'- A decade of defiance (1950s)

Mandela burns his passbook in an act of Defiance against apartheid pass laws. Photograph: Eli Weinberg, UWC Robben Island Mayibuye Archives.

During the Defiance Campaign, Mandela emerged as one of the most influential leaders of the liberation struggle, alongside Walter Sisulu and Chief Albert Luthuli. Mandela was the public spokesperson and leader of the campaign and was appointed National 'Volunteer-in-chief'. Together with Maulvi Cachalia of the Indian Congress, Mandela travelled around South Africa enlisting volunteers to defy apartheid laws. As a consequence, both were charged with recruiting and training ‘congress volunteers’.

The campaign officially began on 26 June 1952 when 51 volunteers led by President of the Transvaal Indian Congress Nana Sita and Patrick Duncan entered Boksburg Native Location in defiance of the law that required non-Africans to have permits to enter an African location. In the course of the campaign thousands of volunteers served harsh prison terms, but Mandela was instructed not to break the law or court arrest to ensure that the campaign would not be rendered leaderless should all the leaders be imprisoned at the same time. He was nevertheless arrested on several occasions during the course of the campaign and released after short stints in jail.

At the height of the Defiance Campaign, the ANC recognised the likelihood that the organisation would be banned as the Communist Party had been three years earlier. Asked by the ANC executive to devise a contingency plan for such an eventuality, Mandela drew up what became known as the 'M Plan', which provided for the creation of street-based cell structures. During the same period, Mandela become more and more uneasy with the policy of non-violent resistance, but was held back by the ANC leadership’s strong advocacy of non-violence.

Nelson Mandela pictured in 1952 at the offices of his legal partnership with Oliver Tambo. Photographer: Jürgen Schadeberg.

In December 1952, Tambo joined Mandela as a partner in his legal practice - the first African-run legal partnership in the country. During the next two years Mandela and Tambo worked together in their legal practice defending hundreds of people affected by apartheid laws. Their practice became very successful.

During the same month Mandela and 19 other leading congress alliance activists were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. Mandela, like all the others, was sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for three years. He was also served with a banning order that prohibited him from attending gatherings for six months and from leaving the Johannesburg magisterial district. For the following nine years his banning orders were repeatedly renewed.

Although Mandela was officially the deputy national president of the ANC, he was not legally allowed to play any role in ANC activities because of his banning order. However, he continued to meet clandestinely with the ANC and Congress Alliance leadership. Thus, he played a key role in the planning of all the major campaigns during the 1950s. The ANC-led Alliance called off the Defiance Campaign at the end of 1953 after the government passed new legislation proposing very harsh sentences for people breaking apartheid laws.

One of the most important Congress Alliance campaigns was the Freedom Charter campaign. Mandela along with his banned colleagues Dr. Yusuf Dadoo, Moses Kotane and Joe Slovo played a leading role. The campaign culminated in the convening of the historic Congress of the People on 25-26th June 1955 in Kliptown near Soweto. However Mandela, Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada could not attend the conference because their banning orders prohibited their participation. They viewed the proceedings of the Kliptown conference from the rooftop of a nearby Indian-owned shop. At the end of 1955, while Mandela was imprisoned for two weeks, his wife moved out of their home. He found his house empty when he was released on bail.

Mandela with Moses Kotane outside the Old Synagogue, Pretoria, on the day when the last of the accused were finally acquitted. Photograph: Jürgen Schadeberg

Mandela was one of 156 African, Indian, Coloured and White men and women leaders in the Congress Alliance who were arrested and charged with Treason following a dramatic police raid in December 1956. For four-and-a-half years the Treason Trial dragged on with charges being periodically withdrawn against some of the accused.

In 1958, half way through the trial, Mandela married Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, a social worker 16 years younger than him from Bizana in the Transkei.

In March 1961, Justice Rumpff found Mandela and the remaining 36 accused not guilty and discharged them.

Revolutionary Guerrilla Leader (1960s)

In 1959, with the Treason Trial still in progress, the ANC planned an anti-pass law campaign to begin on 31 March 1960. However, the campaign was pre-empted by the newly formed Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), which called for mass anti-pass protests on 21 March 1960. Heavily armed police outside a police station in the small southern Transvaal township of Sharpeville opened fire on a peaceful gathering of protesters killing 69 people and wounding more than 200 others, many of whom were shot in the back as they fled. The Sharpeville Massacre changed the face of South African politics. On 30 March 1960 the government declared a state of emergency, Mandela and 2000 other political activists across all liberation movements were detained.

On 8 April 1960 the government banned the ANC and PAC. The banning of political organisations and the shutting down of space for political protest prompted Mandela to begin seriously thinking about the armed struggle. The discussion to take up arms against the apartheid regime was also being discussed independently by activists detained under the emergency regulations as well as some leaders who had gone underground across all the remaining anti-apartheid groupings. The underground Communist Party had already smuggled a small group of people out of the country to receive military training in China.

Mandela addressing the All in African Conference at Plessislaer Hall in Pietermaritzburg in 1961. Source: Baileys African History Archive (BAHA)

Mandela and Tambo’s law firm had virtually collapsed, and Mandela rarely saw his family because of his semi-clandestine life. In August, when the state of emergency was lifted, Tambo was smuggled out of South Africa to establish an ANC office abroad.

With the release of political detainees, Mandela immediately became involved in discussions about convening a national convention. He was made secretary of the organising committee of the All-In Africa Conference and secretly travelled around the country preparing for the meeting. The All-In Africa Conference was held in Pietermaritzburg on 22 March 1961 and was attended by 1400 representatives from 145 political, cultural, sports and religious organisations. Mandela's banning order expired on the eve of the conference. Anticipating that his ban would be renewed, he went into hiding and made a dramatic appearance at the conference, where he made his first public speech since his first banning in 1952.

The conference appointed him honorary secretary of the All-In African National Action Council, whose task was to organise a three day stay-at-home on 29, 30 and 31 May 1961 to coincide with the proclamation of South Africa as a Republic on 31 May. This was the last public meeting he addressed for the next 29 years. On 3 April 1961 Mandela issued a statement on behalf of the All-in African National Action Council calling on students and scholars to support the stay-at-home campaign.

Nelson Mandela Biography

Born: 1918
Transkei, South Africa

South African president and political activist

Nelson Mandela is a South African leader who spent years in prison for opposing apartheid, the policy by which the races were separated and whites were given power over blacks in South Africa. Upon his release from prison, Mandela became the first president of a black-majority-ruled South Africa in which apartheid was officially ended. A symbol of hope for many, Mandela is also a former winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Youth and education

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in a small village in the southeastern region of South Africa called the Transkei. His father was chief of the village and a member of the royal family of the Thembu tribe, which spoke the Xhosa language. As a boy, Mandela grew up in the company of tribal elders and chiefs, which gave him a rich sense of African self-government and heritage, despite the cruel treatment of blacks in white-governed South Africa.

Mandela was also deeply influenced by his early education in Methodist church schools. The instruction he received there set Mandela on a path leading away from some African tribal traditions, such as an arranged marriage set up by a tribal elder, which he refused. After being expelled from Fort Hare University College in 1940 for leading a student strike, Mandela obtained a degree from Witwatersrand University. In 1942 he received a degree in law from the University of South Africa.

Joining the ANC

In 1944 Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), a South African political party. Since its founding, the ANC's main goal had been to work to improve conditions and rights for people of color in South Africa. However, its fairly conservative stance had led some members to call for less timid measures. Mandela became one of the ANC's younger and more radical leaders as a member of the ANC's Youth League. He became president of the league in 1951.

The years between 1951 and 1960 were troubled times, both for South Africa and for the ANC. Younger antiapartheid activists (protesters), including Mandela, were coming to the view that nonviolent demonstrations against apartheid did not work, because they allowed the South African government to respond with violence against Africans. Although Mandela was ready to try every possible technique to destroy apartheid peacefully, he began to feel that nonviolent resistance would not change conditions in the end.

In 1952 Mandela's leadership of ANC protest activities led to a nine-month jail sentence. Later, in 1956, he was arrested with other ANC leaders for promoting resistance to South Africa's "pass laws" that prevented blacks from moving freely in the country. Mandela was charged with treason (a crime committed against one's country), but the charges against him and others collapsed in 1961. By this time, however, the South African government had outlawed the ANC. This move followed events at Sharpeville in 1960, when police fired on a crowd of unarmed protesters.

Sharpeville had made it clear that the days of nonviolent resistance were over. In 1961 antiapartheid leaders created a semi-underground (operating illegally) movement called the All-African National Action Council. Mandela was appointed its honorary secretary and later became head of Umkhonto weSizwe (the Spear of the Nation), a militant ANC organization which used sabotage (destruction of property and other tactics

Nelson Mandela.
Reproduced by permission of

AP/Wide World Photos

used to undermine the government) in its fight against apartheid.

Political prisoner

In 1962 Mandela was again arrested, this time for leaving South Africa illegally and for inciting strikes. He was sentenced to five years in jail. The following year he was tried with other leaders of Umkhonto weSizwe on a charge of high treason, following a government raid of the group's secret headquarters. Mandela was given a life sentence, which he began serving in the maximum security prison on South Africa's Robben Island.

During the twenty-seven years that Mandela spent in prison, his example of quiet suffering was just one of many pressures on South Africa's apartheid government. Public discussion of Mandela was illegal, and he was allowed few visitors. But as the years dragged on, he was increasingly viewed as a martyr (one who suffers for a cause) in South Africa and around the world, making him a symbol of international protests against apartheid.

In 1988 Mandela was hospitalized with an illness, and after his recovery he was returned to prison under somewhat less harsh conditions. By this time, the situation within South Africa was becoming desperate for the ruling white powers. Protest had spread, and international pressures for the end of apartheid were increasing. More and more, South Africa was isolated as a racist state. It was against this backdrop that F. W. de Klerk (1936–), the president of South Africa, finally responded to the calls from around the world to release Mandela.


On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison. He received joyful welcomes wherever he went around the world. In 1991 he assumed the presidency of the ANC, which had been given legal status again by the government.

Both Mandela and deKlerk realized that only a compromise between whites and blacks could prevent civil war in South Africa. As a result, in late 1991, a multiparty Convention for a Democratic South Africa met to establish a new, democratic government that gave people of all colors rights to determine the country's future. Mandela and deKlerk led the negotiations, and their efforts gained them the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In September 1992, the two leaders signed a document that created a freely elected constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution and to act as a transition government (a government that functions temporarily while a new government is being formed). On April 27, 1994, the first free elections open to all South African citizens were held. The ANC won over sixty-two percent of the popular vote, and Mandela was elected president.

Presidency and retirement

As president, Mandela worked to ease the dangerous political differences in his country and to build up the South African economy. To a remarkable degree he was successful in his aims. Mandela's skill at building compromise and his enormous personal authority helped him lead the transition to democracy. In an effort to help the country heal, he also backed the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered amnesty (exemption from criminal prosecution) to those who had committed crimes during the apartheid era. This action helped to promote discussion about the country's history.

Mandela retired in June 1999, choosing not to challenge Thabo Mbeki, his vice president, in elections. Mbeki won the election for the ANC and was inaugurated as president on June 16, 1999. Mandela quickly took on the role of statesman after leaving office, acting that year as a mediator in the peace process in Burundi, where a civil war had led to the killing of thousands.

In late 2001, Mandela joined the outcry against terrorism when he expressed his support for the American bombing of Afghanistan after terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. By January 2002, however, Mandela had modified his support somewhat after South African Muslims criticized him for appearing to be insensitive to the sufferings of the Afghan people. As quoted by the Associated Press, Mandela called his earlier remarks supporting the bombings an "overstatement" and urged caution against prematurely labeling Osama bin Laden, the man suspected of plotting the attacks, as a terrorist.

For More Information

Benson, Mary. Nelson Mandela: The Man and the Movement. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Harwood, Ronald. Mandela. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Hughes, Libby. Nelson Mandela: Voice of Freedom. New York: Dillon Press, 1992.

Johns, Sheridan, and R. Hunt Davis Jr., eds. Mandela, Tambo, & the African National Congress: The Struggle Against Apartheid, 1948–1990: A Documentary Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Boston: Little, Brown, 1994.

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