Nelson Mandela was born on the 18th July 1918 to Nosekeni Fanny and Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa to the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, in the Cape Province of British South Africa.
He was initially named Rolihlahla, which meant troublemaker, quite an unusual name for an infant, it was only with time the name would come to fulfill its meaning.
Mandela grew up in a traditional Xhosa clan before joining an English speaking boarding school at age 7 where he got the name Nelson from a school teacher who required all students to have English names.
“No one in my family had ever attended school … On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name, I have no idea.” Nelson Mandela.
It was during his time at law school that he began to fight actively against the South African system of racial segregation known as apartheid which was even written into the law.
In 1943, under the influence of Walter Sisulu, Mandela joined the African National Congress party, the ANC, a party that advocated for black Africans’ rights and co-founded its youth league in 1944 after the establishment of the apartheid system that promoted white supremacy and suppression of black people.
The ANC’s main objective was aimed at overthrowing the injustice in the apartheid system of governance.
Although Mandela initially believed in peaceful protests, following the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, he later changed his mind in favour of armed resistance.
Mandela rose to the rank of president of the ANC’s Transvaal branch receiving widespread attention for his role in the 1952 defiance campaign and the 1955 Congress of the people.
In 1956, he was arrested for treason and served five years in prison.
After his release from prison and inspired by the actions of Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement in the Cuban Revolution, in 1961 in association with the South African Communist Party, the SACP, Mandela, Sisulu and Joe Slovo co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (spear of the nation, abbreviated as MK), a militant arm of the ANC that led an anti-government sabotage campaign against the apartheid government.
As chairman of the group, Mandela was influenced by Marxism and gained ideas from literature on guerrilla warfare by Marxist militants, Mao Zedong and Che Guevara as well as from the military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz.
After the ANC was banned, Mandela’s struggle went underground. But he couldn’t hide forever.
On the 5th of August in 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested and later sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to overthrow the government, in what was called the “Rivonia Trials”, which took place at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, South Africa between 9th October 1963 and 12th June 1964.
Although some western politicians supported his imprisonment, not for long more and more people around the world advocated for his release.
He was imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government, in what was called the”Rivonia Trials”.
He served 27 years, 6 months and 6 days in three prisons, in Robben Island between 1964 and 1982, in Pollsmoor prison between 1982 and 1988, and finally in Victor Verster prison between 1988 and 1990.
His 27-year time in prison was marked by the cruelty of Afrikaner guards, backbreaking labour, and sleeping in minuscule cells which were nearly uninhabitable.
Amid growing domestic and international pressure and fear of racial civil war, President Frederic de Klerk released Mandela in 1990.
Mandela and de Klerk would later lead efforts to negotiate an end to apartheid. This led to the 1994 multi-racial general election in which Mandela led the ANC to victory and became president between 1994 and 1999.
During his tenure as President of South Africa, Mandela made efforts to destroy institutional racism and emphasise reconciliation between the country’s racial groups.
One of the ways that Mandela used to heal the racially divided state of South Africa was through sports.
When South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup and won the final. Mandela gave the team captain a congratulatory hug in front of millions of viewers, an enormous gesture of reconciliation.
Although a very controversial figure, Nelson Mandela has received more than 250 accolades, including the Nobel Peace Prize and the Bharat Ratna Award for his extraordinary achievements.
While he passed away on 5th December, 2013, he is still greatly honoured in South Africa and even addressed by his Thembu clan name, Madiba, meaning “father of the nation“.