Nelson Mandela was born in July 1918 in South Africa’s village of Mvezo. His father was a tribal chieftain, and he was given the name “Rolihlahla,” which means “troublemaker.” He took the surname “Mandela” because that was the name of his grandfather, who was the son of Ngubengcuka, a king of the Thembu people of South Africa. He was born into tribal royalty and were it not for some circumstances in his life, Mandela would have become a tribal chieftain.
When Mandela was born, South Africa was a British colony that had a significant white minority, who had the power of the British Empire behind them. Racism was an informal but powerful institution that divided the whites, known as Afrikaaners, from the black Africans. South Africa gained independence in 1931, and the formal institution of apartheid replaced casual racism.
31. Apartheid is Rule by a Minority Over a Majority
A series of laws that had been created decades before independence paved the way for apartheid once South Africa gained independence. A government led by white Afrikaaners ruled over the black majority population in ways that were frequently oppressive. Think of the system as Jim Crow laws in the American South being applied directly from Washington and covering the entire country.
Growing up in British South Africa, Nelson Mandela began school at the age of seven. His British teacher gave him Nelson for a name, which he went by formally for the rest of his life. Whereas he had previously enjoyed a rough-and-tumble childhood that was dominated by Thembu culture, he now had to adapt to a British lifestyle and was baptized into the Methodist church.
When Neslon Nelson Mandela was just nine years old, his father died. As a young boy, he was brought to a palace at Mqhekezweni and placed in the guardianship of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his wife, Noengland. He was given a top-notch education and attended church on a regular basis. During that time, he developed a profound appreciation for African history and was preparing to become a tribal ruler.
Johannesburg is one of the largest cities in South Africa, and Mandela fled there when he found out that Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo had arranged for him to get married. He worked different jobs that he could find to support himself and signed up for correspondence courses at the University of South Africa. He continued work towards his bachelor’s degree in the evenings.
27. Being in Johannesburg Opened His Eyes to Apartheid
Growing up as a tribal prince, Mandela had heard of apartheid. He knew about European imperialism from his education, but he mostly regarded it to be a good thing because it brought things like school and economic opportunities to Africa. Johannesburg changed all of that. He was appalled at the level of discrimination between whites and blacks who occupied the same city.
26. Urban Apartheid Was Vastly Different From His Rural Tribal Lifestyle
Apartheid meant that blacks and whites were not allowed to mix at all. There were beaches for whites, public toilets for whites, restaurants for whites, shops for whites, schools for whites. Blacks got whatever was leftover if anything. For somebody who grew up as a prince and was groomed to be a tribal chieftain, the social injustice that he witnessed – and experienced firsthand – was both appalling and unacceptable.
25. Nelson Mandela Started Attending Meetings of the African National Congress
Nelson Mandela could have decided that the realities of apartheid were too much for him and that urban filth was far too overwhelming, and returned to his life out in the country, among his fellow Xhosa people. However, he remained in Johannesburg and began attending meetings of the African National Congress. He had befriended members and, at the meetings, was impressed that people from so many diverse backgrounds – American, European, African – could meet together as equals.
24. The ANC Wanted to Establish Democracy in South Africa
The ANC was formed in 1912 with the goal of extending voting rights to blacks in South Africa. With independence from Britain and the formal implementation of the apartheid government, that goal became the ending of apartheid and establishment of equal rights for all citizens of South Africa.
23. The ANC Used Nonviolence and Peaceful Resistance
Nonviolent protests and peaceful resistance were the most common means through which the ANC attempted to break through the system of apartheid. However, in 1960, those means began to change following the Sharpeville Massacre. The Sharpeville Massacre occurred outside of a police station and resulted in the deaths of 69 black Africans who had been peacefully protesting. After that, it was willing to engage in more powerful acts.
Mandela spent a lot of time with people who also participated in the ANC, and it was through them that he met his first wife, Evelyn. Evelyn was also an ANC activist and, at the time, was training to become a nurse. They had four children together, one of whom died as an infant. The couple worked together to help further the cause of the ANC.
In 1948, with the election of the National Party, apartheid laws that had previously been informal became enforced by the state. The government officially recognized three types of people: whites (less than 20% of the population), blacks, and mixed race. Every kind of people had a specific set of laws that applied to them, along with particular rights and options for legal recourse. As you can probably imagine, black people got the short end of the stick.
20. Mandela Traveled Across South Africa to Protest Apartheid
In 1950, Mandela became part of the executive board of the ANC and the national president of the ANC Youth League. In 1952, he took part in the ANC’s Defiance Campaign, which sought to emulate other peacemakers, such as Mahatma Gandhi of India. He spoke to thousands of people across the country, and as many as 100,000 new people joined the ANC. In response, the apartheid government enacted martial law.
19. The Government Began to Restrict Mandela’s Movement
Nelson Mandela was quickly rising to national prominence as a leader of the movement against apartheid. The government took notice of him and forbade him from leaving Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela was also not allowed to take part in any mass gatherings or rallies. He was effectively under house arrest and would face imprisonment if he broke the restrictions.
18. Mandela Set Up a Law Firm to Serve South Africa’s Black Population
The revolutionary leader worked as an attorney for a couple of different law firms before attaining his own licensure. He and an ANC friend, Oliver Tambo, opened up the only black African-run law office in South Africa. They charged meager rates and were frequently used by blacks who had suffered from police brutality. Mandela became popular and respected by not only the black masses but also by the middle-class elite blacks of Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela frequently defied the travel restrictions that the apartheid government placed on him, and for a while, he had managed to evade arrest and trial. However, in 1956, he and most of the executives of the ANC were arrested and charged with high treason. The crime could be applied to anyone who worked to overturn the country’s apartheid law. Ultimately, though, he was found “not guilty” due to insufficient evidence.
16. Mandela’s Wife Divorced Him Due to the Stress of His Activism
Being one of the most important leaders in the anti-apartheid movement, Mandela was not as attentive to his wife and children as Evelyn believed he should have been. She also felt, perhaps with cause, that he had engaged in affairs with other members of the ANC while traveling. The couple divorced in 1958, and Evelyn gained custody of their children.
15. While Awaiting Trial, He Met His Second Wife, Winnie
Winnie was a social worker who was also active in the ANC. The two would have two children together remain married throughout his 27-year prison sentence on Robben Island. Because of her work to end apartheid and, along with her husband, help heal the racial divisions in South Africa, Winnie Mandela would become known as the “Mother of South Africa.”
1960 was the same year as the Sharpeville Massacre, and together with the outlawing of the ANC, many members decided that they had to use more than peaceful resistance to achieve their goals. The right-wing paramilitary branch of the ANC was known as uMkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. Following the illegalization of the ANC, it rose to prominence.
13. Mandela Decided That Nonviolent Resistance Was Not Enough
The revolutionary disguised himself as a chauffeur so that he could travel the country undetected, with warrants issued for his arrest. He realized that without the peaceful engagement of the ANC, blacks were resorting to violent means to continue their anti-apartheid cause. He made the difficult decision of encouraging Spear of the Nation to support violent action as a means of diverting the guerrilla and terrorist tactics into a more meaningful direction.
12. Nelson Mandela Was Arrested and Sentenced to Five Years in Prison
After traveling secretly for years, in 1962, Mandela was finally arrested; years later, a CIA official in the United States revealed that he had tipped off the government because the CIA was concerned about his communist affiliations. He was charged with inciting strikes among black workers and leaving the country without permission.
11. At Mandela’s Trial, He Refused to Defend Himself
Mandela knew that if he defended himself, he would only be legitimizing the charges that were brought against him. Instead, he wanted to use his trial as an opportunity to show the morality of the ANC’s cause. He did not call any witnesses and, instead of delivering his testimony, he gave a political speech about the injustice of apartheid and the vision of the ANC.
10. Nelson Mandela Received a Lifetime Sentence on Robben Island
Following police raids on Spear of the Nation headquarters, documents that mentioned Mandela were used to initiate new charges of sabotage and sedition. For these charges, he was given a life sentence on Robben Island, a remote prison off the coast of South Africa. It was a notoriously harsh prison; white guards frequently harassed the prisoners, and he had to spend his days splitting rocks with a pickaxe.
9. While in Prison, He Became a Galvanizing Symbol for the Anti-Apartheid Movement
The government had expected that once Mandela was in prison, anti-apartheid activists would quickly forget about him and, without a central leader, would soon disband. However, the opposite happened. He gained worldwide attention as an anti-apartheid activist who was now a political prisoner under an unjust regime. Meanwhile, though, Mandela had minimal contact with the outside world, including with his wife.
International pressure on South Africa, primarily inspired by Mandela’s imprisonment, led the government to begin taking steps that would dismantle the institution of apartheid. It officially legalized the African National Congress and other organizations; the ANC would soon be able to participate in national elections. A 1992 referendum among white voters enabled a further dismantling of the apartheid.
With the legalization of the ANC, Mandela was released from prison in 1990. He had served a total of 27 years and was now 70 years old. Media outlets from all over the world broadcast footage of his release, with him holding Winnie’s hand as they stood in front of large crowds of people and were driven throughout the city of Cape Town. He gave a speech about the ongoing cause of the ANC in ending apartheid.
6. Mandela Was Nearly Blind Because of His Time on Robben Island
Nelson Mandela had been forced for years to split rocks that reflected the sunlight so strongly that it severely damaged his eyes. He developed what is commonly referred to as “snow blindness” and frequently wore sunglasses because of how much light hurt his eyes.
While in prison, Mandela had learned to speak Afrikaans, the language of whites in South Africa, and had studied history and law. When he became the head of the ANC, he made it a multiracial institution and engineered a ceasefire, known as the Pretoria Minute, for the violence with which the ANC was engaging. He wanted to transform the party into something that could be a viable force in post-apartheid politics.
4. Nelson Mandela Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993
Few people expected that apartheid in South Africa would fall, but when it did, many credited Nelson Mandela. As the leader of the ANC, he continued to work to secure black rights in South Africa and end the violence on both sides of the apartheid lines by encouraging reconciliation. For his efforts, in 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1994, apartheid in South Africa officially ended when, for the first time in over 300 years, black South Africans were allowed to participate in their government. When the first-ever democratic elections were held, the ANC became the dominant party in the new parliament. Nelson Mandela was elected president, and he won with a landslide victory . He was 75 years old.
2. Mandela Helped Mediate the Civil War in Burundi
The entire continent of Africa has faced immense challenges resulting from colonization and the transition to national governments within newly-formed states. Burundi had been engaged in an ethnic conflict since 1993; wanting South Africa to be a model for the rest of the continent, he helped broker a peace settlement between the warring Hutus and Tutsis.
Today, Nelson Mandela is more than a hero for South Africans. He represents an entire movement of peacebuilding and reconciliation for African countries struggling to find their way in a postcolonial war. Mandela used soft diplomacy to address human rights violations by military juntas and tried to mediate an agreement to end the ongoing conflict in the Congo. Though much remains to be done, he set an example that the rest of the continent, and the world, should follow.
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