Who is Nelson Mandela?: Biography of Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

Never in the history of South Africa – or any other country for that matter – has one individual played such a pivotal role in uniting a deeply divided society. Prisoner-turned-world statesman became a moral beacon for all mankind after steering South Africa, a former land of Apartheid, away from a full-blown race war.

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

Born on 18 July, 1918, in the village of Mvezo in the Cape Province, Mandela was given the name Rolihlahla, meaning ‘troublemaker’ in the local Xhosa dialect. His first school teacher gave him the Christian name Nelson.

“Why this particular name (Rolihlahla), I have no idea,’ Mandela said later.

He studied anthropology, politics, native administration and Roman Dutch law at the University of Fort Hare, an elite black institution in Alice, Eastern Cape, but following his involvement in a protest against the quality of food, he left without receiving a degree.

He moved to Johannesburg and secured employment as a night watchman at the Crown Mines and met African National Congress (ANC) activist, Walter Sisulu, who secured him a job as an articled clerk at the law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman.

While working there, he studied for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree at the University of South Africa. In 1943, he enrolled for a law degree programme at the University of Witwatersrand where he was the only black student in the faculty.

Mandela married Evelyn Mase, an ANC activist and nurse from the Transkei, in October 1944 and both had two children — Madiba and Makaziwe, who died nine months later of meningitis.

In 1950, Mandela was elected national president of the ANC Youth League and two years later was arrested under the Suppression of Communism Act. Found guilty of ‘statutory communism’, he was jailed nine months with hard labour, which was suspended for two years.

In 1953, Mandela and Oliver Tambo opened their own law firm in downtown Johannesburg, the first black law firm in the country.

In 1956, Mandela was arrested with most of the ANC leadership for ‘high treason’ against the state. After a six-year trial, the judges, in 1961, returned a verdict of not guilty which was regarded as a humiliating blow for the apartheid government.

The same year, he co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’) with Sisulu and the communist Joe Slovo. On 5 August, 1962, police caught Mandela near Howick in KwaZulu-Natal.

While in custody, he began correspondence studies for a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree from the University of London.

The following year, police raided Mandela’s Johannesburg hide out – Liliesleaf Farm – where they found paperwork documenting his activities against the state.

At the subsequent Rivonia Trial at the Pretoria Supreme Court, Mandela was found guilty on four charges and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was transferred to Robben Island, off Cape Town, where he spent the next 18 years.

In 1982, he was transferred to the Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town but three years later, President PW Botha offered to release him from prison on condition that he ”unconditionally rejects violence as a political weapon’. Mandela rejected the offer and instead released a statement through his daughter Zindzi, saying ‘only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.’

In 1988, he was moved to the Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town where he completed his law degree. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, newly-elected President FW de Klerk met with Mandela and, soon afterwards, announced that he would release him unconditionally. Dr Klerk also legalised all formerly banned political parties. Under the glare of the international spotlight, Mandela, with his wife Winnie at his side, walked out of prison on 11 February.

He was driven to the Cape Town City Hall where he gave a speech declaring his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the white minority, but made it clear that the ANC’s armed struggle was not over.

Three months later, he led an ANC delegation into preliminary negotiations with the government. At the Convention for a Democratic South Africa which was attended by 228 delegates from 19 political parties, Mandela was a key figure, and after de Klerk used the closing speech to condemn ANC’s violence, Mandela denounced him as ‘head of an illegitimate, discredited minority regime’.

The then ruling National Party government realised that the game was up and set elections for 27 April, 1994, where the ANC and Mandela as its presidential candidate were victorious in 7 of the 9 provinces. Inkatha and the National Party won one province each.

Mandela’s inauguration took place in Pretoria on 10 May, 1994, about a year after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

A year later, Mandela initiated divorce proceedings against his wife, Winnie, on the grounds of her infidelity. Soon afterwards, he began a relationship with Graça Machel, the widow of the late Mozambican President Samora Machel.

Politically, Mandela reached out to South Africa’s white minority by appointing FW de Klerk as his first Deputy President. He also met with senior figures of the apartheid regime, including Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow Betsie.

When South Africa hosted – and won – the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela called on the entire nation to back the predominantly white team. He also oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated apartheid-era atrocities and served as a blueprint for other nations dealing with self-inflicted trauma.

Under Mandela’s presidency, welfare spending increased significantly and free healthcare was introduced for children under six and pregnant women. On the downside, Mandela’s government was accused of doing little to stem the HIV/AIDS pandemic and by 1999, 10% of South Africa’s population was HIV positive.

Mandela stepped down as ANC President at the December 1997 convention and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki. He refused to serve a second term.

In June 2004, at the age of 85, he announced that he was retreating from public life. His 90th birthday was marked across the country on 18 July, 2008, with the main celebrations held at his birthplace in Qunu, and a concert in his honour in Hyde Park, London.

Mandela, who was instrumental in securing South Africa the rights to host the 2010 World Cup, made his last public appearance during the closing ceremony.

In February 2011, he was hospitalised with a respiratory infection and the following year he was back in hospital for a lung infection and gallstone removal.

In March 2013, his lung infection reoccurred and he was briefly hospitalised in Pretoria. Two months later, the infection worsened, and he returned to hospital, where he spent three months before he was released so he could go home and continued his treatment.

Mandela died at his home Thursday, 5 Dec. 2013, according to South Africa’s Presidency. He was 95.

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