Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was the first Black president of South Africa, elected after time in prison for his anti-apartheid work. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

nelson mandela

(1918-2013)

Who Was Nelson Mandela?

Beginning in 1962, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for political offenses. In 1993, Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country's apartheid system. For generations to come, Mandela will be a source of inspiration for civil rights activists worldwide.

Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the tiny village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River in Transkei, South Africa.

His birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela. "Rolihlahla" in the Xhosa language literally means "pulling the branch of a tree," but more commonly translates as "troublemaker."

Mandela's father, who was destined to be a chief, served as a counselor to tribal chiefs for several years but lost both his title and fortune over a dispute with the local colonial magistrate.

Mandela was only an infant at the time, and his father's loss of status forced his mother to move the family to Qunu, an even smaller village north of Mvezo. The village was nestled in a narrow grassy valley; there were no roads, only footpaths that linked the pastures where livestock grazed.

The family lived in huts and ate a local harvest of maize, sorghum, pumpkin and beans, which was all they could afford. Water came from springs and streams and cooking was done outdoors.

Mandela played the games of young boys, acting out male right-of-passage scenarios with toys he made from the natural materials available, including tree branches and clay.

At the suggestion of one of his father's friends, Mandela was baptized in the Methodist Church. He went on to become the first in his family to attend school. As was custom at the time, and probably due to the bias of the British educational system in South Africa, Mandela's teacher told him that his new first name would be Nelson.

When Mandela was 12 years old, his father died of lung disease, causing his life to change dramatically. He was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people — a gesture done as a favor to Mandela's father, who, years earlier, had recommended Jongintaba be made chief.

Mandela subsequently left the carefree life he knew in Qunu, fearing that he would never see his village again. He traveled by motorcar to Mqhekezweni, the provincial capital of Thembuland, to the chief's royal residence. Though he had not forgotten his beloved village of Qunu, he quickly adapted to the new, more sophisticated surroundings of Mqhekezweni.

Mandela was given the same status and responsibilities as the regent's two other children, his son and oldest child, Justice, and daughter Nomafu. Mandela took classes in a one-room school next to the palace, studying English, Xhosa, history and geography.

It was during this period that Mandela developed an interest in African history, from elder chiefs who came to the Great Palace on official business. He learned how the African people had lived in relative peace until the coming of the white people.

According to the elders, the children of South Africa had previously lived as brothers, but white men had shattered this fellowship. While Black men shared their land, air and water with white people, white men took all of these things for themselves.

READ MORE: 14 Inspiring Nelson Mandela Quotes

Political Awakening

When Mandela was 16, it was time for him to partake in the traditional African circumcision ritual to mark his entrance into manhood. The ceremony of circumcision was not just a surgical procedure, but an elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood.

In African tradition, an uncircumcised man cannot inherit his father's wealth, marry or officiate at tribal rituals. Mandela participated in the ceremony with 25 other boys. He welcomed the opportunity to partake in his people's customs and felt ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood.

His mood shifted during the proceedings, however, when Chief Meligqili, the main speaker at the ceremony, spoke sadly of the young men, explaining that they were enslaved in their own country. Because their land was controlled by white men, they would never have the power to govern themselves, the chief said.

He went on to lament that the promise of the young men would be squandered as they struggled to make a living and perform mindless chores for white men. Mandela would later say that while the chief's words didn't make total sense to him at the time, they would eventually formulate his resolve for an independent South Africa.

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University Life

Under the guardianship of Regent Jongintaba, Mandela was groomed to assume high office, not as a chief, but a counselor to one. As Thembu royalty, Mandela attended a Wesleyan mission school, the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College, where, he would later state, he achieved academic success through "plain hard work."

He also excelled at track and boxing. Mandela was initially mocked as a "country boy" by his Wesleyan classmates, but eventually became friends with several students, including Mathona, his first female friend.

In 1939, Mandela enrolled at the University of Fort Hare , the only residential center of higher learning for Black people in South Africa at the time. Fort Hare was considered Africa's equivalent of Harvard , drawing scholars from all parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

In his first year at the university, Mandela took the required courses, but focused on Roman-Dutch law to prepare for a career in civil service as an interpreter or clerk — regarded as the best profession that a Black man could obtain at the time.

In his second year at Fort Hare, Mandela was elected to the Student Representative Council. For some time, students had been dissatisfied with the food and lack of power held by the SRC. During this election, a majority of students voted to boycott unless their demands were met.

Aligning with the student majority, Mandela resigned from his position. Seeing this as an act of insubordination, the university expelled Mandela for the rest of the year and gave him an ultimatum: He could return to the school if he agreed to serve on the SRC. When Mandela returned home, the regent was furious, telling him unequivocally that he would have to recant his decision and go back to school in the fall.

A few weeks after Mandela returned home, Regent Jongintaba announced that he had arranged a marriage for his adopted son. The regent wanted to make sure that Mandela's life was properly planned, and the arrangement was within his right, as tribal custom dictated.

Shocked by the news, feeling trapped and believing that he had no other option than to follow this recent order, Mandela ran away from home. He settled in Johannesburg, where he worked a variety of jobs, including as a guard and a clerk, while completing his bachelor's degree via correspondence courses. He then enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.

Anti-Apartheid Movement

Mandela soon became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress in 1942. Within the ANC, a small group of young Africans banded together, calling themselves the African National Congress Youth League. Their goal was to transform the ANC into a mass grassroots movement, deriving strength from millions of rural peasants and working people who had no voice under the current regime.

Specifically, the group believed that the ANC's old tactics of polite petitioning were ineffective. In 1949, the ANC officially adopted the Youth League's methods of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, with policy goals of full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and compulsory education for all children.

For 20 years, Mandela directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He founded the law firm Mandela and Tambo, partnering with Oliver Tambo , a brilliant student he'd met while attending Fort Hare. The law firm provided free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented Black people.

In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy (they were eventually acquitted). Meanwhile, the ANC was being challenged by Africanists, a new breed of Black activists who believed that the pacifist method of the ANC was ineffective.

Africanists soon broke away to form the Pan-Africanist Congress, which negatively affected the ANC; by 1959, the movement had lost much of its militant support.

Wife and Children

Mandela was married three times and had six children. He wed his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, in 1944. The couple had four children together: Madiba Thembekile (d. 1964), Makgatho (d. 2005), Makaziwe (d. 1948 at nine months old) and Maki. The couple divorced in 1957.

In 1958, Mandela wed Winnie Madikizela . The couple had two daughters together, Zenani (Argentina's South African ambassador) and Zindziswa (the South African ambassador to Denmark), before separating in 1996.

Two years later, in 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel, the first Education Minister of Mozambique, with whom he remained until his death in 2013.

Prison Years

Formerly committed to nonviolent protest, Mandela began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change. In 1961, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and use guerilla war tactics to end apartheid.

In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers' strike. He was arrested for leading the strike the following year and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 1963, Mandela was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.

Mandela spent 27 years in prison, from November 1962 until February 1990. He was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a Black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program.

A 1981 memoir by South African intelligence agent Gordon Winter described a plot by the South African government to arrange for Mandela's escape so as to shoot him during the recapture; the plot was foiled by British intelligence.

Mandela continued to be such a potent symbol of Black resistance that a coordinated international campaign for his release was launched, and this international groundswell of support exemplified the power and esteem that Mandela had in the global political community.

In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, allegedly to enable contact between them and the South African government. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela's release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner flatly rejected the offer.

F. W. de Klerk

With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the ensuing years, but no deal was made.

It wasn't until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela's release was finally announced, on February 11, 1990. De Klerk also lifted the ban on the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.

Upon his release from prison, Mandela immediately urged foreign powers not to reduce their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. While he stated that he was committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC's armed struggle would continue until the Black majority received the right to vote.

In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress, with lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo serving as national chairperson.

Nobel Peace Prize

In 1993, Mandela and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling apartheid in South Africa.

After Mandela’s release from prison, he negotiated with President de Klerk toward the country's first multiracial elections. White South Africans were willing to share power, but many Black South Africans wanted a complete transfer of power.

The negotiations were often strained, and news of violent eruptions, including the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani, continued throughout the country. Mandela had to keep a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the demonstrations and armed resistance.

Due in no small part to the work of Mandela and President de Klerk, negotiations between Black and white South Africans prevailed: On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first Black president on May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, with de Klerk as his first deputy.

From 1994 until June 1999, President Mandela worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to Black majority rule. He used the nation's enthusiasm for sports as a pivot point to promote reconciliation between white and Black people, encouraging Black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team.

In 1995, South Africa came to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the young republic. That year Mandela was also awarded the Order of Merit.

During his presidency, Mandela also worked to protect South Africa's economy from collapse. Through his Reconstruction and Development Plan, the South African government funded the creation of jobs, housing and basic health care.

In 1996, Mandela signed into law a new constitution for the nation, establishing a strong central government based on majority rule, and guaranteeing both the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.

Retirement and Later Career

By the 1999 general election, Mandela had retired from active politics. He continued to maintain a busy schedule, however, raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa's rural heartland through his foundation, and serving as a mediator in Burundi's civil war.

Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001. In June 2004, at the age of 85, he announced his formal retirement from public life and returned to his native village of Qunu.

On July 18, 2007, Mandela and wife Graca Machel co-founded The Elders , a group of world leaders aiming to work both publicly and privately to find solutions to some of the world's toughest issues. The group included Desmond Tutu , Kofi Annan , Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter , Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus.

The Elders' impact has spanned Asia, the Middle East and Africa, and their actions have included promoting peace and women's equality, demanding an end to atrocities, and supporting initiatives to address humanitarian crises and promote democracy.

In addition to advocating for peace and equality on both a national and global scale, in his later years, Mandela remained committed to the fight against AIDS . His son Makgatho died of the disease in 2005.

Relationship With Barack Obama

Mandela made his last public appearance at the final match of the World Cup in South Africa in 2010. He remained largely out of the spotlight in his later years, choosing to spend much of his time in his childhood community of Qunu, south of Johannesburg.

He did, however, visit with U.S. first lady Michelle Obama , wife of President Barack Obama , during her trip to South Africa in 2011. Barack Obama, while a junior senator from Illinois, also met with Mandela during his 2005 trip to the United States.

Mandela died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95 in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. After suffering a lung infection in January 2011, Mandela was briefly hospitalized in Johannesburg to undergo surgery for a stomach ailment in early 2012.

He was released after a few days, later returning to Qunu. Mandela would be hospitalized many times over the next several years — in December 2012, March 2013 and June 2013 — for further testing and medical treatment relating to his recurrent lung infection.

Following his June 2013 hospital visit, Machel, canceled a scheduled appearance in London to remain at her husband's side, and his daughter, Zenani Dlamini, flew back from Argentina to South Africa to be with her father.

Jacob Zuma , South Africa's president, issued a statement in response to public concern over Mandela's March 2013 health scare, asking for support in the form of prayer: "We appeal to the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba and his family and to keep them in their thoughts," Zuma said.

On the day of Mandela’s death, Zuma released a statement speaking to Mandela's legacy: "Wherever we are in the country, wherever we are in the world, let us reaffirm his vision of a society ... in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another," he said.

Movie and Books

In 1994, Mandela published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom , much of which he had secretly written while in prison. The book inspired the 2013 movie Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.

He also published a number of books on his life and struggles, among them No Easy Walk to Freedom ; Nelson Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life ; and Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales .

Mandela Day

In 2009, Mandela's birthday (July 18) was declared Mandela Day, an international day to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader's legacy. According to the Nelson Mandela Foundation , the annual event is meant to encourage citizens worldwide to give back the way that Mandela has throughout his lifetime.

A statement on the Nelson Mandela Foundation's website reads: "Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it’s supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community."

QUICK FACTS

  • Name: Nelson Mandela
  • Birth Year: 1918
  • Birth date: July 18, 1918
  • Birth City: Mvezo, Transkei
  • Birth Country: South Africa
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Nelson Mandela was the first Black president of South Africa, elected after time in prison for his anti-apartheid work. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
  • Civil Rights
  • World Politics
  • Astrological Sign: Cancer
  • University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
  • University College of Fort Hare
  • Wesleyan College
  • University of London
  • Clarkebury Boarding Institute
  • Nacionalities
  • South African
  • Interesting Facts
  • Mandela's African name "Rolihlahla" means "troublemaker."
  • Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa in 1994, serving until 1999.
  • Beginning in 1962, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for political offenses.
  • Death Year: 2013
  • Death date: December 5, 2013
  • Death City: Johannesburg
  • Death Country: South Africa

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CITATION INFORMATION

  • Article Title: Nelson Mandela Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/political-figures/nelson-mandela
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E; Television Networks
  • Last Updated: January 7, 2022
  • Original Published Date: April 3, 2014
  • I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days.
  • Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.
  • Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.
  • Those who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.
  • Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.
  • Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.
  • When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.
  • I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it....The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
  • Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all a test of one's commitment.
  • I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
  • During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against Black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
  • For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
  • If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
  • Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
  • I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.
  • The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
  • Wherever we are in the country, wherever we are in the world, let us reaffirm his vision of a society ... in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another.

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Nelson Mandela

By: History.com Editors

Updated: March 29, 2023 | Original: November 9, 2009

Nelson Mandela(Original Caption) Nelson Mandela outside his Soweto home three days after his release. (Photo by Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty Images)

The South African activist and former president Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) helped bring an end to apartheid and has been a global advocate for human rights. A member of the African National Congress party beginning in the 1940s, he was a leader of both peaceful protests and armed resistance against the white minority’s oppressive regime in a racially divided South Africa. His actions landed him in prison for nearly three decades and made him the face of the antiapartheid movement both within his country and internationally. Released in 1990, he participated in the eradication of apartheid and in 1994 became the first Black president of South Africa, forming a multiethnic government to oversee the country’s transition. After retiring from politics in 1999, he remained a devoted champion for peace and social justice in his own nation and around the world until his death in 2013 at the age of 95.

Nelson Mandela’s Childhood and Education

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo, where his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (c. 1880-1928), served as chief. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third of Mphakanyiswa’s four wives, who together bore him nine daughters and four sons. After the death of his father in 1927, 9-year-old Mandela—then known by his birth name, Rolihlahla—was adopted by Jongintaba Dalindyebo, a high-ranking Thembu regent who began grooming his young ward for a role within the tribal leadership.

Did you know? As a sign of respect, many South Africans referred to Nelson Mandela as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.

The first in his family to receive a formal education, Mandela completed his primary studies at a local missionary school. There, a teacher dubbed him Nelson as part of a common practice of giving African students English names. He went on to attend the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Healdtown, a Methodist secondary school, where he excelled in boxing and track as well as academics. In 1939 Mandela entered the elite University of Fort Hare, the only Western-style higher learning institute for Black South Africans at the time. The following year, he and several other students, including his friend and future business partner Oliver Tambo (1917-1993), were sent home for participating in a boycott against university policies.

After learning that his guardian had arranged a marriage for him, Mandela fled to Johannesburg and worked first as a night watchman and then as a law clerk while completing his bachelor’s degree by correspondence. He studied law at the University of Witwatersrand, where he became involved in the movement against racial discrimination and forged key relationships with Black and white activists. In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and worked with fellow party members, including Oliver Tambo, to establish its youth league, the ANCYL. That same year, he met and married his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase (1922-2004), with whom he had four children before their divorce in 1957.

Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress

Nelson Mandela’s commitment to politics and the ANC grew stronger after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which introduced a formal system of racial classification and segregation—apartheid—that restricted nonwhites’ basic rights and barred them from government while maintaining white minority rule. The following year, the ANC adopted the ANCYL’s plan to achieve full citizenship for all South Africans through boycotts, strikes, civil disobedience and other nonviolent methods. Mandela helped lead the ANC’s 1952 Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, traveling across the country to organize protests against discriminatory policies, and promoted the manifesto known as the Freedom Charter, ratified by the Congress of the People in 1955. Also in 1952, Mandela and Tambo opened South Africa’s first Black law firm, which offered free or low-cost legal counsel to those affected by apartheid legislation.

On December 5, 1956, Mandela and 155 other activists were arrested and went on trial for treason. All of the defendants were acquitted in 1961, but in the meantime tensions within the ANC escalated, with a militant faction splitting off in 1959 to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The next year, police opened fire on peaceful Black protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people; as panic, anger and riots swept the country in the massacre’s aftermath, the apartheid government banned both the ANC and the PAC. Forced to go underground and wear disguises to evade detection, Mandela decided that the time had come for a more radical approach than passive resistance.

biography of nelson mandela in brief

Nelson Mandela and the Armed Resistance Movement

In 1961, Nelson Mandela co-founded and became the first leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), also known as MK, a new armed wing of the ANC. Several years later, during the trial that would put him behind bars for nearly three decades, he described the reasoning for this radical departure from his party’s original tenets: “[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”

Under Mandela’s leadership, MK launched a sabotage campaign against the government, which had recently declared South Africa a republic and withdrawn from the British Commonwealth. In January 1962, Mandela traveled abroad illegally to attend a conference of African nationalist leaders in Ethiopia, visit the exiled Oliver Tambo in London and undergo guerilla training in Algeria. On August 5, shortly after his return, he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country and inciting a 1961 workers’ strike. The following July, police raided an ANC hideout in Rivonia, a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and arrested a racially diverse group of MK leaders who had gathered to debate the merits of a guerilla insurgency. Evidence was found implicating Mandela and other activists, who were brought to stand trial for sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy alongside their associates.

Mandela and seven other defendants narrowly escaped the gallows and were instead sentenced to life imprisonment during the so-called Rivonia Trial, which lasted eight months and attracted substantial international attention. In a stirring opening statement that sealed his iconic status around the world, Mandela admitted to some of the charges against him while defending the ANC’s actions and denouncing the injustices of apartheid. He ended with the following words: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela’s Years Behind Bars

Nelson Mandela spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail at the brutal Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town, where he was confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing and compelled to do hard labor in a lime quarry. As a Black political prisoner, he received scantier rations and fewer privileges than other inmates. He was only allowed to see his wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1936-), who he had married in 1958 and was the mother of his two young daughters, once every six months. Mandela and his fellow prisoners were routinely subjected to inhumane punishments for the slightest of offenses; among other atrocities, there were reports of guards burying inmates in the ground up to their necks and urinating on them.

These restrictions and conditions notwithstanding, while in confinement Mandela earned a bachelor of law degree from the University of London and served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners, encouraging them to seek better treatment through nonviolent resistance. He also smuggled out political statements and a draft of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” published five years after his release.

Despite his forced retreat from the spotlight, Mandela remained the symbolic leader of the antiapartheid movement. In 1980 Oliver Tambo introduced a “Free Nelson Mandela” campaign that made the jailed leader a household name and fueled the growing international outcry against South Africa’s racist regime. As pressure mounted, the government offered Mandela his freedom in exchange for various political compromises, including the renouncement of violence and recognition of the “independent” Transkei Bantustan, but he categorically rejected these deals.

In 1982 Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, and in 1988 he was placed under house arrest on the grounds of a minimum-security correctional facility. The following year, newly elected president F. W. de Klerk (1936-) lifted the ban on the ANC and called for a nonracist South Africa, breaking with the conservatives in his party. On February 11, 1990, he ordered Mandela’s release.

Nelson Mandela as President of South Africa

After attaining his freedom, Nelson Mandela led the ANC in its negotiations with the governing National Party and various other South African political organizations for an end to apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial government. Though fraught with tension and conducted against a backdrop of political instability, the talks earned Mandela and de Klerk the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993. On April 26, 1994, more than 22 million South Africans turned out to cast ballots in the country’s first multiracial parliamentary elections in history. An overwhelming majority chose the ANC to lead the country, and on May 10 Mandela was sworn in as the first Black president of South Africa, with de Klerk serving as his first deputy.

As president, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights and political violations committed by both supporters and opponents of apartheid between 1960 and 1994. He also introduced numerous social and economic programs designed to improve the living standards of South Africa’s Black population. In 1996 Mandela presided over the enactment of a new South African constitution, which established a strong central government based on majority rule and prohibited discrimination against minorities, including whites.

Improving race relations, discouraging Blacks from retaliating against the white minority and building a new international image of a united South Africa were central to President Mandela’s agenda. To these ends, he formed a multiracial “Government of National Unity” and proclaimed the country a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” In a gesture seen as a major step toward reconciliation, he encouraged Blacks and whites alike to rally around the predominantly Afrikaner national rugby team when South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

On his 80th birthday in 1998, Mandela wed the politician and humanitarian Graça Machel (1945-), widow of the former president of Mozambique. (His marriage to Winnie had ended in divorce in 1992.) The following year, he retired from politics at the end of his first term as president and was succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki (1942-) of the ANC.

Nelson Mandela’s Later Years and Legacy

After leaving office, Nelson Mandela remained a devoted champion for peace and social justice in his own country and around the world. He established a number of organizations, including the influential Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders, an independent group of public figures committed to addressing global problems and easing human suffering. In 2002, Mandela became a vocal advocate of AIDS awareness and treatment programs in a culture where the epidemic had been cloaked in stigma and ignorance. The disease later claimed the life of his son Makgatho (1950-2005) and is believed to affect more people in South Africa than in any other country.

Treated for prostate cancer in 2001 and weakened by other health issues, Mandela grew increasingly frail in his later years and scaled back his schedule of public appearances. In 2009, the United Nations declared July 18 “Nelson Mandela International Day” in recognition of the South African leader’s contributions to democracy, freedom, peace and human rights around the world. Nelson Mandela died on December 5, 2013 from a recurring lung infection.

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Biography

Biography Nelson Mandela

nelson mandela

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

– Nelson Mandela

Short Bio of Nelson Mandela

Young_Nelson-Mandela

A young Nelson Mandela (1938)

Nelson Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. He was the son of a local tribal leader of the Tembu tribe. As a youngster, Nelson took part in the activities and initiation ceremonies of his local tribe. However, unlike his father Nelson Mandela gained a full education, studying at the University College of Fort Hare and also the University of Witwatersrand. Nelson was a good student and qualified with a law degree in 1942.

During his time at University, Nelson Mandela became increasingly aware of the racial inequality and injustice faced by non-white people. In 1943, he decided to join the ANC and actively take part in the struggle against apartheid.

As one of the few qualified lawyers, Nelson Mandela was in great demand; also his commitment to the cause saw him promoted through the ranks of the ANC. In 1956, Nelson Mandela, along with several other members of the ANC were arrested and charged with treason. After a lengthy and protracted court case, the defendants were finally acquitted in 1961. However, with the ANC now banned, Nelson Mandela suggested an active armed resistance to the apartheid regime. This led to the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, which would act as a guerilla resistance movement. Receiving training in other African countries, the Umkhonto we Sizwe took part in active sabotage.

In 1963, Mandela was again arrested and put on trial for treason. This time the State succeeded in convicting Mandela of plotting to overthrow the government. However, the case received considerable international attention and the apartheid regime of South Africa became under the glare of the international community. At the end of his trial, Nelson Mandela made a long speech, in which he was able to affirm his commitment to the ideals of democracy.

“We believe that South Africa belongs to all the people who live in it, and not to one group, be it black or white. We did not want an interracial war, and tried to avoid it to the last minute.”

– Nelson Mandela, Supreme court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20, 1964

Closing remark at the 1964 trial

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

– Nelson Mandela, Supreme court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20, 1964. (See: full speech )

Time in Prison

mandela-prison-room

F.W.De Klerk and Nelson Mandela at World Economic Forum 1992.

During his time in prison, Mandela became increasingly well known throughout the world. Mandela became the best known black leader and was symbolic of the struggle against the apartheid regime. Largely unbeknown to Mandela, his continued imprisonment led to a world-wide pressure for his release. Many countries implemented sanctions on apartheid South Africa. Due to international pressure, from the mid-1980s, the apartheid regime increasingly began to negotiate with the ANC and Nelson Mandela in particular. On many occasions, Mandela was offered a conditional freedom. However, he always refused to put the political ideals of the ANC above his own freedom.

Freedom and a new Rainbow Nation

Mandela_voting_in_1994-paul-weinberg

Mandela voting in 1994 election. Photo. P.Weinburg

Eventually, Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. The day was a huge event for South Africa and the world. His release symbolic of the impending end of apartheid. Following his release there followed protracted negotiations to secure a lasting settlement. The negotiations were tense often against the backdrop of tribal violence. However, in April 1994, South Africa had its first full and fair elections. The ANC, with 65% of the vote, were elected and Nelson Mandela became the first President of the new South Africa.

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”

As President, he sought to heal the rifts of the past. Despite being mistreated, he was magnanimous in his dealing with his former oppressors. His forgiving and tolerant attitude gained the respect of the whole South African nation and considerably eased the transition to a full democracy.

“If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named goodness and forgiveness.”

Governor-General of Australia

Photo: Governor-General of Australia

In 1995, the Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa. Nelson Mandela was instrumental in encouraging black South Africans to support the ‘Springboks’ – The Springboks were previously reviled for being a symbol of white supremacy. Mandela surprised many by meeting the Springbok captain, Francois Pienaar, before the World Cup to wish the team well. After an epic final, in which South Africa beat New Zealand, Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey, presented the trophy to the winning South Africa team. De Klerk later stated Mandela successfully won the hearts of a million white rugby fans.

Nelson Mandela also oversaw the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in which former crimes of apartheid were investigated, but stressing individual forgiveness and helping the nation to look forward. The Committee was chaired by Desmond Tutu , and Mandela later praised its work.

Nelson Mandela retired from the Presidency in 1999, to be succeeded by Thabo Mbeki. In Mandela’s later years, ill health curtailed his public life. However, he did speak out on certain issues. He was very critical of the US-led invasion of Iraq during 2003. Speaking in a Newsweek interview in 2002, he expressed concern at American actions, he said:

“I really wanted to retire and rest and spend more time with my children, my grandchildren and of course with my wife. But the problems are such that for anybody with a conscience who can use whatever influence he may have to try to bring about peace, it’s difficult to say no.” (10 September 2002)

He has also campaigned to highlight the issue of HIV / AIDS in South Africa.

Mandela was married three times, fathered six children, and had 17 grandchildren. His first wife was Evelyn Ntoko Mase. His second wife was Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, they split after an acrimonious dispute. Winnie was alleged to have an involvement in human rights abuses. Mandela married for a third time on his 80th birthday to Graça Machel.

nelson-mandela-sri-chinmoy-garca-michel

Graça Michel, Sri Chinmoy and Nelson Mandela holding Peace Torch. Source

Nelson Mandela was often referred to as Madiba – his Xhosa clan name.

Nelson Mandela died on 5 December 2013 after a long illness with his family at his side. He was 95.

At his memorial, Barack Obama, the President of the US said:

“We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela ever again, so it falls to us, as best we can, to carry forward the example that he set. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.”

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan . “Biography of Nelson Mandela”, Oxford, UK.  www.biographyonline.net.   Published: 7th December 2013. Last updated 13th February 2018.

Nelson Mandela – In His Own Words

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A Brief History of Nelson Mandela's Life

The key moments of an extraordinary life.

By The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela walks out of the gates of Victor Verster prison (1990-02-11) by Gideon Mendel The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Madiba's journey

Known and loved around the world for his commitment to peace, negotiation and reconciliation, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was South Africa's first democratically elected president (1994-1999). Mandela was an anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader, as well as a philanthropist with an abiding love for children. Mandela was born into the Xhosa royal family on 18 July 1918 and died on 5 December 2013.

Mvezo rondavels v2 (2007-04-16) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

The early years

Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the village of Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape, on 18 July 1918. His mother was Nonqaphi Nosekeni and his father was Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, principal counsellor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. In 1930, when he was 12 years old, his father died and the young Rolihlahla became a ward of Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. Hearing the elders’ stories of his ancestors’ valour during the wars of resistance, he dreamed also of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.

Childhood (2010/2010) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Gilbert Nzimeni Collection Healdtown photograph (front) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Education He attended primary school in Qunu where his teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave him the name Nelson, in accordance with the custom of giving all schoolchildren “Christian” names. He completed his Junior Certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute and went on to Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school of some repute, where he matriculated. Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare but did not complete the degree there as he was expelled for joining in a student protest. On his return to the Great Place at Mqhekezweni the King was furious and said if he didn’t return to Fort Hare he would arrange wives for him and his cousin Justice. They ran away to Johannesburg instead, arriving there in 1941. There he worked as a mine security officer and after meeting Walter Sisulu, an estate agent, he was introduced to Lazer Sidelsky. He then did his articles through a firm of attorneys – Witkin, Eidelman and Sidelsky. He completed his BA through the University of South Africa and went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943.

Mandela with his law class at the University of the Witwatersrand (1944) by WITS University archive The Nelson Mandela Foundation

University Meanwhile, he began studying for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand. By his own admission he was a poor student and left the university in 1952 without graduating. He only started studying again through the University of London after his imprisonment in 1962 but also did not complete that degree. In 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, he obtained an LLB through the University of South Africa. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.

The Big City (2010/2010) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

NRM and Bikitsha (1941/1941) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Entering politics

Mandela, while increasingly politically involved from 1942, only joined the African National Congress in 1944 when he helped to form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).In 1944 he married Walter Sisulu’s cousin, Evelyn Mase, a nurse. They had two sons, Madiba Thembekile "Thembi" and Makgatho, and two daughters both called Makaziwe, the first of whom died in infancy. He and his wife divorced in 1958.Mandela rose through the ranks of the ANCYL and through its efforts, the ANC adopted a more radical mass-based policy, the Programme of Action, in 1949.

scan0003 The Nelson Mandela Foundation

National Volunteer-in-Chief In 1952 he was chosen as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign with Maulvi Cachalia as his deputy. This campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws was a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. He and 19 others were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the campaign and sentenced to nine months of hard labour, suspended for two years.

Nelson Mandela and Jerry Moloi sparring by Bob Gosani/ BAHA The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Mandela and Tambo A two-year diploma in law on top of his BA allowed Mandela to practise law, and in August 1952 he and Oliver Tambo established a law firm called Mandela & Tambo. At the end of 1952 he was banned for the first time. As a restricted person he was only permitted to watch in secret as the Freedom Charter was adopted in Kliptown on 26 June 1955.

Treason Trial, Unthreading Mandela (2018-11-07) by Nelson Mandela Foundation The Nelson Mandela Foundation

The Treason Trial

Mandela was arrested in a countrywide police swoop on 5 December 1956, which led to the 1956 Treason Trial. Men and women of all races found themselves in the dock in the marathon trial that only ended when the last 28 accused, including Mandela, were acquitted on 29 March 1961.

The Prisoner (2010/2010) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela with his dog Gompo by Alf Khumalo The Nelson Mandela Foundation

State of emergency On 21 March 1960 police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest in Sharpeville against the pass laws. This led to the country’s first state of emergency and the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on 8 April. Mandela and his colleagues in the Treason Trial were among thousands detained during the state of emergency.

Amy Thornton-Reitstein (1994-01-01) Original Source: To download a photograph click here

Spear of the Nation Days before the end of the Treason Trial, Mandela travelled to Pietermaritzburg to speak at the All-in Africa Conference, which resolved that he should write to Prime Minister Verwoerd requesting a national convention on a non-racial constitution, and to warn that should he not agree there would be a national strike against South Africa becoming a republic. After he and his colleagues were acquitted in the Treason Trial, Mandela went underground and began planning a national strike for 29, 30 and 31 March. In the face of massive mobilisation of state security the strike was called off early. In June 1961 he was asked to lead the armed struggle and helped to establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), which launched on 16 December 1961 with a series of explosions.

Winni and Mandela getting married (1958-06) by UWC, Robben Island , Mayibuye archives / Eli Weinberg The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Marriage During the trial Mandela married a social worker, Winnie Madikizela, on 14 June 1958. They had two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa. The couple divorced in 1996.

AT040-13 Mandela Algeria (1962) by UWC, Robben Island , Mayibuye archives The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Undercover On 11 January 1962, using the adopted name David Motsamayi, Mandela secretly left South Africa. He travelled around Africa and visited England to gain support for the armed struggle. He received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa in July 1962. He was arrested in a police roadblock outside Howick on 5 August while returning from KwaZulu-Natal, where he had briefed ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli about his trip.

Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu by Unknown Robben Island Museum

Sentenced to 5 years in prison He was charged with leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to strike. He was convicted and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, which he began serving at the Pretoria Local Prison. On 27 May 1963 he was transferred to Robben Island and returned to Pretoria on 12 June. Within a month police raided Liliesleaf, a secret hideout in Rivonia, Johannesburg, used by ANC and Communist Party activists, and several of his comrades were arrested.

8 Rivonia Trialists (1964) by Unknown Robben Island Museum

The Rivonia Trial On 9 October 1963 Mandela joined 10 others on trial for sabotage in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. While facing the death penalty his words to the court at the end of his famous "Speech from the Dock" on 20 April 1964 became immortalised: “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Speech from the Dock quote by Nelson Mandela on 20 April 1964

Robben Island group of prisoners (1977-04-25) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Robben Island On 11 June 1964 Mandela and seven other accused, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, were convicted and the next day were sentenced to life imprisonment. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white, while the others went to Robben Island.

Life in prison Mandela’s mother died in 1968 and his eldest son, Thembi, in 1969. He was not allowed to attend their funerals.

Release Mandela Original Source: Graeme Williams / South Photos

From freedom to liberation On 31 March 1982 Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town with Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni. Kathrada joined them in October. When he returned to the prison in November 1985 after prostate surgery, Mandela was held alone. Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee visited him in hospital. Later Mandela initiated talks about an ultimate meeting between the apartheid government and the ANC.

Release from prison

On 12 August 1988 he was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After more than three months in two hospitals he was transferred on 7 December 1988 to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl where he spent his last 14 months of imprisonment. He was released from its gates on Sunday 11 February 1990, nine days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC and nearly four months after the release of his remaining Rivonia comrades. Throughout his imprisonment he had rejected at least three conditional offers of release.

Inauguration of President Nelson Mandela (1994-05-10) Original Source: Guy Stubbs

Nobel Peace Prize Mandela immersed himself in official talks to end white minority rule and in 1991 was elected ANC President to replace his ailing friend, Oliver Tambo. In 1993 he and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize and on 27 April 1994 he voted for the first time in his life.

Nelson Mandela signing the 'President's Bible' (1994-05-10) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

On 10 May 1994 he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President. On his 80th birthday in 1998 he married Graça Machel, his third wife. 

The Statesman (2010/2010) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Retiring from Retirement (2007-06/2007-06) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Retirement True to his promise, Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one term as President. He continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund he set up in 1995 and established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Madiba at Home - Mvezo (2005-07-18/2005-07-18) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Mvezo and Mandla Mandela In April 2007 his grandson, Mandla Mandela, was installed as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council at a ceremony at the Mvezo Great Place.

Mandela's body being transported (2013-12-14) by Gallo images /Foto24/ Deaan Vivier The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Mandela's legacy Nelson Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg on 5 December 2013.

Mandela at 92 (2010-07-17) The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. His life is an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived; and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.

Robben Island Prison Tour

Robben island museum, 11 february 1990: mandela's release from prison, africa media online, nelson mandela's fight to empower the next generation, the nelson mandela foundation, in their own words: recollections of former political prisoners, what happened at the treason trial, a virtual exhibition on the life and times of nelson mandela, poster power: protest art from south africa, 9 august 1956: the women's anti-pass march, what happened when nelson mandela previewed his prison archive, a timeline of robben island from 700,000 bce to 1845 ce, the signs that defined the apartheid.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela became known and respected all over the world as a symbol of the struggle against apartheid and all forms of racism; the icon and the hero of African liberation.

Mandela or Madiba, as he was affectionately known, has been called a freedom fighter, a great man, South Africa's Favourite Son, a global icon and a living legend, among countless other names. He has been an activist, a political prisoner, South Africa's first democratically elected president, an international peacemaker and statesman, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

As a husband and a father, Mandela sacrificed the joys of family life and of seeing his children grow up. As a young man, he missed out on a normal life spent with family and friends and pursuing a career of his choice, to fight for the cause he unshakably stood for.

Most ordinary South Africans knew little about Mandela during his prison years, as the apartheid government suppressed information, and what was released was biased. Limited information about Mandela was available from the international press, anti-apartheid activist groups and the Free Nelson Mandela campaign.

But prison bars could not prevent him from continuing to inspire his people to struggle and sacrifice for their liberation. Public opinion polls repeatedly showed that he was the most popular leader the country has ever had. As the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group observed in 1986, he had become "a living legend", galvanising the resistance in his country.

He is the most honoured political prisoner in history. He has received prestigious international awards, the freedom of many cities and honorary degrees from several universities.

Musicians have been inspired to compose songs and music in his honour. Major international art exhibits have been dedicated to him and some of the most prominent writers have contributed to books for him and about him. Even an atomic particle has been named after him.

Mandela is a universal symbol of freedom and reconciliation, an icon representing the triumph of the human spirit. During his lifetime he not only dedicated himself to the struggle of the African people, but with his humility, and his spirit of forgiveness, he captured hearts and inspired people all over the world. As South Africans, we owe it to this great champion of our nation to continue to live by his example.

The early years

Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela was born in Mvezo, a village near Mthatha in the Transkei, on 18 July 1918, to Nongaphi Nosekeni and Gadla Henry Mandela. His father was the key counsellor/adviser to the Thembu royal house. His Xhosa name Rolihlahla literally means "pulling the branch of a tree". After his father's death in 1927, the young Rolihlahla became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu nation. It was at the Thembu royal homestead that his personality, values and political views were shaped. Hearing the elders' stories of his ancestors' valour during the wars of resistance to colonialism, he dreamed also of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.

After receiving his primary education at a local mission school, where he was given the name Nelson, he was sent to the Clarkebury Boarding Institute for his Junior Certificate and then to Healdtown, a reputable Wesleyan secondary school, where he matriculated. He then enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare for a Bachelor of Arts (BA) Degree where he was elected onto the Students' Representative Council. He was suspended from college for joining a protest boycott, along with Oliver Tambo.

Shortly after his return to the royal homestead, he and his cousin, Justice, ran away to Johannesburg to avoid arranged marriages and for a short period he worked as a mine policeman. Mandela was introduced to Walter Sisulu in 1941 and it was Sisulu who arranged for him to serve his articles at Lazar Sidelsky's law firm. Completing his BA through the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 1942, he commenced study for his Bachelor of Laws Degree shortly afterwards (though he left the University of the Witwatersrand without graduating in 1948). He entered politics in earnest while studying, and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943.

At the height of the Second World War in 1944, a small group of young Africans who were members of the ANC, banded together under the leadership of Anton Lembede. Among them were William Nkomo, Sisulu, Oliver R Tambo, Ashby P Mda and Mandela. Starting out with 60 members, all of whom were residing around the Witwatersrand, these young people set themselves the formidable task of transforming the ANC into a more radical mass movement.

In September 1944, they came together to found the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL).

Mandela soon impressed his peers by his disciplined work and consistent effort and was elected as the league's national secretary in 1948. Through painstaking work, campaigning at the grass-roots and through its mouthpiece Inyaniso ("Truth"), the ANCYL was able to canvass support for its policies among the ANC membership.

The political journey

Spurred on by the victory of the National Party, which won the 1948 all-white elections on the platform of apartheid, at the 1949 Annual Conference, the Programme of Action, inspired by the Youth League, which advocated the weapons of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, was accepted as official ANC policy.

In December, Mandela was elected to the National Executive Committee at the National Conference.

When the ANC launched its Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, Mandela, by then president of the Youth League, was elected national volunteer-in-chief. The Defiance Campaign was conceived as a mass civil disobedience campaign that would snowball from a core of selected volunteers to involve more and more ordinary people, culminating in mass defiance. Fulfilling his responsibility as volunteer-in-chief, Mandela travelled the country, organising resistance to discriminatory legislation. Charged, with Moroka, Sisulu and 17 others, and brought to trial for his role in the campaign, the court found that Mandela and his co-accused had consistently advised their followers to adopt a peaceful course of action and to avoid all violence.

For his part in the Defiance Campaign, Mandela was convicted of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act and given a suspended prison sentence. Shortly after the campaign ended, he was also prohibited from attending gatherings and confined to Johannesburg for six months.

In December 1952, in partnership with Tambo, Mandela opened South Africa's first black law firm in central Johannesburg.

In 1953, Mandela was given the responsibility to prepare a plan that would enable the leadership of the movement to maintain dynamic contact with its membership without recourse to public meetings. The objective was to prepare for the possibility that the ANC would, like the Communist Party, be declared illegal and to ensure that the organisation would be able to operate from underground. This was the M-Plan, named after him.

During the early 1950s, Mandela played an important part in leading the resistance to the Western Areas removals, and to the introduction of Bantu Education. He also played a significant role in popularising the Freedom Charter, adopted by the Congress of the People in 1955.

During the whole of the 1950s, Mandela was the victim of various forms of repression. He was banned, arrested and imprisoned. A five-year banning order was enforced against him in March 1956.

The prison years

For much of the latter half of the 1950s, Mandela was one of the 156 accused in the mammoth Treason Trial. After the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, the ANC was outlawed, and Mandela, still on trial, was detained, along with hundreds of others.

The Treason Trial collapsed in 1961 as South Africa was being steered towards the adoption of a republic. With the ANC now illegal, the leadership picked up the threads from its underground headquarters and Nelson Mandela emerged as the leading figure in this new phase of struggle.

Forced to live apart from his family, moving from place to place to evade detection by the Government's ubiquitous informers and police spies, Mandela had to adopt a number of disguises. Sometimes dressed as a labourer, Politicsat other times as a chauffeur, his successful evasion of the police earned him the title of the Black Pimpernel.

It was during this time that he, together with other leaders of the ANC, constituted a new section of the liberation movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), as an armed nucleus with a view to preparing for armed struggle, with Mandela as its commander-in-chief.

In 1962, Mandela left the country as "David Motsamayi", and travelled abroad for several months. In Ethiopia, he addressed the Conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa, and was warmly received by senior political leaders in several countries, including the then Tanganyika, Senegal, Ghana and Sierra Leone. He also spent time in London. During this trip, Mandela met with the first group of 21 MK recruits on their way to Addis Ababa for guerrilla training.

Not long after his return to South Africa, Mandela was arrested, on 5 August, and charged with illegal exit from the country, and incitement to strike.

Mandela was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was transferred to Robben Island in May 1963 only to be brought back to Pretoria again in July.

Not long afterwards, he encountered Thomas Mashifane, the foreman from Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia where MK had set up their headquarters. He knew then that their hide-out had been discovered. A few days later, he and 10 others were charged with sabotage.

The Rivonia Trial, as it came to be known, lasted eight months.

Mandela's statement in court during the trial is a classic in the history of the resistance to apartheid, and has been an inspiration to all who have opposed it. He ended with these words: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

All but two of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. The black prisoners were flown secretly to Robben Island immediately after the trial was over to begin serving their sentences.

In March 1982, after 18 years, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town (with Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni) and in December 1988, he was moved to the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl, from where he was eventually released. While in prison, Mandela flatly rejected offers made by his jailers for remission of sentence in exchange for accepting the bantustan policy by recognising the independence of the Transkei and agreeing to settle there. Again in the 1980s, Mandela and others rejected an offer of release on condition that he renounce violence.

Nevertheless, Mandela did initiate talks with the apartheid regime in 1985, when he wrote to then Minister of Justice, Kobie Coetsee. They first met later that year when Mandela was hospitalised for prostate surgery. Shortly after this, he was moved to a single cell at Pollsmoor and this gave Mandela the chance to start a dialogue with the Government – which took the form of "talks about talks". Throughout this process, he was adamant that negotiations could only be carried out by the full ANC leadership.

Released on 11 February 1990, Mandela plunged wholeheartedly into his life's work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after being banned for decades, Nelson Mandela was elected president of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organisation's national chairperson.

The era of apartheid formally came to an end on 27 April 1994, when Nelson Mandela voted for the first time in his life – along with his people. However, long before that date, it had become clear, even before the start of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) negotiations at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park, that the ANC was increasingly charting the future of South Africa.

Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibunga Mandela was inaugurated as President of a democratic South Africa on 10 May 1994. In his inauguration speech, he said: "We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free. Their dreams have become reality. Freedom is their reward. We are both humbled and elevated by the honour and privilege that you, the people of South Africa, have bestowed on us, as the first President of a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist government."

In June 1999, Nelson Mandela retired from the Presidency of South Africa. But although he retired as President of South Africa, he worked tirelessly, campaigning globally for peace, children and the fight against HIV/Aids in particular.

Shortly before his 86th birthday in June 2004, Mandela officially retired from public life. However, he did not retreat from working for the good of the world – as a testimony to his sharp political intellect, wisdom and unrelenting commitment to make the world a better place, Mandela formed the prestigious group of Elders, an independent group of eminent global leaders, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace-building, help address major causes oh human suffering and promote the shared interest of humanity.

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Nelson Mandela

biography of nelson mandela in brief

Nelson Mandela at the Gracie Mansion, 1990

Nelson Mandela Portrait Collection. 

Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black  Culture.

The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

©Chester Higgins/chesterhiggins.com

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a small village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the Eastern Cape Province. He was born into the Madiba clan, son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Gladla Henry Mphakanyiswa, the chief of Mvezo and an advisor to the kings.

Mandela was the first in his family to receive a formal education. After primary school, he attended the University of Fort Hare, the only Western-style academic education for South African blacks at the time. At Fort Hare, he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman-Dutch law. Due to his involvement in a student protest, he was expelled in 1940 and did not complete his degree at the University. However, Mandela later completed his degree at the University of South Africa.

Following his expulsion, Mandela moved to Johannesburg in 1941. This move opened his eyes not only to an industrial city   but also to a nation of injustice based on racial segregation. For the first time, he saw himself as a black man in a white society. He began working as a law clerk with Walter Sisulu, a prominent black businessman active in the African National Congress (ANC). It wasn’t until 1944 that Mandela joined the ANC and helped form the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). In 1947, he was elected to his first position in the ANC as the Executive Committee.

After the election of 1948, the National Party gained power in South Africa. Consequently, this began a formal system of racial classification and segregation – the system of apartheid. This system restricted nonwhites’ basic rights and barred them from participating in government as a way to maintain a white minority rule. Mandela’s commitment to politics and the ANC grew stronger after this election.

By 1952, Mandela was President of the ANCYL and had drawn much attention from the South African government. Subsequently, he was served a banning order that restricted his freedom of speech and movement. The order banned Mandela from attending public meetings or discussing important national matters with more than one person at a time. This was an attempt by the government to break apart the ANC. As the oppression increased, so did Mandela’s efforts of defiance. In June 1952, he led the Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, where groups throughout South Africa executed various acts of defiance in main cities. It was the first large-scale, multi-racial political mobilization against the apartheid laws. Mandela fought the Apartheid system both politically and professionally. That same year, he and his colleague Oliver Tambo, an ANC leader, established the first black law practices that specialized in cases affected by the apartheid legislation.

The South African government was putting pressure on the ANC, and on December 5, 1956, Mandela’s house was raided and he was arrested amongst 155 other activists and charged with high treason. The Treason Trials dragged on for almost five years and the defendants were eventually acquitted in 1961. During this time, Mandela met his wife Winifred Nomzamo Madikizela when she was 22, standing at a bus stop in Soweto. They married on June 14, 1958, and had two daughters, Zenani and Zindzi.  

On March 21, 1960, police opened fire on a massive, organized demonstration against the Pass Laws killing 69 unarmed peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville. The country erupted into a state of emergency and numerous activists were arrested. Days later Mandela burnt his passbook in front of numerous journalists. The following month, the ANC was declared an illegal organization, which caused Mandela and other ANC leaders to go underground and form a separate military wing called Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), also called MK. He became the first commander-in-chief of the guerrilla army and began to train to fight and obtain weapons for the group. Mandela came to be known as the Black Pimpernel.

Mandela traveled abroad illegally in 1962 gaining support, money, and military training from various African countries. On his return, he was arrested for leaving the country and orchestrating strikes. On the day of his court case, he entered court wearing traditional Xhosa clothing making a statement of African nationalism. Mandela was sentenced to five years imprisonment for incitement to strike and leaving the country without official documents.

While imprisoned, the police raided the ANC underground headquarters on a farm in Rivonia, and its military commanders were arrested. Based on the collected evidence, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them. This was called the Rivonia Trials, and on October 8, 1963, Mandela and his colleagues were charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the state violently. The trial lasted many months. On April 20, 1964, Mandela gave his famous speech and declared he was “prepared to die” for a free and democratic South Africa. The trial ended on June 12, 1964, and Mandela and the other accused were found guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mandela arrived on Robben Island in the winter of 1964 where he spent 18 of his 27 prison years (1964 to 1982). The South African government built a new maximum security building especially for political prisoners to keep them away from the general prison population because the security services believed that political prisoners would influence other prisoners. At the prison, the prisoners were categorized from A to D, and due to his transgressions, Mandela was ranked D, which allowed him the least amount of privileges. He was allowed to send and receive one letter in six months and have only one visitor. Winnie Mandela visited in 1965 and wasn’t allowed to visit again until December 1968. Mandela eventually worked his way up the prison ranking system and was able to receive four visits a year, and his mother visited before her death in 1967.

He and other political prisoners were assigned work at the Lime Quarry where they dug limestone. The daily routine was to work eight hours a day breaking limestone slate boulders into stones used in paving roads. The work was strenuous and unsafe since the glare from the white rocks caused impairment to the eyes.   

In 1982, Mandela and others were moved off Robben Island to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Tokai, a suburb of Cape Town. Conditions were better here and he was allowed contact with his family. Due to the damp conditions at the jail, Mandela came down with tuberculosis in 1988 and as a result, he was admitted to the Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town and spent six weeks recuperating. The following December, he was transferred to the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, where he would stay for fourteen months before his release from prison in 1990.

On February 11, 1990, after 27 years behind bars, Nelson Mandela emerged as a free man and his release promised a new chapter in South Africa. The president at the time, F.W. de Klerk, helped dismantle the apartheid laws, including removing the ban on leading liberation organizations and Mandela delivered his first speech at Cape Town’s City Hall on the day of his release. Mandela continued to immerse himself in politics, holding meetings and giving official talks and lectures. He was elected president of the ANC in 1991 in South Africa’s first non-racial election. Mandela and President de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their work towards abolishing apartheid.

On May 10, 1994, at age 77, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president at the Union Building in Pretoria. The ceremony was televised internationally and numerous people gathered to witness the inauguration speech. During his presidency, Mandela worked tirelessly rebuilding South Africa’s economy which was in crisis from the apartheid, as well as poverty, inequalities, unequal access to social services, and infrastructure.

At the end of one term, Mandela gave his last address to the South African nation and retired from active politics in February 1999. After leaving office, he focused his efforts largely on humanitarian services. However, his health deteriorated and Mandela was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. Despite his prognosis, Mandela remained active. In 2009, on his 91st birthday, the United Nations declared July 18th, as Mandela Day, in recognition of his contribution to the culture of peace and freedom. In 2010, he moved back to his home in Qunu, Eastern Cape where he received numerous visitors, including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma, and ANC members. Mandela made a last public appearance at the World Cup final, at Johannesburg's Soccer City on July 11, 2010.

In March 2013, Mandela was admitted to hospital for a lung infection. In the following months, he was in and out of hospital. He spent his 95th birthday in hospital surrounded by love and support. Mandela passed away on December 5, 2013. South Africa was deep in mourning and self-reflection and the nation observed this death for 10 days. Numerous memorial services were conducted across the country. His legacy remains throughout South Africa and globally as an iconic figure of Black liberation.

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Nelson Mandela

The Amazing Life of South Africa's First Black President

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Nelson Mandela was elected the first Black president of South Africa in 1994, following the first multiracial election in South Africa's history. Mandela was imprisoned from 1962 to 1990 for his role in fighting apartheid policies established by the ruling white minority. Revered by his people as a national symbol of the struggle for equality, Mandela is considered one of the 20th century's most influential political figures. He and South African Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for their role in dismantling the apartheid system.

Dates: July 18, 1918—December 5, 2013

Also Known As: Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, Tata

Famous quote:  "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it."

Nelson Rilihlahla Mandela was born in the village of Mveso, Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918 to Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa and Noqaphi Nosekeni, the third of Gadla's four wives. In Mandela's native language, Xhosa , Rolihlahla meant "troublemaker." The surname Mandela came from one of his grandfathers.

Mandela's father was a chief of the Thembu tribe in the Mvezo region, but served under the authority of the ruling British government. As a descendant of royalty, Mandela was expected to serve in his father's role when he came of age.

But when Mandela was only an infant, his father rebelled against the British government by refusing a mandatory appearance before the British magistrate. For this, he was stripped of his chieftaincy and his wealth, and forced to leave his home. Mandela and his three sisters moved with their mother back to her home village of Qunu. There, the family lived in more modest circumstances.

The family lived in mud huts and survived on the crops they grew and the cattle and sheep they raised. Mandela, along with the other village boys, worked herding sheep and cattle. He later recalled this as one of the happiest periods in his life. Many evenings, villagers sat around the fire, telling the children stories passed down through generations, of what life had been like before the white man had arrived.

From the mid-17th century, Europeans (first the Dutch and later the British) had arrived on South African soil and gradually taken control from the native South African tribes. The discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa in the 19th century had only tightened the grip that Europeans had on the nation.

By 1900, most of South Africa was under the control of Europeans. In 1910, the British colonies merged with the Boer (Dutch) republics to form the Union of South Africa, a part of the British Empire. Stripped of their homelands, many Africans were forced to work for white employers at low-paying jobs.

Young Nelson Mandela, living in his small village, did not yet feel the impact of centuries of domination by the white minority.

Mandela's Education

Although themselves uneducated, Mandela's parents wanted their son to go to school. At the age of seven, Mandela was enrolled in the local mission school. On the first day of class, each child was given an English first name; Rolihlahla was given the name "Nelson."

When he was nine years old, Mandela's father died. According to his father's last wishes, Mandela was sent to live in the Thembu capital, Mqhekezeweni, where he could continue his education under the guidance of another tribal chief, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Upon first seeing the chief's estate, Mandela marveled at his large home and beautiful gardens.

In Mqhekezeweni, Mandela attended another mission school and became a devout Methodist during his years with the Dalindyebo family. Mandela also attended tribal meetings with the chief, who taught him how a leader should conduct himself.

When Mandela was 16, he was sent to a boarding school in a town several hundred miles away. Upon his graduation in 1937 at the age of 19, Mandela enrolled in Healdtown, a Methodist college. An accomplished student, Mandela also became active in boxing, soccer, and long-distance running.

In 1939, after earning his certificate, Mandela began his studies for a Bachelor of Arts at the prestigious Fort Hare College, with a plan to ultimately attend law school. But Mandela did not complete his studies at Fort Hare; instead, he was expelled after participating in a student protest. He returned to the home of Chief Dalindyebo, where he was met with anger and disappointment.

Just weeks after his return home, Mandela received stunning news from the chief. Dalindyebo had arranged for both his son, Justice, and Nelson Mandela to marry women of his choosing. Neither young man would consent to an arranged marriage, so the two decided to flee to Johannesburg, the South African capital.

Desperate for money to finance their trip, Mandela and Justice stole two of the chief's oxen and sold them for train fare.

Move to Johannesburg

Arriving in Johannesburg in 1940, Mandela found the bustling city an exciting place. Soon, however, he was awakened to the injustice of the Black man's life in South Africa. Prior to moving to the capital, Mandela had lived mainly among other Blacks. But in Johannesburg, he saw the disparity between the races. Black residents lived in slum-like townships that had no electricity or running water; while whites lived grandly off the wealth of the gold mines.

Mandela moved in with a cousin and quickly found a job as a security guard. He was soon fired when his employers learned about his theft of the oxen and his escape from his benefactor.

Mandela's luck changed when he was introduced to Lazar Sidelsky, a liberal-minded white lawyer. After learning of Mandela's desire to become an attorney, Sidelsky, who ran a large law firm serving both Blacks and whites, offered to let Mandela work for him as a law clerk. Mandela gratefully accepted and took on the job at the age of 23, even as he worked to finish his BA via correspondence course.

Mandela rented a room in one of the local Black townships. He studied by candlelight each night and often walked the six miles to work and back because he lacked bus fare. Sidelsky supplied him with an old suit, which Mandela patched up and wore nearly every day for five years.

Committed to the Cause

In 1942, Mandela finally completed his BA and enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand as a part-time law student. At "Wits," he met several people who would work with him in the years to come for the cause of liberation.

In 1943, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that worked to improve conditions for Blacks in South Africa. That same year, Mandela marched in a successful bus boycott staged by thousands of residents of Johannesburg in protest of high bus fares.

As he grew more infuriated by racial inequalities, Mandela deepened his commitment to the struggle for liberation. He helped to form the Youth League , which sought to recruit younger members and transform the ANC into a more militant organization, one that would fight for equal rights. Under laws of the time, Africans were forbidden from owning land or houses in the towns, their wages were five times lower than those of whites, and none could vote.

In 1944, Mandela, 26, married nurse Evelyn Mase , 22, and they moved into a small rental home. The couple had a son, Madiba ("Thembi"), in February 1945, and a daughter, Makaziwe, in 1947. Their daughter died of meningitis as an infant. They welcomed another son, Makgatho, in 1950, and a second daughter, named Makaziwe after her late sister, in 1954.

Following the general elections of 1948 in which the white National Party claimed victory, the party's first official act was to establish apartheid. With this act, the long-held, haphazard system of segregation in South Africa became a formal, institutionalized policy, supported by laws and regulations.

The new policy would even determine, by race, which parts of town each group could live in. Blacks and whites were to be separated from each other in all aspects of life, including public transportation, in theaters and restaurants, and even on beaches.

The Defiance Campaign

Mandela completed his law studies in 1952 and, with partner Oliver Tambo, opened the first Black law practice in Johannesburg. The practice was busy from the start. Clients included Africans who suffered the injustices of racism, such as seizure of property by whites and beatings by the police. Despite facing hostility from white judges and lawyers, Mandela was a successful attorney. He had a dramatic, impassioned style in the courtroom.

During the 1950s, Mandela became more actively involved with the protest movement. He was elected president of the ANC Youth League in 1950. In June 1952, the ANC, along with Indians and "colored" (biracial) people—two other groups also targeted by discriminatory laws—began a period of nonviolent protest known as the "Defiance Campaign." Mandela spearheaded the campaign by recruiting, training, and organizing volunteers.

The campaign lasted six months, with cities and towns throughout South Africa participating. Volunteers defied the laws by entering areas meant for whites only. Several thousand were arrested in that six-month time, including Mandela and other ANC leaders. He and the other members of the group were found guilty of "statutory communism" and sentenced to nine months of hard labor, but the sentence was suspended.

The publicity garnered during the Defiance Campaign helped membership in the ANC soar to 100,000.

Arrested for Treason

The government twice "banned" Mandela, meaning that he could not attend public meetings, or even family gatherings, because of his involvement in the ANC. His 1953 banning lasted two years.

Mandela, along with others on the executive committee of the ANC, drew up the Freedom Charter in June 1955 and presented it during a special meeting called the Congress of the People. The charter called for equal rights for all, regardless of race, and the ability of all citizens to vote, own land, and hold decent-paying jobs. In essence, the charter called for a non-racial South Africa.

Months after the charter was presented, police raided the homes of hundreds of members of the ANC and arrested them. Mandela and 155 others were charged with high treason. They were released to await a trial date.

Mandela's marriage to Evelyn suffered from the strain of his long absences; they divorced in 1957 after 13 years of marriage. Through work, Mandela met Winnie Madikizela, a social worker who had sought his legal advice. They married in June 1958, just months before Mandela's trial began in August. Mandela was 39 years old, Winnie only 21. The trial would last three years; during that time, Winnie gave birth to two daughters, Zenani and Zindziswa.

Sharpeville Massacre

The trial, whose venue was changed to Pretoria, moved at a snail's pace. The preliminary arraignment alone took a year; the actual trial didn't start until August 1959. Charges were dropped against all but 30 of the accused. Then, on March 21, 1960, the trial was interrupted by a national crisis.

In early March, another anti-apartheid group, the Pan African Congress (PAC) had held large demonstrations protesting strict "pass laws," which required Africans to carry identification papers with them at all times in order to be able to travel throughout the country. During one such protest in Sharpeville, police had opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing 69, and wounding more than 400. The shocking incident, which was universally condemned, was called the Sharpeville Massacre .

Mandela and other ANC leaders called for a national day of mourning, along with a stay at home strike. Hundreds of thousands participated in a mostly peaceful demonstration, but some rioting erupted. The South African government declared a national state of emergency and martial law was enacted. Mandela and his co-defendants were moved into prison cells, and both the ANC and PAC were officially banned.

The treason trial resumed on April 25, 1960 and lasted until March 29, 1961. To the surprise of many, the court dropped charges against all of the defendants, citing a lack of evidence proving that the defendants had planned to violently overthrow the government.

For many, it was cause for celebration, but Nelson Mandela had no time to celebrate. He was about to enter into a new—and dangerous—chapter in his life.

The Black Pimpernel

Prior to the verdict, the banned ANC had held an illegal meeting and decided that if Mandela was acquitted, he would go underground after the trial. He would operate clandestinely to give speeches and gather support for the liberation movement. A new organization, the National Action Council (NAC), was formed and Mandela named as its leader.

In accordance with the ANC plan, Mandela became a fugitive directly after the trial. He went into hiding at the first of several safe houses, most of them located in the Johannesburg area. Mandela stayed on the move, knowing that the police were looking everywhere for him.

Venturing out only at night, when he felt safest, Mandela dressed in disguises, such as a chauffeur or a chef. He made unannounced appearances, giving speeches at places that were presumed safe, and also made radio broadcasts. The press took to calling him "the Black Pimpernel," after the title character in the novel The Scarlet Pimpernel.

In October 1961, Mandela moved to a farm in Rivonia, outside of Johannesburg. He was safe for a time there and could even enjoy visits from Winnie and their daughters.

"Spear of the Nation"

In response to the government's increasingly violent treatment of protestors, Mandela developed a new arm of the ANC—a military unit that he named "Spear of the Nation," known also as MK. The MK would operate using a strategy of sabotage, targeting military installations, power facilities, and transportation links. Its goal was to damage property of the state, but not to harm individuals.

The MK's first attack came in December 1961, when they bombed an electric power station and empty government offices in Johannesburg. Weeks later, another set of bombings were carried out. White South Africans were startled into the realization that they could no longer take their safety for granted.

In January 1962, Mandela, who had never in his life been out of South Africa, was smuggled out of the country to attend a Pan-African conference. He hoped to get financial and military support from other African nations, but was not successful. In Ethiopia, Mandela received training in how to fire a gun and how to build small explosives.

After 16 months on the run, Mandela was captured on August 5, 1962, when the car he was driving was overtaken by police. He was arrested on charges of leaving the country illegally and inciting a strike. The trial began on October 15, 1962.

Refusing counsel, Mandela spoke on his own behalf. He used his time in court to denounce the government's immoral, discriminatory policies. Despite his impassioned speech, he was sentenced to five years in prison. Mandela was 44 years old when he entered Pretoria Local Prison.

Imprisoned in Pretoria for six months, Mandela was then taken to Robben Island, a bleak, isolated prison off the coast of Cape Town, in May 1963. After only a few weeks there, Mandela learned he was about to head back to court—this time on charges of sabotage. He would be charged along with several other members of MK, who had been arrested on the farm in Rivonia.

During the trial, Mandela admitted his role in the formation of MK. He emphasized his belief that the protestors were only working toward what they deserved—equal political rights. Mandela concluded his statement by saying that he was prepared to die for his cause.

Mandela and his seven co-defendants received guilty verdicts on June 11, 1964. They could have been sentenced to death for so serious a charge, but each was given life imprisonment. All of the men (except one white prisoner) were sent to Robben Island .

Life at Robben Island

At Robben Island, each prisoner had a small cell with a single light that stayed on 24 hours a day. Prisoners slept on the floor upon a thin mat. Meals consisted of cold porridge and an occasional vegetable or piece of meat (although Indian and Asian prisoners received more generous rations than their Black counterparts.) As a reminder of their lower status, Black prisoners wore short pants all year-round, whereas others were allowed to wear trousers.

Inmates spent nearly ten hours a day at hard labor, digging out rocks from a limestone quarry.

The hardships of prison life made it difficult to maintain one's dignity, but Mandela resolved not to be defeated by his imprisonment. He became the spokesperson and leader of the group, and was known by his clan name, "Madiba."

Over the years, Mandela led the prisoners in numerous protests—hunger strikes, food boycotts, and work slowdowns. He also demanded reading and study privileges. In most cases, the protests eventually yielded results.

Mandela suffered personal losses during his imprisonment. His mother died in January 1968 and his 25-year-old son Thembi died in a car accident the following year. A heartbroken Mandela was not allowed to attend either funeral.

In 1969, Mandela received word that his wife Winnie had been arrested on charges of communist activities. She spent 18 months in solitary confinement and was subjected to torture. The knowledge that Winnie had been imprisoned caused Mandela great distress.

"Free Mandela" Campaign

Throughout his imprisonment, Mandela remained the symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, still inspiring his countrymen. Following a "Free Mandela" campaign in 1980 that attracted global attention, the government capitulated somewhat. In April 1982, Mandela and four other Rivonia prisoners were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. Mandela was 62 years old and had been at Robben Island for 19 years.

Conditions were much improved from those at Robben Island. Inmates were allowed to read newspapers, watch TV, and receive visitors. Mandela was given a lot of publicity, as the government wanted to prove to the world that he was being treated well.

In an effort to stem the violence and repair the failing economy, Prime Minister P.W. Botha announced on January 31, 1985 that he would release Nelson Mandela if Mandela agreed to renounce violent demonstrations. But Mandela refused any offer that was not unconditional.

In December 1988, Mandela was transferred to a private residence at the Victor Verster prison outside Cape Town and later brought in for secret negotiations with the government. Little was accomplished, however, until Botha resigned from his position in August 1989, forced out by his cabinet. His successor, F.W. de Klerk, was ready to negotiate for peace. He was willing to meet with Mandela.

Freedom at Last

At Mandela's urging, de Klerk released Mandela's fellow political prisoners without condition in October 1989. Mandela and de Klerk had long discussions about the illegal status of the ANC and other opposition groups, but came to no specific agreement. Then, on February 2, 1990, de Klerk made an announcement that stunned Mandela and all of South Africa.

De Klerk enacted a number of sweeping reforms, lifting the bans on the ANC, the PAC, and the Communist Party, among others. He lifted the restrictions still in place from the 1986 state of emergency and ordered the release of all nonviolent political prisoners.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was given an unconditional release from prison. After 27 years in custody, he was a free man at the age of 71. Mandela was welcomed home by thousands of people cheering in the streets.

Soon after his return home, Mandela learned that his wife Winnie had fallen in love with another man in his absence. The Mandelas separated in April 1992 and later divorced.

Mandela knew that despite the impressive changes that had been made, there was still much work to be done. He returned immediately to working for the ANC, traveling across South Africa to speak with various groups and to serve as a negotiator for further reforms.

In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their joint effort to bring about peace in South Africa.

President Mandela

On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first election in which Blacks were allowed to vote. The ANC won 63 percent of the votes, a majority in Parliament. Nelson Mandela—only four years after his release from prison—was elected the first Black president of South Africa. Nearly three centuries of white domination had ended.

Mandela visited many Western nations in an attempt to convince leaders to work with the new government in South Africa. He also made efforts to help bring about peace in several African nations, including Botswana, Uganda, and Libya. Mandela soon earned the admiration and respect of many outside of South Africa.

During Mandela's term, he addressed the need for housing, running water, and electricity for all South Africans. The government also returned land to those it had been taken from, and made it legal again for Blacks to own land.

In 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel on his eightieth birthday. Machel, 52 years old, was the widow of a former president of Mozambique.

Nelson Mandela did not seek re-election in 1999. He was replaced by his Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela retired to his mother's village of Qunu, Transkei.

Mandela became involved in raising funds for HIV/AIDS, an epidemic in Africa. He organized the AIDS benefit "46664 Concert" in 2003, so named after his prison ID number. In 2005, Mandela's own son, Makgatho, died of AIDS at the age of 44.

In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly designated July 18, Mandela's birthday, as Nelson Mandela International Day. Nelson Mandela died at his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. 

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biography of nelson mandela in brief

Born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo, near Qunu in the former Transkei, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela spent much of his childhood being groomed to become a chief.  He matriculated at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School and went on to study at Fort Hare University College where he met Oliver Tambo. Here he became involved in student politics and was expelled in 1940 as a result of participating in a student protest. On moving to Johannesburg, he was employed as a mine policeman where he met Walter Sisulu who assisted him in obtaining articles with a legal firm. Completing a BA degree by correspondence in 1941, he then began studying for a law degree which he did not complete. In December 1952, Mandela and Tambo opened the first African legal partnership in the country. Together with Sisulu and Tambo, Mandela participated in the founding of the African National Congress Youth League in 1944, serving as National Secretary in 1948, becoming National President in 1950.

In October 1952, as President of the ANC in the Transvaal, he became one of four Deputy Presidents of the organisation.  Later that year, Mandela and 19 others were arrested and charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their participation in the Defiance Campaign. They were sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour, suspended for two years. In 1956, he was one of the 156 political activists arrested and charged with high treason for the campaign leading to the adoption of the Freedom Charter the previous year. The trial lasted four and a half years (during which time charges against many of the accused were dropped) and ended in March 1961, when Mandela and 29 others were found not guilty. In 1961 Umkhonto we Sizwe was formed with Mandela as its Commander-in-Chief. Nelson Mandela was instrumental in a number of protest actions and campaigns, including the anti-pass law campaigns. He addressed international audiences and travelled widely to gain support for the struggle against apartheid. He returned to South Africa in July 1962, and on 5 August was captured near Howick, Natal. He was tried and sentenced to five years imprisonment for incitement to strike and for illegally leaving the country. While Mandela was in prison, police raided the underground headquarters of the African National Congress at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia and arrested central ANC leaders. The Rivonia trial commenced in October 1963 and Mandela joined the other accused being tried for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government by revolution. His statement from the dock received worldwide publicity. On 12 June 1964, all eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Whilst incarcerated on Robben Island, Mandela (who was kept in isolation cells along with other senior leaders) continued to exercise leadership in the education of fellow prisoners and attending to political questions facing the organisation. Whilst in exile, her maintained contact with the leadership of the ANC. In 1988, Mandela was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was transferred to a house on the grounds of the Victor Verster Prison, near Paarl. In the late eighties, he initiated contact with government representatives, which eventually led to his meeting with State President PW Botha in July 1989 at Tuynhuys. In December 1989 he met the new State President, FW de Klerk. On 2 February 1990, the ANC, the South African Communist Party, the PAC and other anti-apartheid organisations were unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released from jail on Sunday, 11 February 1990. Upon his release, he reassumed his leadership role in the ANC and the National Executive Committee appointed him Deputy President. He undertook a tour of the country, addressing the biggest rallies ever seen in the country’s history and helped re-establish the ANC as a legal organisation. He led the ANC in negotiations with the South African government which culminated in the adoption of the interim constitution in November 1993. Mandela led the ANC campaign in the 1994 elections, in which the ANC won with a 62% majority. On Monday, 9 May 1994, Mandela was elected President of the Republic of South Africa by the National Assembly in Cape Town and sworn in the following day.  In June of that year, he undertook to donate one-third of his annual salary (R150 000) to The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund which was established to address the needs of marginalised youths.

In 1997 he retired as the President of the ANC and in July 1998, married Graca Machel, the widow of former Mozambiquan President, Samora Machel. The following year he stepped down as President of South Africa  

In the year 2000 he was appointed as mediator in the civil war in Burundi and in 2002, discovered new talents when he started his training as an artist.

In June 2004, he announced that he would be stepping down from public life, however, in 2010 – the year that South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup, he was formally presented with the Web Ellis Trophy before it embarked on a tour of the country. He late made a surprise appearance at the final of the massive world sporting event held in Soweto in June.

In 2010 his second book  Conversations with Myself was published and in 2011, his third book - Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations.

On 5 December 2013, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed away at his home in Johannesburg, aged 95.

He was awarded numerous honours and many honorary degrees during his lifetime and was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he shared with Executive Deputy President Frederick W de Klerk, who was State President when the award was given. 

biography of nelson mandela in brief

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  • Nelson Mandela Biography

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The first President of South Africa to be elected in entirely representative democratic elections was Nelson Mandela. He was a prominent anti-apartheid radical and leader of the African National Congress before his presidency, who spent 27 years in jail for his participation in the activities of clandestine armed resistance and sabotage.

About Nelson Mandela

Full Name - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Date of Birth - July 18, 1918

Date of Death - December 5, 2013

Cause of Death - Prolonged respiratory infection

Age - 95 years

Nelson Mandela spouse(s) -

Evelyn Ntoko Mase (m. 1944; div. 1958)​

Winnie Madikizela (m. 1958; div. 1996)

Graça Machel ​(m. 1998)

Who is Nelson Mandela?

Nelson Mandela belonged to the Thembu Dynasty cadet branch which reigned (nominally) in the Transkeian Territories of the Cape Province Union of South Africa. He was born in the small village of Qunu in the Mthatha district, the capital of the Transkei. Ngubengcuka (died 1830), the Inkosi Enkulu or King of the Thembu people, was his great-grandfather and was ultimately subjected to British colonial rule. One of the king's sons, named Mandela, became Nelson's grandfather and the source of his surname.

His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (1880-1928) was appointed chief of the village of Mvezo. However, he was stripped of his position after alienating the colonial authorities and he moved his family to Qunu. Gadla, however, remained a member of the Privy Council of Inkosi and was instrumental in the ascension of Jongintaba Dalindyebo to the Thembu throne, who would later return this favor by informally adopting Mandela upon the death of Gadla.

Mandela's father had four wives, with whom he fathered a total of 13 children (four boys and nine girls). Nosekeni Fanny, daughter of Nkedama of the Mpemvu Xhosa tribe, in whose homestead Mandela spent most of his childhood, was born to Gadla's third wife ('third' by a complex royal ranking system). His given name, Rolihlahla, means "one who brings trouble upon himself."

Nelson Mandela Education

Rolihlahla Mandela became the first member of his family to attend a school at the age of seven, where a Methodist teacher gave him the name 'Nelson,' after the British admiral Horatio Nelson. When Rolihlahla was nine, his father died of tuberculosis, and the Regent, Jongintaba, became his guardian. Mandela was attending a Wesleyan mission school next door to the Regent's palace. He was initiated at age 16, adopting Thembu tradition, and attended Clarkebury Boarding Institute, learning about Western culture. Instead of the standard three, he completed his Junior Certificate in two years.

In 1937, Mandela moved to Healdtown, the Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort, which was attended by most Thembu royalty, as he was supposed to inherit the place of his father as a private counselor. He took an interest in boxing and running at the age of nineteen. After registering, he began studying for a B.A. and met Oliver Tambo at Fort Hare University, where the two became lifelong friends and colleagues. He became active in a protest by the Students' Representative Council against university policies at the end of his first year and was forced to leave Fort Hare.

Mandela initially found employment as a guard at a mine upon his arrival in Johannesburg. This was quickly terminated, however, after the employer learned that Mandela was the runaway adopted son of the Regent. Thanks to connections with his friend and fellow lawyer Walter Sisulu, he then managed to find work as a clerk at a law firm. He completed his degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) through correspondence while working, after which he began his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. Mandela lived in a township called Alexandra during that time.

About Nelson Mandela Marriage and Family

Nelson Mandela married thrice and had fathered six children, 20 grandchildren, and an increasing number of great-grandchildren. His first marriage was to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, who, like Mandela, was also from what later became South Africa's Transkei region. They first met in Johannesburg.  The couple had two sons, Madiba Thembekile (born 1946) and Makgatho (born 1950), and two daughters, both named Makaziwe (known as Maki; born 1947 and 1953).

Nelson Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was also from the Transkei region, even though they also met in Johannesburg, where she was the first black social worker in the city. The marriage bore two daughters, Zenani (Zeni), born on February 4, 1958, and Zindziswa (Zindzi), born in 1960. The union, fuelled by political estrangement, ended in separation (April 1992) and divorce (March 1996).

In 1998, on his 80th birthday, Mandela married Graça Machel, née Simbine, the widow of Samora Machel, a former Mozambican president and an ANC ally killed 12 years earlier in an air crash. His traditional sovereign, King Buyelekhaya Zwelibanzi Dalindyebo, born in 1964, carried out the wedding on Mandela's behalf (which followed months of international negotiations to fix the unparalleled bride price sent to her clan). Ironically, it was the grandfather of this paramount leader, the Regent, whose selection of a bride for him compelled Mandela to flee as a young man to Johannesburg. 

About Nelson Mandela Political Activity

Nelson Mandela was influential in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Movement and the 1955 People's Congress. They adopted the Freedom Charter which provided the basic program of the anti-apartheid cause, after the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party with its apartheid racial segregation policy. Nelson Mandela and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo ran the Mandela and Tambo law firm during this period, offering free or low-cost legal advice to many blacks who would otherwise have been without legal representation.

Initially influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and devoted to non-violent mass struggle, on December 5, 1956, Mandela was arrested and charged with treason along with 150 others. The 1956-1961 marathon Treason Trial followed, and all were acquitted. As a new class of black activists (Africanists) emerged in the townships seeking more drastic action against the National Party government, the ANC witnessed disruption from 1952-1959. Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu's ANC leadership thought not only that events were moving too rapidly, but also that their leadership was being questioned.

The ANC lost its most militant support in 1959 when, under Robert Sobukwe and Potlako Leballo, most of the Africanists, with financial support from Ghana and major political support from the Transvaal-based Basotho, split away to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

Arrest and Imprisonment 

In 1961, Nelson Mandela became the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, also abbreviated as MK), the armed wing of the ANC, which he co-founded. He coordinated a campaign of sabotage against military and government objectives and if sabotage failed to end apartheid, made preparations for a future guerrilla war. MK did indeed wage a guerrilla war against the regime a few decades later, especially during the 1980s, in which many civilians were killed. Mandela also collected funds and organized paramilitary training for MK overseas, visiting different African governments.

He was captured after living on the run for 17 months on August 5, 1962, and imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. Three days later, at a court appearance, the charges of leading workers to a strike in 1961 and leaving the country illegally were read to him. Mandela was sentenced to five years in prison on October 25, 1962.

On June 11th, 1964, two years later, a verdict was reached concerning his prior participation in the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for the next 18 of his 27 years in prison. It was there that he wrote the bulk of his 'Long Walk to Freedom' autobiography. Mandela did not disclose anything in that book about the suspected involvement of President F. W. De Klerk, or the role of his ex-wife Winnie Mandela in the brutality of the 1980s and early 1990s. In Mandela: The Authorized Biography, however, he later cooperated with his friend, journalist Anthony Sampson, who addressed these issues.

Mandela remained in jail rejecting an offer of conditional release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle in February 1985 until concerted ANC and international activism came up with the resounding slogan “Free Nelson Mandela!”. President de Klerk simultaneously ordered the release of Mandela in February 1990 and the revocation of the ANC ban.

Post-apartheid

On April 27, 1994, South Africa's first democratic elections were held in which full enfranchisement was given. In the election, the ANC won the vote, and Nelson Mandela, as ANC leader, was inaugurated as the country's first black president, with de Klerk of the National Party as his deputy president in the National Unity Government.

As South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Nelson Mandela urged black South Africans to get behind the previously despised Springboks (the South African national rugby team). Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey, presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner after the Springboks had secured an epic final over New Zealand. This has been widely seen as a significant step in white and black South Africans' reconciliation.

It was also during his administration when, with the launch of the SUNSAT satellite in February 1999, South Africa entered the space age. It was developed by Stellenbosch University students and was used primarily to photograph land related to vegetation and forestry issues in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela Awards

Nelson Mandela has received many South African, foreign, and international awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, Queen Elizabeth II's Order of Merit and the Order of St. John, and George W. Bush's Presidential Medal of Freedom. In July 2004, during a ceremony in Orlando, Soweto, the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, conferred its highest honor on Mandela by granting him the freedom of the city.

As an indication of his popular international recognition, he had a speaking engagement at the SkyDome in the city of Toronto during his tour of Canada in 1998, where 45,000 school children welcomed him with intense adulation.

He was the first living person to be named an honorary Canadian citizen in 2001.

In 1992, Turkey awarded him the Ataturk Peace Prize. He declined the award, alleging abuses of human rights committed during that period by Turkey, but later accepted the award in 1999. He has also received the Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International (2006).

Retirement and Death

Nelson Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in the summer of 2001. Mandela declared in June 2004, at the age of 85, that he would retire from public life. His health had been deteriorating, and he and his family decided to spend more time. 

He passed away on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95, after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection. He died, surrounded by his relatives, at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg.

Some facts about Nelson Mandela

From 1994 until 1999, Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa. He was South Africa's first black president and the first to be elected in a fully representative election.

The leadership of Nelson Mandela concentrated on overthrowing the country's Apartheid government, which had enforced racial segregation through the law.

Nelson Mandela studied law at school and then went on to become one of South Africa's first black lawyers.

He was chosen leader of the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement's youth section in the 1950s.

Mandela established a hidden military movement after the government banned the ANC for racial reasons. He had previously participated in nonviolent protests, but as the government responded with brutality, he moved on to promote an anti-government movement.

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FAQs on Nelson Mandela Biography

1. When and Where was Nelson Mandela born?

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, according to his biography. His parents named him Rolihlahla after he was born. This African name was eventually complemented with the English first name Nelson, which was given to him by his teacher, Miss Mdingane, as the name to which he should respond at school. He was born in the Transkei province of South Africa.

2. Why is he also called ‘Madiba’?

Madiba is Nelson Mandela’s clan name, indicating that he was a Madiba clan member (named after an eighteenth-century Thembu tribe chief). "I am commonly addressed as Madiba, my tribal name, as a symbol of respect," Nelson Mandela writes in his autobiography.

3. What is his educational background?

Nelson Mandela began his education at a nearby mission school. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University College of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, at the end of 1942. Mandela then enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in early 1943 to pursue a bachelor of law degree, but he never finished it. He chose to take the qualifying exam that would allow him to practice as a full-fledged attorney in 1952 after multiple failed attempts. He graduated from law school in the year 1989.

4. When was Nelson Mandela awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? And why?

Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, the president of South Africa at the time, shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 "for their work for the peaceful end of the apartheid regime, and for establishing the foundations for a new democratic South Africa." Visit Vedantu To know more about his contribution to the establishment of a democratic republic. 

Nelson Mandela

biography of nelson mandela in brief

  • Occupation: President of South Africa and Activist
  • Born: July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, South Africa
  • Died: December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg, South Africa
  • Best known for: Serving 27 years in prison as a protest against apartheid
  • Nelson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
  • July 18th is Nelson Mandela day. People are asked to devote 67 minutes to helping others. The 67 minutes represents the 67 years Mandela spent serving his country.
  • Invictus was a 2009 movie about Nelson Mandela and the South African rugby team.
  • He had six children and twenty grandchildren.
  • Listen to a recorded reading of this page:

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Learners' biography

Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei, on 18 July 1918.

His mother was Nonqaphi Nosekeni and his father, Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, was the main advisor to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo.

He received the name "Nelson" on his first day in primary school from his teacher Miss Mdingane. When he was 12 his father died and he was raised by the Regent at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. He was sent to the best schools available and began studying a BA at Fort Hare University.

Nmflegacy1

When he was expelled for joining a student protest, the Regent told him to return or get married. So he ran away to Johannesburg with his cousin Justice. His first job in 1941 was as a security guard on a gold mine and then as a legal clerk in the law firm Witkin, Edelman and Sidelsky. At the same time he completed his BA through Unisa.

In 1943 he enrolled for an LLB at Wits University. He was a poor student and became more involved in politics from 1944 after he helped to start the ANC Youth League. He married in the same year and needed money to support his family.

By mid-1952 when the university asked him to pay the 27 pounds he owed or leave, he already had three children. He only started studying again in 1962 in prison. He finally graduated with an LLB through Unisa 27 years later.

Later in 1952 he became the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign against apartheid laws. He and 19 others were later charged and sentenced to nine months, suspended for two years. In August he and Oliver Tambo started South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo.

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In those days one could practise as an attorney with a two-year diploma. Later that year he was banned for the first time – he had to ask the government for permission whenever he needed to leave Johannesburg. After the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, 156 people were arrested and charged with treason. The trial lasted four-and-a-half years until 29 March 1961 by which time all were acquitted. The ANC and PAC were banned after the 21 March 1961 killing by police of 69 unarmed protesters in Sharpeville.

Mandela called on the government not to turn South Africa into a republic on 31 May 1961 but to discuss a non-racial constitution. He was ignored so he called for a strike on 29, 30 and 31 March.

In June 1961 he was asked to lead the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe and it launched on 16 December that year. On 11 January 1962, Mandela secretly left South Africa to undergo military training and to get support from African countries for the armed struggle.

He was arrested on 5 August and charged with leaving the country illegally and encouraging the strike. He was convicted and sentenced on 7 November 1962 to five years in prison.

On 11 July 1963, a secret hideout he once used was raided by police. On 9 October 1963 he joined 10 others on trial for sabotage in the Rivonia Trial.

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On 12 June 1964 he and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment. While he was in prison his mother and his eldest son died. He was not allowed to attend their funerals.

He spent 18 years on Robben Island, and while at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town in 1985 he had to go to hospital. When Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee visited him, he had an idea: to see if the government wanted to talk about one day meeting with the ANC.

In 1988 he was taken to hospital for tuberculosis. Three months later he was moved to Victor Verster Prison where he spent his last 14 months in prison. He was released on Sunday 11 February 1990, nine days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC.

Other political prisoners were freed and exiles returned. The ANC began talking to the government about South Africa’s future. For this work he and President FW de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and on 27 April 1994, Mandela voted in South Africa’s first democratic elections.

On 10 May 1994, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President and stepped down after one term. In his retirement he worked on building schools and clinics, highlighting HIV, children and leadership. He died at his home in Johannesburg on 5 December 2013.

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Nelson Mandela and the ANC — and the choices he made in his fight for freedom

Tl - mandela atc rolloff.

NPR's Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei speak with Tshepo Moloi and Richard Stengel about Mandela’s early involvement with the African National Congress.

Copyright © 2024 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

biography of nelson mandela in brief

10 important things Nelson Mandela did to build democracy in South Africa

Nelson Mandela is an internal icon for world peace and democracy and was instrumental in creating South Africa's democracy in 1994. Even though the beloved political figure has since passed, his memory lives on through all his life-changing actions to ensure peace within the country. What essential things did Nelson Mandela do for democracy?

Also fondly referred to as Madiba, Nelson Mandela changed the world during his fight against Apartheid during the Apartheid era. His strong leadership skills and willingness to lead by example through forgiveness and empathy made him the ideal choice to lead South Africa through its new democracy.

Nelson Mandela’s achievements stretched further than just becoming president of South Africa. Madiba's groundbreaking choices while in power ensured the country's new democracy will remain unshakable in years to come. What did Nelson Mandela do to promote democracy in the world?

Madiba has done many great things for South African citizens since joining the fight for democracy. What are some of Nelson's most significant achievements? Here are 10 important things Mandela did to build democracy, thereby transforming the lives of millions.

10. Showing strong leadership

Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1943 and co-founded its Youth League in 1944. His incredible leadership and dedication to making the country a better place earned him a spot as the political party's president from 1991 to 1997, when Nelson declined to stay president for another term.

9. Forgiving his oppressors

During Nelson's fight with the ANC against the Apartheid government, he was arrested various times and stood trial on four occasions. Madiba spent over 27 years in prison, but despite experiencing various trials and tribulations in his fight for the country's freedom, he forgave F. W. de Klerk and the National Party. F.W. de Klerk issued a public apology for Apartheid and negotiated with Nelson to dismantle Apartheid together.

8. Denouncing violence

Nelson Mandela opposed violence, supporting Mahatma Gandhi's ideals about non-violence. However, he became frustrated at the lack of progress, so he began to believe armed resistance was necessary, joining civil unrest campaigns. This landed him in legal trouble, and once freed, he again took a non-violent approach to protest.

7. Becoming a global symbol of peace

Madiba's actions and willingness to work with the National Party helped him become a worldwide icon for peace and change. Nelson Mandela and F.W. De Klerk won The Nobel Peace Prize on October 16, 1993, after they joined forces to create a brighter future for all South African citizens.

6. Established the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission

After Nelson was elected South Africa's president in 1994, he established the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996. The commission was created to help South Africans better cope with the conflict, violence, and human rights abuses that occurred under Apartheid. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chairman, and Alex Boraine, the deputy chairman, authorised the commission.

5. Installed measures to fight poverty and improve healthcare

As president, Nelson Mandela created various initiatives and implemented measures to help create a better South Africa. He donated half his presidential salary to children in financial need and gave away part of his Nobel Peace Prize to the same initiative.

4. Used sports to unite the country

The rest of the world boycotted South Africa when Apartheid came into law, and the sporting world was no exception. Following Apartheid's abolishment and the re-establishment of South Africa to the rest of the globe, Madiba saw a chance to unite the country through rugby, and South Africa went on to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995, furthering South Africa's unity as a nation through sports.

3. Established the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Madiba created the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 1999, a non-profit organisation focused on memory, dialogue and legacy work. Specifically, the foundation creates a much-needed dialogue on critical social issues, which brings them to the forefront.

2. Worked closely with unions

The African National Congress worked closely with various unions during its fight against Apartheid, and Nelson Mandela followed that legacy into his presidency. Through these workings, Nelson ensured fairness and equality and kept peace.

1. Remained a positive figure until he passed

Madiba's life was marred with tragedy, unfairness, and imprisonment. Instead of encouraging violence or dwelling on his suffering, which would have been justified, Nelson remained humble and kind in his approach to all he met. Madiba's outstanding character and memorable leadership made him South Africa's most iconic president.

Why was Mandela imprisoned for 27 years?

As mentioned earlier, the political figure was jailed for over 27 years for his role in rising against the National Party's oppressive Apartheid regime. Following the Rivonia Trial, Nelson was sentenced to 27 years imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state. Madiba's time served included stays at Robben Island, Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison.

Who helped build democracy in South Africa?

Nelson Mandela was essential to building the country's democracy, and his strong leadership skills and humble nature made him the ideal candidate for South Africa's first democratic president. The African National Congress (ANC), along with other democratic parties, was also instrumental in creating the country's democracy.

Why was 10th May 1994 crucial for South Africa?

The 10th of May, 1994, is an essential part of South Africa's democracy as it was the first time a democratic leader was chosen. Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first democratic president that day, paving the way for the country's blossoming democracy in years to come.

Nelson Mandela was integral in liberating South Africa from Apartheid's oppressive shackles, with his actions still being impactful decades later. These 10 important things Nelson Mandela did to build democracy in South Africa show why Madiba is such a globally-loved political figure.

Briefly.co.za published the news about Zoleka Mandela. She was only 10 when her grandfather, Nelson Mandela, was released from prison in 1990.

Zoleka was born on 9th April 1980 in South Africa and after a deeply troubled life, died on 25th September 2023. Discover lesser-known facts about Nelson Mandela's granddaughter.

10 important things Nelson Mandela did to build democracy in South Africa

South Africa election: Nelson Mandela would turn in his grave at his country today

I witnessed the historic election 30 years ago that propelled Nelson Mandela to power in South Africa. Now, with his party having lost its majority for the first time since that day, he would be dismayed at the state of his country.

biography of nelson mandela in brief

Chief presenter

Saturday 1 June 2024 17:15, UK

Nelson Mandela and Mark Austin in 1994

It was a joyful day 30 years ago in a South Africa that had enjoyed very few.

It was the first truly democratic election, and the black majority - for so long the victims of the wretched oppression imposed by apartheid - finally had their say.

And how they spoke!

I watched them queue in Soweto in the sunshine, dancing and singing as they waited. And it was a long wait.

Mark Austin reporting in South Africa shortly after Mandela's historic 1994 election win

The system couldn't cope. South Africa wasn't used to everyone being able to vote. But wait they did, long into the night to cast their first ever vote... for a black party... led by a black man… the black man who had fought for and led and carried the African National Congress (ANC) to this moment.

One grandmother told me that she could "die happy now" because "I know my children and my children's children will no longer be without a vote in their own country".

But today, I have to say, Nelson Mandela would be turning in his grave. His ANC has been humiliated at the polls .

Observers look on as election results are displayed at the Results Operation Centre (ROC) in Midrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday May 31, 2024. Pic:AP

After the ANC victory in 1994 (they won with 62% of the vote) I interviewed Mandela. He spoke of course of his rainbow nation, but said it would not be easy.

Decades of apartheid meant poverty, exclusion and a lack of hope and, above all, education that would take years to even begin to address.

"Don't judge us in five or 10 years," he told me. "It will take 20 years, 30 years, a generation and more to get things done."

Well, 30 years on things may be better, but the lives of the black majority in this great country have certainly not been transformed.

Some have, of course. But many still struggle with the daily reality of poverty, poor sanitation, hopeless infrastructure, endless power crises and unemployment. A third are jobless and that is no way to win votes.

Read more: What's left of ANC support is held together by deep loyalty and desperate hope Inside Mandela's childhood home - now another impoverished village

MK Party supporters celebrate in the middle of the street in Mahlbnathini village in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, on Thursday May 30, 2024. MK Party is currently leading in the provincial poll against the ANC, who've held the stronghold in the province for the last 20 years. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

And the corruption eats away at the fabric of society. Corruption at almost every level of government has seen businesspeople plunder state resources and political leaders fill their own pockets.

And today we see Mandela's ANC paying the price. They are struggling to muster even 40% of the vote.

They will fall hopelessly short of a majority for the first time and will have to do deals to rule this country in a coalition of opposing forces. It will be difficult, turbulent and uncertain for the people.

And it is the most bitter of ironies that one party they may well have to deal with is the new party of an old president, Jacob Zuma, who was forced to quit in 2018 after a string of corruption scandals.

Zuma joined the uMkhonto weSizwe party in January to campaign against the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who he said was a proxy for South Africa's wealthy whites.

FILE PHOTO: South African president Cyril Ramaphosa casts his vote during the South African elections in Soweto, South Africa May 29, 2024 REUTERS/Oupa Nkosi/File Photo

I met Ramaphosa several times in the early nineties. He was a union leader and senior negotiator during the talks that ended apartheid.

He was highly thought of and also a great friend of Nelson Mandela. Mandela always thought Ramaphosa would be president one day - he would be disappointed by the way it has turned out.

Surviving this catastrophic result would be a good outcome for Ramaphosa.

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biography of nelson mandela in brief

Globally, the ANC has chosen its role. It seeks a world where developing countries have more influence, where US power should be curbed and where China and Russia are its friends and partners. Its legal actions against Israel have won support among some, but contempt from others.

But while Mandela would be bitterly disappointed at the failure of the ANC to transform from liberation movement to a truly effective government for the people, he would no doubt be reassured that a still fledgling democracy was working. The people of South Africa have done what democracies do and, if not exactly turfing out the ANC, they have delivered a message of dissatisfaction.

But right now, a period of political turbulence is just what South Africa does not need. It needs political stability and a government intent on tackling corruption, inequality and crime. It needs hope and optimism and - dare I say it for fear of over-romanticising things - another Nelson Mandela.

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  • Nelson Mandela 1918-2013
  • South Africa

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South Africa's ANC ruling party that freed country from apartheid loses its 30-year majority

June 1, 2024 / 7:28 AM EDT / AP

The African National Congress party lost its parliamentary majority in a historic election result Saturday that puts South Africa on a new political path for the first time since the end of the apartheid system of white minority rule 30 years ago.

With nearly 99% of votes counted, the once-dominant ANC had received just over 40% in the election on Wednesday, well short of the majority it had held since the famed all-race vote of 1994 that ended apartheid and brought it to power under Nelson Mandela. The final results are still to be formally declared by the independent electoral commission that ran the election.

While opposition parties hailed it as a momentous breakthrough for a country struggling with deep poverty and inequality, the ANC remained the biggest party by some way but will now need to look for a coalition partner or partners to remain in the government and reelect President Cyril Ramaphosa for a second and final term. Parliament elects the South African president after national elections.

APTOPIX South Africa Election

The result ended the ANC's dominance three-decade dominance of South Africa's young democracy, but the way forward promises to be complicated for Africa's most advanced economy, and there's no coalition on the table yet.

The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was on around 21% . The new MK Party of former President Jacob Zuma, who has turned against the ANC he once led, came third with just over 14% of the vote in the first election it has contested.

Which parties the ANC might approach to co-govern with is the urgent focus now, given Parliament needs to sit and elect a president within 14 days of the final election results being officially declared. A flurry of negotiations were set to take place and they will likely be complicated.

The MK Party said one of their conditions for any agreement was that Ramaphosa is removed as ANC leader and president.

"We are willing to negotiate with the ANC, but not the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa," MK Party spokesperson Nhlamulo Ndlela said.

APTOPIX South Africa Election

More than 50 parties contested the national election, but given how far off a majority the ANC appears to be, it is likely that it will have to approach one of the three main opposition parties.

MK and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters have called for parts of the economy to be nationalized. The centrist Democratic Alliance is viewed as a business-friendly party and analysts say an ANC-DA coalition would be more welcomed by foreign investors.

Despite the uncertainty, South African opposition parties were hailing the new political picture as a much-needed change for the country of 62 million, which is Africa's most developed but also one of the most unequal in the world.

South Africa has widespread poverty and extremely high levels of unemployment and the ANC has struggled to raise the standard of living for millions. The official unemployment rate is 32%, one of the highest in the world, and the poverty disproportionately affects Black people, who make up 80% of the population and have been the core of the ANC's support for years.

APTOPIX South Africa Election

The ANC has also been blamed — and apparently punished by voters — for a failure in basic government services that impacts millions and leaves many without water, electricity or proper housing.

"We have said for the last 30 years that the way to rescue South Africa is to break the ANC's majority and we have done that," Democratic Alliance leader John Steenhuisen said.

Nearly 28 million South Africans were registered to vote and turnout is expected to be around 60%, according to figures from the independent electoral commission that runs the election.

  • South Africa

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Nelson Mandela’s party has been dealt a seismic election blow. Where does it leave South Africa?

biography of nelson mandela in brief

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Nelson Mandela’s party has been dealt a seismic election blow. Where does it leave South Africa?

biography of nelson mandela in brief

By Sarah Dean and David McKenzie, CNN

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) — South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party is set to fall short of a majority for the first time in 30 years after national elections this week, marking the biggest political shift in the country since the end of apartheid.

With counting nearly complete support for the ANC was at just over 40%, a huge slump from the 57.5% it received in the last election.

The official opposition party, the centrist Democratic Alliance (DA), had about 22% of the vote.

Behind them were two ANC splinter parties: the newly formed uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK), led by Zuma, had nearly 15% of the vote, and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had nearly 10%, data from the country’s electoral commission showed.

Fed-up voters dealt the party of Nelson Mandela a seismic blow at the polls after years of corruption scandals and economic mismanagement.  As a result, the ANC will be forced to form a coalition to govern the world’s most unequal country.

Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa and the ANC – and once Mandela’s favorite to succeed him as leader – promised a “new dawn” when he took over in 2018 from disgraced former president Jacob Zuma.

But many feel those promises never materialized and the election results reflect a population deeply frustrated with the country’s direction. South Africans could now face weeks of political uncertainty, as the ANC seeks to strike a coalition deal with former rivals.

The rebuke to the ANC was hardly unexpected, mirroring widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling party. But the scale of the losses surprised some.

“What we have seen is voters are unhappy with the ANC’s recent history. In particular what happened in the Zuma years and what followed on from that,” analyst and former ANC MP Melanie Verwoerd told CNN.

There has been “a general arrogance and loss of connection with the general voter from the ANC side,” Verwoerd said, adding that parties like MK and the EFF have capitalized on that discontent.

Zuma – a fierce critic of Ramaphosa – was forced to  resign as leader in 2018  and served a brief stint in jail in 2021 for contempt of court. The Constitutional Court barred the 82-year-old   from running for parliament  in May, but his face remained on the MK party ballot.

ANC in uncharted territory

Substantial bargaining will likely begin once the final results are declared. Political parties will have two weeks to form a coalition government before a new parliament must convene to elect the nation’s president. If they fail, new elections will need to be held.

“I have no sympathy for Mr. Ramaphosa and his party,” DA leader John Steenhuisen told CNN during an interview at the election’s National Results Center.

“It is their spinelessness to deal with the prospect of Mr. Zuma and his sins of omission and commission that has led to him being a political force now that has come and wiped them out in places like KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country.”

The populous coastal eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, where the major city of Durban is located, has traditionally been a stronghold of the conservative Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).

Zuma has faced  hundreds of corruption, fraud and racketeering charges  over the years. He has always denied all of them and became known as the “Teflon President” because few politicians could have survived the scandals he has faced and weathered.

Analysts CNN spoke to, including Verwoerd, believe the most likely coalition is between the ANC and DA. But others are more sceptical of that outcome. They all agree that the country is in uncharted territory.

Steenhuisen told CNN he wants to be part of a governing coalition and he believes a coalition “can work.” Before the election, the DA had already formed a bloc with smaller opposition parties called the Multi-Party Charter.

What he labels a “doomsday coalition” is one of the other options on the table: a deal between the ANC-EFF or even the MK.

But with such disdain inside those breakaway parties for Ramaphosa, it would be quite some negotiation.

The EFF is led by former ANC youth leader Julius Malema. It espouses the expropriation of land without compensation and sweeping state nationalism. The MK party’s manifesto holds broadly similar ideas and demands an overhaul of the country’s constitution to restore more powers to traditional leaders.

Not since the dawn of democracy in 1994 has South Africa’s political landscape been so unclear.

But some analysts believe – despite the uncertainty – that the results of this election could be a win for democracy.

“It is probably a maturity in the democracy, we needed change and it is never good to have such a one-party dominance in a country,” Verwoerd said.

“It might be a little bit more unstable as we go into the future. But for democracy’s sake, it is most probably a good thing.”

She said that the ANC’s prospects dropped dramatically under the previous president.

“Once the Jacob Zuma years happened, it became pretty inevitable that there was going to be a slide,” she added.

A country going backwards

The ANC swept to power in 1994 on a  pledge   to “build a better life for all,” winning almost 63% of the vote in the country’s first democratic election.

Fast forward three decades and rampant corruption, soaring joblessness, crippling  power cuts , and feeble economic growth are severely impacting South Africans.

The economy has gone backward over the past decade, evidenced by a sharp fall in living standards. According to the  World Bank , gross domestic product per capita has fallen from a peak in 2011, leaving the average South African 23% poorer.

South Africa has the highest rate of unemployment in the world, according to the World Bank.  Inequality is also the world’s worst.

Black South Africans, who make up 81% of the population, are at the sharp end of this dire situation. Unemployment and poverty remain concentrated in the Black majority, in large part due to the  failure of public schooling , while most White South Africans have jobs and command considerably higher wages.

Any coalition government will be a bitter pill to swallow for the ANC and Ramaphosa, who could soon be fighting for his political life.

Leading analysts believe that the ANC was depending on its legacy too much.

“The ANC was campaigning on three decades of its existence. But nobody was looking at the current president,” said TK Pooe, a senior lecturer at Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg. He believes Ramaphosa is “under pressure”.

“Historically, it is an embarrassment for him. He always styles himself as the next Nelson Mandela,” Pooe told CNN. But “last recollection, Nelson Mandela never lost an election.”

Pooe said, with this election, voters have told the ANC three things: “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Whether a coalition government can deliver for the people is deeply uncertain, but one thing is clear: South Africa and the ANC – Mandela’s former liberation movement that triumphed over apartheid – will never be the same.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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