The Life of Nelson Mandela: South Africa’s Hero

Hailing from South Africa, Nelson Mandela is considered one of the greatest peacemakers in history. Here is his life story.

Sep 30, 2022By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
photo life of nelson mandela south africa flag
Photo of Nelson Mandela


Nelson Mandela stands as one of the most influential politicians of the 20th century. His was a life of hardship and suffering at the hands of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Mandela’s desire for justice gained him fame and notoriety as a leading figure within the African National Congress, as well as bringing international attention to the plight of non-white people in South Africa. His was a face that characterized the struggle to overcome racist policies entrenched in modern society the world over.


From violent resistance to a peaceful transition, South Africa’s first black president was a freedom fighter, a symbol of equality and human rights, and an icon of peace who changed the nature of South Africa and the world forever.


The Early Life of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela in his younger days, via


Born into the Madiba clan of the Xhosa people on July 18, 1918, Rolihlahla Mandela was the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni (mother) and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela (father). When he was 12, his father died, and Rolihlahla became the ward of the king of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who instilled in young Rolihlahla stories of their ancestors’ valor.


When he first attended school, he was given the name “Nelson” in accordance with the tradition of giving children Christian names in addition to their traditional names (he was named after Admiral Lord Nelson). Upon finishing school, he attended the University College of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape province, where he studied for a Bachelor of Arts. He did not finish his degree as he was expelled for participating in a student protest.


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When he returned home, the king was furious and arranged for him to get married, along with his cousin Justice. Unsatisfied with the prospect of an early marriage, Nelson and Justice fled to Johannesburg instead, where Nelson found work as a mine inspector. During his time in Johannesburg, he did his articles with a law firm and also met fellow anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu. He finished his degree through correspondence with the University of South Africa, and in 1943, Mandela returned to the University of Fort Hare for his graduation.


Political Activity and the 1940s

A leaflet from the 1948 general election, via the University of South Africa, Pretoria


In 1943, Nelson Mandela began studying for his LLB at the University of Witwatersrand, where he was the only black student and was thus subjected to racism. His views became increasingly motivated by anger and a sense of justice, and in his early days of political activism, he held the view that black people should not unite with other racial groups in a united front against racism; the struggle for black people was theirs alone.


Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1943 and helped found the ANC Youth League in 1944, where Mandela served on the Executive Committee. His time in the ANCYL was marked by intense debate over whether to view non-whites as being part of the struggle and the issue of whether communists should be represented within the ANCYL. Nelson Mandela opposed both.


In 1944, Nelson Mandela met and married a nurse, Evelyn Mase, and the two had two children, the second of which died of meningitis nine months after her birth.


In the 1948 South African national election, in which only whites could vote, the openly racist National Party took power. The ANC took a “direct action” approach and resisted apartheid laws through boycotts and strikes. Mandela helped guide the ANC to a more radical and revolutionary path. Because of his devotion to politics, he failed his final year at Witwatersrand University three times, and in December 1949, he was denied his degree.


1950 – 1964

Nelson Mandela in 1952 by Jürgen Schadeberg, via The Washington Post


In 1950, Nelson Mandela became the leader of the ANCYL. He continued to voice his opposition to multi-racial opposition to the apartheid regime, but his voice was a minority within the party. This changed, however, as Mandela’s views changed. The Soviet support of wars of liberation led him to rethink his distrust of communism, and he started reading communist literature. This also led him to accept the multi-ethnic resistance against apartheid.


In 1952, Mandela rose in prominence by being one of the leading figures in a non-violent defiance campaign that resulted in a massive increase in ANC membership. At this time, he was elected the leader of the Transvaal chapter of the ANC. Later that year, Mandela was arrested along with 20 others, charged with “statutory communism” under the Suppression of Communism Act, and sentenced to nine months of hard labor. However, his sentence was suspended for two years. He was also forbidden from talking to more than one person at a time, making it very difficult for him to do his job within the ANC.


In 1953, Mandela finally finished his law qualifications and opened a practice with Oliver Tambo to become the first black-owned law firm in the country. His relationship with his wife suffered during this time, and she accused him of adultery. She further shunned his obsession with politics.


In 1955, the ANC organized the Congress of the People, through which people were urged to send in ideas for a post-apartheid South Africa. Upon these ideas, the Freedom Charter was created in which equality and democracy were the core concepts. The Freedom Charter later went on to be the foundation for the current South African constitution.


uMkhonto we Sizwe poster, via the African Ephemera Collection, Indiana University


Throughout the rest of the decade, Nelson Mandela’s life was governed by a long legal battle. He was accused of treason and, after five years, was eventually found not guilty. During this time, his wife finally filed for divorce, taking custody of the children, and Nelson began a new relationship with Winnie Madikizela, a social worker whom he married in 1958.


In the early ‘60s, Mandela co-founded uMkhonto we Sizwe (“The Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the ANC which undertook bombing campaigns to damage South African infrastructure. He also left South Africa, traveled to many African countries, and visited London, garnering much international support.


In 1962, after receiving a tip-off from the CIA, the South African Police captured Nelson Mandela. After raiding the Liliesleaf farm where Mandela had been hiding, police found substantial uMkhonto we Sizwe documentation. Mandela was charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government. He was initially sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison.


The Imprisonment of Mandela: 1964 – 1990

Robben Island with Cape Town and Table Mountain in the background, via The Smithsonian Magazine


Nelson Mandela was transferred to the prison on Robben Island, where he spent the next 18 years crushing rocks, working in the lime quarry, and working on his LLB through correspondence. He was permitted one letter and one visit every six months, and, as newspapers were forbidden, he spent much time in solitary confinement for possessing smuggled news clippings.


Mandela also made a point of studying Afrikaans and Afrikaner history, even though it was the language and culture of his captors. For the most part, he spent his time in an eight-by-seven-foot damp cell. Despite having plenty to be angry about (he was not allowed to attend the funerals of his mother or his eldest son), during his time on Robben Island, Mandela was a positive influence on those around him. He struck up a lasting friendship with his prison warden, and his status as a prisoner improved dramatically.


In 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town along with a few other inmates who were also struggle icons. During his time in Pollsmoor, the apartheid government struggled to contain violent protests around the country calling for an end to apartheid. It was clear to many that the writing was on the wall for apartheid, and Mandela was able to set up meetings to talk to prominent South African politicians about a way forward for the country.


In 1988, Nelson Mandela started suffering from a serious case of tuberculosis, and he was taken to hospital for treatment. After three months in the hospital, Mandela was transferred to a house in Victor Verster Prison near the town of Paarl. He spent the remaining 14 months of his sentence there until being released on February 11, 1990, due to international and local pressure.


The Early ‘90s and the End of Apartheid

Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, in Cape Town on February 11, 1990, after Mandela’s release from prison, via Reuters via The Sun


Following his release from prison, Nelson Mandela embarked on an international tour, meeting many world leaders and seeking input about future relations between South Africa and the international community. In May, he led a multi-racial delegation to discuss the future of South Africa with a delegation of 11 Afrikaner men sent by the South African government. He offered a ceasefire and ordered uMkhonto we Sizwe to halt all hostilities. Following this, the ANC held a conference and elected Nelson Mandela as the leader, along with a multi-racial and mixed-gender Executive Committee.


From 1991 to 1992, Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Winnie became increasingly strained. She was on trial for kidnapping and assault, and, unlike Nelson, who had embraced a peaceful, multi-racial ideology, Winnie remained militant. After she was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison, the two separated.


Nelson and Winnie arriving at Rand Court in Johannesburg, 1991, via AP via The Daily Mail


In March 1992, a referendum was held in which only white people could vote. 68.73% of whites voted to end apartheid. The transition of power from the white minority was now inevitable, but how it would happen was far from certain.


South Africa was on the brink of civil war. The early ‘90s were characterized by intense violence between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party and supporters of the ANC. Members of the ultra-nationalist, neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) engaged in terrorist activities while Nelson Mandela was constantly initiating dialogue to address the country’s future with the president, FW de Klerk, but also with non-white opposition that opposed the ANC’s plans.


Concessions and compromises were made, and on April 27, 1994, South Africans took to the polls to vote in the first democratic elections. Despite the calls for violence, the process was peaceful. The ANC won the elections, and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.


Presidency and Later Years


During his five years as president, Nelson Mandela made strides in creating a sense of unity within South Africa. The new government included FW de Klerk (leader of the National Party) and Mangosuthu Buthelezi (leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party).


Nelson Mandela with Thabo Mbeki (South African president from 1999 to 2008), and FW de Klerk in 1994 by Alexander Joe, via AFP/Getty Images via Time


After many decades of minority rule, however, Nelson Mandela’s primary focus was that of reconciliation. He made great efforts to show respect to the minority that had lost power, allowing many NP officials posts in his new government. He personally met with many of the people who played important parts in the apartheid regime, and he urged black people to support the white-dominated national rugby team (the Springboks) during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was hosted and won by South Africa. This event was seen as one of the most significant factors in creating national unity.


Mandela also established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the crimes committed under apartheid from both sides of the political spectrum and granted amnesty to those who would share their stories.


The task of addressing the issue of decades of disenfranchisement of black people was monumental, and the Mandela government drastically increased social spending. The government embarked on large programs to bring housing, electricity, and water to a massive, dispossessed demographic. Despite tremendous progress, the polarization between rich and poor in South Africa is still the biggest in the world.


In 1999, Nelson Mandela handed over the reins of the presidency to Thabo Mbeki and went into a well-deserved retirement, although he still took great interest in making his voice heard. On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95 after a long battle with a respiratory illness. His body was laid to rest in his birthplace of Qunu in the Eastern Cape.


Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

Nelson Mandela’s funeral, via The Columbian


Nelson Mandela had a profound effect on South Africa and the entire world. A peacemaker, fighter, visionary, and martyr, he is seen as the father of democracy in South Africa. Mandela’s talent as a statesman saw South Africa avoid a civil war and transition peacefully into a new era in which South Africa holds friendly relations with every other nation on the planet. His legacy is one that inspires hope, especially due to the fact that in his struggle for freedom against oppression, he actually won. And in doing so, Nelson Mandela gained a victory for all South Africans.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.