Nelson Mandela Biography: Dive into the Riveting Details of His Biography

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, a village near Mthatha in the Transkei, South Africa. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a local chief and adviser to the acting paramount chief of the Thembu people.

Mandela grew up in Qunu, where his father moved the family when Mandela was still young. As the son of a chieftain, Mandela was groomed to assume a leadership position among the Thembu people. However, his father died when Mandela was 9, and the acting paramount chief assumed guardianship over him. The chief arranged for Mandela to marry a girl named Nomafu, but Mandela ran away as a teenager to avoid the arranged marriage.

1918 Born in Mvezo, South Africa on July 18
1927 (age 9) Mandela’s father died
1934 (age 16) Runs away to avoid arranged marriage

At age 16, Mandela enrolled at Clarkebury Boarding Institute, a Western-style institution for black South Africans, where he excelled academically and showed talent at boxing and long-distance running. He then attended Healdtown, a Methodist secondary school, continuing his success in academics and athletics.

In 1937, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only residential center of higher learning for black South Africans. He studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law. His involvement in student politics led to his expulsion in 1940.

Early Political Activism and Anti-Apartheid Efforts

After returning to Mqhekezweni, Mandela soon moved to Johannesburg where he found work as a night security guard. He completed his bachelor’s degree via correspondence in 1942 and enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand to study law.

During this period, Mandela became increasingly involved in politics and anti-colonial activism. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942 and co-founded the ANC Youth League in 1944 alongside Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo

Year Event
1940 Expelled from University College of Fort Hare
1942 Completes bachelor’s degree via correspondence
Joins African National Congress
1944 Co-founds ANC Youth League

Through the 1940s, Mandela became a prominent figure in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. He escalated efforts to organize strikes, boycotts, and public demonstrations against the South African government’s policy of apartheid. Apartheid, which means “apartness” in Afrikaans, was a system of legislation which upheld segregationist policies against non-European groups in South Africa.

In 1948, the South African government instituted formal apartheid laws, leading to increased strife, violence, and human rights violations. In response, Mandela helped organize extensive acts of peaceful civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance throughout the 1950s. He was arrested numerous times for his activism along with other ANC leaders.

Imprisonment and Release

In 1962, Mandela was convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state and of leaving the country without a passport. He was sentenced to five years in prison. While Mandela was incarcerated, police raided an ANC safe house in Rivonia and arrested the contingent, which included Walter Sisulu.

The authorities accused the group of sabotage and violent acts against the government with the intent to overthrow the regime. This became known as the Rivonia Trial.

1962 Arrested and convicted; sentenced to five years in prison
1964 Sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial

In 1964, eight ANC leaders from the Rivonia Trial, including Mandela, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. For 18 years, Mandela served time doing hard labor in Robben Island Maximum Security Prison off the coast near Cape Town. Despite repeated calls for his release, the South African government under the apartheid regime refused to parole him.

Over the next decades, Mandela’s imprisonment drew worldwide attention to the anti-apartheid cause and became a symbol of the struggle for racial justice in South Africa. “Free Mandela” became a rallying cry for civil rights activists across the globe. Back in South Africa, Oliver Tambo helped lead the ANC in responding to the harsh political repression enacted by pro-apartheid leaders.

In the late 1980s, South African President P.W. Botha suffered a stroke, and leadership passed to F.W. de Klerk in 1989. De Klerk believed releasing Mandela and legalizing the ANC was necessary for avoiding civil war in South Africa. After 27 years in prison, Mandela was freed on February 11, 1990 at age 71. De Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organizations in 1990, paving the way for multiracial elections.

Presidency and Retirement

Following his release from prison, Nelson Mandela returned to leadership in the ANC alongside his colleague Oliver Tambo. He led negotiations with President de Klerk to dismantle the legislated racism and segregation of apartheid. For their collaborative efforts, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The next year, the first democratic election was held in South Africa, resulting in Mandela being elected as the country’s first black president.

Events of Mandela’s Presidency

Year Event
1990 Freed from prison after 27 years
1993 Awarded Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk
1994 Elected President of South Africa
1999 Steps down as President

As president from 1994-1999, Mandela focused on dismantling apartheid legislation, settling racial disputes, and transitioning South Africa to a multiracial democracy. Notably, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights violations by both pro and anti-apartheid factions. By promoting reconciliation, the Commission played a crucial role in the peaceful power transfer and avoiding civil war.

Mandela also introduced extensive social and economic reforms to address the extreme poverty and inequality entrenched across racial lines. Key programs included large-scale infrastructure development, public housing construction, education access initiatives, and expanded healthcare. His skilful leadership was instrumental in guiding South Africa’s fragile democracy beyond minority rule.

Later Years and Death

After stepping down following one term as president in 1999, Mandela maintained a global activist role in social justice and humanitarian causes. He established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders organization to address global conflicts, poverty, disease, environmental sustainability, and human rights expansion.

In his later years, he devoted time fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic by raising awareness and supporting NGOs that provided treatment options to poor communities. Even after retiring from public life in 2004 at age 85, Mandela continued voicing support for various social and political issues until shortly before his death.

Nelson Mandela died at age 95 on December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg after battling a prolonged respiratory infection. The world mourned the passing of South Africa’s beloved leader and freedom fighter. Over a dozen heads of states attended his memorial service held at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg. He was laid to rest in Qunu during a state funeral on December 15, 2013. His legacy as a towering figure in 20th century history endures worldwide.


Nelson Mandela lived an extraordinary life defined by his heroic fight against apartheid and visionary leadership as South Africa’s first black president. His journey from political prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment to becoming the towering global icon of racial justice and reconciliation is truly unique in human history.

Through his unwavering courage, dignity, and commitment to peacefully transforming South Africa into a multiracial constitutional democracy, Mandela inspired the world. His name became synonymous with the anti-apartheid and human rights movements across the globe. By leading the nation toward truth, forgiveness, and an inclusive shared society after apartheid, Mandela paved the path for South Africa’s continued progress.

His charismatic yet humble style of servant leadership established a powerful democratic legacy emulated by subsequent leaders. Both his triumphs over injustice as well as the setbacks he overcame during his life convey lasting lessons in perseverance and hope.

Decades after his passing, Nelson Mandela’s fight for equality lives on as a moral compass guiding young activists and freedom fighters today still struggling against racial oppression. Through it all, his words and deeds remind the world there is no easy walk to freedom.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is Mandela such a famous figure?

Nelson Mandela gained worldwide fame for leading the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and serving as the country’s first black president. His 27-year imprisonment for activism against racial injustice also brought global spotlight. As an icon of reconciliation and nonviolence who helped establish multiracial democracy in South Africa, his prominence has endured long after retiring from politics.

What were Mandela’s greatest contributions?

Mandela is most renowned for dismantling the apartheid regime in South Africa and fighting to establish equal rights. Additionally, his peaceful transition of power avoided civil war and set the stage for advancing racial unity. By focusing economic and social reforms on closing inequality gaps, President Mandela laid the groundwork for the country to prosper.

How did Mandela impact race relations?

Through his unwavering yet non-confrontational fight against apartheid over decades, Mandela became the inspirational leader of a global movement. As South Africa’s president, he championed forgiveness, inclusivity, and reconciliation over revenge. This helped the country transcend decades of legislated racism. The multiracial democracy Mandela shepherded remains his living legacy.

What political and social issues were important to Mandela?

As one of the world’s most influential activists, Mandela touched many causes – chief among them racial injustice, inequality, nationalism, reconciliation, human rights, democracy, armed struggle vs nonviolence, and ethical governance. In retirement, he placed special emphasis on conflict resolution, poverty, HIV/AIDS, and youth empowerment.

Why does Mandela garner more international fame than fellow anti-apartheid activists?

Mandiba’s 27-year imprisonment lent unique notoriety despite the critical contributions of his ANC colleagues. As the face of the struggle reflected back at a horrified global audience witnessing apartheid atrocities, Mandela captured worldwide attention. His ability balancing charismatic gravitas with genuine humility distinguished his diplomatic leadership style as president from 1994-99.