Nelson Mandela was born on July 18 1918 in the village of Mvezo in the rural Transkei area of South Africa. His father, Henry, hailed from the royal family of Thembu clan of the Xhosa people and served as an adviser to the Thembu chief, Jongintaba Dalindyebo.
Mandela was one of Henry’s 12 children, born to Nosekeni, the third of four wives. He was christened Rolihlahla (meaning “troublemaker”) and enjoyed a traditional African childhood, herding cattle, learning stick fighting with other boys and undergoing a circumcision ceremony.
When Mandela was nine, his father died. Chief Jongintaba took the boy under his wing and became his official guardian. He sent Mandela to prestigious mission schools, first Clarkebury and then Healdtown, where a British teacher, one Mr Wellington, decided that the boy would be known as “Nelson” after the Admiral. Mandela embraced his new name and was steeped in English literature and British history.
He did well at school and progressed to Fort Hare University, then the only institution offering tertiary education to black South Africans, where he read law. But his rebellious streak showed through and he was expelled for leading a student strike against the university authorities.
Returning to his home village, he found that Chief Jongintaba was about to arrange his marriage to a girl who was actually in love with the old ruler’s own son, Justice. Together with a friend, Mandela stole a cow from his guardian – a criminal offence – and used the proceeds to flee to Johannesburg.
Nelson Mandela circa 1937
There he lived in the poor township of Alexandra and worked as a security guard for Crown Mines. He later achieved a long-range reconciliation with Chief Jongintaba, completing his degree at Fort Hare by correspondence and joining a law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman, as a junior clerk.
Lazar Sidelsky, one of the firm’s partners, became a close friend of Mandela and encouraged him to further his legal studies. Mandela enrolled at Witwatersrand University and tried to qualify as an “advocate” – the South African equivalent of a barrister. Having failed the exams three times, he was denied a fourth attempt. But Mandela qualified as an “attorney” – a solicitor – and eventually set up his own law firm alongside his close friend Oliver Tambo.
Nelson Mandela (right) with Oliver Tambo
MANDELA THE REVOLUTIONARY
Thanks to the influence of Tambo and Walter Sisulu, another lifelong friend, Mandela became politically active. The three men joined the African National Congress (ANC), but were disillusioned by the moderate stance of the party’s elderly leadership. They formed the ANC Youth League, which came to dominate the movement.
Sisulu introduced Mandela to a young nurse, Evelyn, and the couple married in 1944. They moved to the Orlando area of Soweto. Mandela’s first child, a son called Thembekile, was born in 1946. Their second child, a daughter called Makaziwe, was born the following year but died of meningitis at the age of 9 months.
The hardline National Party won the general election of 1948 and began building apartheid, enforcing racial segregation in every aspect of life. This helped to radicalise Mandela further. He led strikes and demonstrations against the regime, notably the “Defiance Campaign” of 1952 when he publicly broke the law by burning the pass which he, as a black male, was obliged to carry.
In 1956, Mandela was charged with treason, and endured the longest political trial in South Africa’s history before being acquitted in 1961. While on trial, he divorced Evelyn, who accused him of infidelity and violence, and married Winnie, a 22-year-old nurse, in 1958. He had two daughters with her.
The wedding of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela on June 14, 1958
In 1960, the ANC was formally banned and police killed 69 demonstrators in the Sharpeville massacre. Mandela responded by helping to found the armed wing of the ANC, known as “Umkhontwo we Sizwe” or “Spear of the Nation”. He helped to organise a bombing campaign in 1961 where explosives were placed beneath electricity pylons and at empty government offices. There was no plan to kill anyone; in the event, the only casualty was a young guerrilla whose bomb exploded too early.
The bombing campaign was a fiasco and Mandela went into hiding. He left South Africa in 1961, touring Africa, visiting London and receiving military training in Ethiopia. Shortly after his return to South Africa in 1962, he was jailed for having left the country illegally.
Nelson Mandela in 1961
Police then raided the ANC training camp at Rivonia outside Johannesburg. Mandela was brought from his cell in December 1963 and placed on trial for sabotage, acts of violence and treason. He gave an address from the dock, stating: “I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people”.
He added: “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 see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela was charged with a capital offence, but the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment with hard labour.
THE PRISON YEARS
Mandela was taken to Robben Island in 1963. The prison routine in those years was harsh. He lived alone in a tiny cell and spent his days sitting in the courtyard, sewing mailbags or breaking rocks. Later, he worked in a limestone quarry where the glitter of sunlight on rock permanently damaged his eyes. At that time, there were no opportunities for study and few books on Robben Island. Visitors were only allowed once a year.
Mandela had five surviving children – three from his first marriage to Evelyn and two with Winnie. But in 1969, his eldest son, Thembekile, died in a car accident. A few months earlier, his mother, Nosekeni, had also died. At this time, Winnie was jailed by the regime and spent 13 months in solitary confinement. This combination of tragedies came close to breaking Mandela. “I do not have words to express the sorrow or the loss I felt,” he wrote.
After this, conditions on Robben Island eased somewhat and Mandela was allowed more books and the opportunity to study. He resolved to become the master of his prison life, refusing to defer to the guards and insisting on respectful treatment. Some came to regard him with awe. Mandela studied Afrikaans, read the complete works of Shakespeare and all six volumes of Churchill’s war memoirs. He led debate and discussion among his fellow prisoners, sustained particularly by the friendship of Sisulu, a fellow Robben Islander.
Nelson Mandela revisits his prison cell in 1994 on Robben Island, where he spent eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison (Getty)
In the 1970s, he began secretly to write his autobiography, with the manuscripts being secretly smuggled off the island. He began receiving some foreign visitors and his cause started to attract attention across the world.
In 1982, he was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland, just outside Cape Town. Conditions were easier and Mandela received more books and visitors. By his fortitude in prison, Mandela had also achieved a unique stature within the ANC.
Some pillars of the apartheid regime believed they had to negotiate with him. Starting in 1986, the government opened secret talks with Mandela. They were led first by Kobie Coetsee, the justice minister, and later by Niel Barnard, the intelligence chief. President PW Botha publicly offered Mandela his freedom in 1986 – but only if he would denounce the ANC’s “armed struggle”. Mandela refused, saying that he would be released unconditionally or not at all. In 1988, he was transferred to Victor Verster prison in the town of Paarl, Western Cape, where he was given one of the warders’ houses.
COLLAPSE OF APARTHEID
Foreign pressure for South Africa to end apartheid had been mobilising ever since the 1960s, when the Anti-Apartheid Movement was formed in London in response to the Sharpeville Massacre. By the 1980s, though, it had become an international cause celebre in the West, an attractively simple case of right and wrong in a world dominated by the unyielding stalemate of the Cold War.
No student union was complete without its Nelson Mandela building, and Mandela was awarded honorary degrees, citizenships and even streets named in his honour. Among Left-wing politicians, expressions of solidarity with the townships of Soweto became fashionable. In 1984, the song “Free Nelson Mandela”, written by Jerry Dammers, the former keyboardist with the two-tone group The Specials, reached No 9 in the UK charts, popularising the call for Mandela’s freedom in the same way that Bob Geldof’s Live Aid concerts did for the fight against global poverty. Meanwhile, serious violence broke out in the townships, thanks to an ANC-led campaign to make them “ungovernable” by rent boycotts.
Attempts to impose international sanctions gained limited traction, partly because of objections from British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who, while opposing apartheid on principle, argued that isolating the white regime would simply reinforce its siege mentality. Popular boycott campaigns, such the one which persuaded Barclays Bank to sell off its South African subsidiaries in 1986, had some success, although when it came to discouraging foreign firms from investing, the simple perception that South Africa was now a powderkeg on the verge of a race war was equally effective.
In the end, though, it was the demise of the Cold War, as much as economic or cultural sanctions, that forced the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. With the Soviet Union no longer promoting Marxism across Africa, the white-only government could afford to relax its long-held view that the ANC was a Communist proxy in waiting. Another key political obstacle was removed when in 1989, the South African president, P. W. Botha, suffered a mild stroke, paving the way for the more conciliatory FW de Klerk to replace him. Within month of taking office, de Klerk had announced the legalisation of anti-apartheid groups.
WALK TO FREEDOM
On February 11, 1990, less than two weeks after Mr de Klerk had decreed that all political prisoners were to be freed, Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison. Dressed in a light-brown suit and tie and strolling hand in hand with Winnie, he smiled to the waiting cameras and waved a victory salute before climbing into a waiting BMW that was then mobbed by supporters.
Nelson Mandela with his wife Winnie on his release from Victor Verster Prison in 1990 (AP)
His brief “Walk to Freedom”, as it later become known, was the first time that most of the world had seen Mr Mandela since his incarceration some 27 years previously. To the relief of those who now saw him as the only man who could stop the country from civil war, he appeared fit and sprightly for his 71 years.
Later that day, he gave a speech from the balcony of the city hall in Cape Town, where some 50,000 people had gathered to hear him speak. In an indication of the challenges ahead, the fringes of the gathering were marred by fierce clashes between riot police and members of the crowd. But in his address, Mr Mandela showed his deft ability to both satisfy his core black supporters and reassure South Africa’s nervous whites. First, he defended the right of the ANC to continue the armed struggle for which he had been imprisoned, leaving Mr de Klerk’s government in no doubt of what would happen if it tried to uphold white-only rule. But then he spoke of his desire for a future South Africa dominated by neither one race nor the other, saying: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” It was a near-verbatim repeat of the the famous speech he had made from the dock in 1963 – this time, though, said in the spirit of defiance, but of reconciliation.
HIS RISE TO POWER
Mandela and the ANC soon opened talks with the white regime. This led to the establishment of a conference designed to draft a new constitution for a “democratic South Africa”. The ANC also took the landmark decision to “suspend” its armed struggle in September 1990, in return for the government lifting a state of emergency that had been in force since 1986.
But the talks on a new constitution were always threatened. Supporters of the ANC and of the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party fought one another, particularly in Natal province. It was later established that a “third force” from the South African security forces was encouraging this violence. A series of massacres took place, notably in Boipatong township in 1992 where 45 people were hacked to death.
Mandela blamed the security forces – and de Klerk personally – for these killings. He accused de Klerk of either turning a blind eye or being unable to control the security forces. His relationship with de Klerk, always tense, came close to collapse.
On 14 April 1993, Chris Hani, a leading ANC figure, was murdered. The anger reached boiling point. But Mandela went on national television and made a conciliatory statement to calm the situation. Agreement was then reached that a multi-racial election would be held on 27 April 1994. This would elect a transitional government which would include other parties apart from the ANC, the expected winner.
In the run-up to the election, all the main political forces, including hardline white Afrikaners and Inkatha, announced that they would take part. The poll itself was generally peaceful and the ANC under Mandela’s leadership won 63 per cent of the vote – a decisive victory but not enough for a two-thirds majority to change the constitution, which provided vital reassurance to South Africa’s white minority.
Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president on 10 May 1994. Watched by millions, he declared: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
In line with the spirit of reconciliation, de Klerk was not removed from power but instead moved down to become second deputy president. Mandela would often allow him to chair cabinet meetings.
Mandela saw his main task as nation-building and reconciliation. He was not interested in administration or running the government, delegating that to Thabo Mbeki, his first deputy. Mandela also embarked on a series of confidence building measures aimed at the white minority.
He visited Betsy Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the founder of apartheid. He had lunch with Percy Yutar, the chief prosecutor at the Rivonia trial. He formed a strong friendship with Constand Viljoen, an Afrikaner leader.
His most famous political gesture, though, was cheering on the mainly white Springbok rugby team when New Zealand played them in South Africa in the World Cup final in Johannesburg 1995.
South African President Nelson Mandela presents South African rugby team captain, Francois Pienaar with the Rugby World Cup (AFP/Getty Images)
Just as South African rugby had once been a symbol of apartheid – other nations had previously boycotted playing there because of the insistence that teams had to be all-white – now Mandela claimed the sport for all, going out to shake the hands of the players while clad in the green Springbok shirt. The 63,000-strong crowd – of which 62,000 were white – were initially almost dumbstruck, but then began chanting his name.
As he prepared to hand over the cup to the team’s captain, François Pienaar he said: “François, thank you for what you have done for our country.” Pienaar, replied: “No, Mr President. Thank you for what you have done.” Pienaar also told a TV reporter on the pitch side: “We didn’t have the support of 63,000 South Africans today. We had the support of 42 million.”
Mandela also travelled the world, emphatically ending South Africa’s era of isolation. The Queen paid a State Visit to South Africa in 1995 and Mandela returned the compliment by paying a highly successful visit to Britain in 1996.
Mandela always made clear that he would serve only one term. In 1997, he handed over the ANC leadership to Thabo Mbeki and left the task of running the government to him. He retired at the 1999 election, shortly before his 81st birthday.
THE TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION COMMISSION
Central to President Mandela’s attempts to heal South Africa’s racial wounds was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up in 1995 to encourage candour about atrocities committed during three decades of apartheid. It offered the chance – though not a guarantee – of amnesty to all those who testified, as long as they gave full confessions and could satisfy the commission that their crimes were politically motivated. It heard testimony from over 21,000 victims of apartheid during two and a half years of evidence-taking.
Among the most notorious cases it dealt with was a confession about the murder of David Webster, a white academic and human rights campaigner, whose shooting in 1989 came to symbolise the way the apartheid government rid itself of opponents. A hitman later told the commission that he had been ordered to carry out the killing on behalf of the Civil Co-operation Bureau, a shadowy “third force” security organisations created under apartheid.
To avoid the impression of “victor’s justice”, the commission investigated crimes by apartheid’s opponents as well as its enforcers, including feuding between different black political factions. Among its findings was that Mr Mandela’s estranged wife, Winnie, allowed her two homes in Soweto to be used as the base for a vigilante unit that carried out killings and torture.
At first, Mandela was scarcely less busy in retirement than he had been as president. He set up three charitable foundations and campaigned on carefully chosen issues, notably the Aids epidemic. Mandela had done little to combat this danger as president. In retirement – perhaps with a guilty conscience – he did his best to raise awareness and campaigned in favour of giving the drugs that arrest the onset of full-blown Aids to HIV positive patients. He was privately critical when Mbeki, his successor, refused to do so.
In January 2005, Mandela’s only surviving son, Makgatho, died of Aids. The stigma attached to the syndrome was such that most South Africans would stay silent if it killed a relative. But Mandela called what proved to be his last press conference and told the world’s media that his son had died of Aids.
”The only way of making HIV-Aids appear to be a normal illness, just like TB or cancer, is always to come out and say ‘somebody has died because of Aids’,” he explained. “It gives a very bad reflection of members of a family if they do not come out bravely and say ‘a member of my family has died of Aids’. It is better to maintain your integrity and your dignity by saying ‘I am suffering from this disease’. That to me is the proper approach.”
Mandela was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001 – but appeared to recover. In his late 80s, he still received foreign leaders, including Tony Blair on his last visit to South Africa as Prime Minister in 2007. Mandela even managed to travel to London for his 90th birthday in 2008.
After that, however, he led a secluded existence in the Houghton suburb of Johannesburg, meeting only close family and friends. In his last months, he alternated between this house and a hospital in Pretoria.
Nelson Mandela in 2004 lifting the World Cup trophy in Zurich, Switzerland, after it was announced that South Africa would host the 2010 Soccer World Cup (EPA)
Mandela’s last major public appearance was at the final of the South Africa World Cup in 2010, since when he has remained out of public view due to his ailing health. In April, brief footage of him emerged sitting in a chair flanked by the South African president, Jacob Zuma, and ANC deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, but he appeared blank and unresponsive. The footage showed that irrespective of Mr Mandela’s growing infirmity, his successors were still keen to bathe in his political limelight – a tendency that may not go away now that he is dead.
How will you remember Nelson Mandela?