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Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was a South African political leader and activist, who fought against apartheid.

Apartheid: a number of policies put in place by the South African National Party in 1948, which extended the policy of racial segregation already in place in South Africa and gave this policy the name apartheid.

Two of the most notable apartheid policies were;

  • The 1950 Population Registration Act which created three racial categories; Bantu (black), Coloured (mixed), and white.
  • The 1950 Group Areas Act which set up business and residential sections for each race. This caused thousands of people of colour to be removed from their local area.

Content warning: This article will discuss the lived experiences of black people in South Africa. Topics including segregation and racial discrimination will be covered.

Nelson Mandela biography

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in July 1918 in Umtata, South Africa. Mandela was raised in his mother's village, Qunu, alongside his two sisters. At seven, Mandela started to attend a Methodist school. At school, Mandela was given the name 'Nelson' by his teacher. Reflecting on this, in 'Part One: A Country Childhood' of his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote

On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education.1

At nine, Mandela moved to Mqhekezweni, where he lived at the 'Great Place' Palace, under the guardianship of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his wife Noengland. Christianity became further entrenched in Mandela's life during this time, he attended Church each Sunday and studied at a Methodist mission school. In his autobiography, Mandela notes how, when growing up, he perceived the Europeans who set up his school, and colonised South Africa, as benefactors rather than the oppressors.

In 1933, Mandela began studying at the Clarkebury Methodist High School, where he completed his Junior Certificate after just two years of studying. From here, Mandela studied at Healdtown, a Methodist college in Fort Beaufort, before attending the University of Fort Hare. Although the institutions Mandela attended promoted European culture and people as 'superior', Mandela fostered an interest in African culture and history. Mandela never graduated from the University of Fort Hare, as towards the end of his first year of studies he was suspended for his involvement in a students' representative council protest against the bad quality of food served by the school.

In 1941, Mandela moved to Johannesburg, where he worked as a night watchman and later as an articled clerk at Witkin Sidelsky and Eidelman. Mandela soon became involved in politics, befriending Walter Sisulu, an African National Congress (ANC) activist, Gaur Radebe, a member of the ANC and the Communist Party, and Nat Bregman, another communist. During this time, Mandela completed a correspondence court at the University of South Africa.

African National Congress: A political party originally known as the South African Native National Congress, founded in 1912. The ANC worked to promote and protect the interests and rights of Black and mixed-race South Africans, under the apartheid system of the National Party government.

After passing his Bachelor of Art exams in 1943, Mandela continued his studies at the University of Witwatersrand. However, he was denied his degree in December 1949 after failing his final year three times. Despite not graduating from Witwatersrand, while studying there, Mandela entered the world of political activism.

Nelson Mandela, Statue of Nelson Mandela, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Statue of Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa.

Nelson Mandela: political background

In 1944, Mandela joined the ANC, and in 1947 he was elected as a member of the ANC's Transvaal Province branch's executive committee. In 1948, following South Africa's general election, in which only white people could vote, Mandela joined the ANC's movement to end the apartheid policies of the ruling National Party.

National Party: A South African political party, founded in 1914, that promoted Afrikaner interests in South Africa.

Afrikaner: An ethnic group in South Africa of white South Africans who typically descended from Dutch settlers.

Upon coming to power, the National Party continued to maintain and expand racial segregation, codifying the oppression of black people in South African law through apartheid legislation. Many people in the ANC, including Mandela, responded to this by pushing for direct action against the National Party's policies.

In March 1950, Mandela was elected as national president of the ANC Youth League, and joined the ANC national executive. Initially, Mandela opposed the multi-racial approach of the ANC, which would allow people of all backgrounds and colours to join their movement. Yet, after the 1951 ANC national conference, during which Mandela's anti-multi-racial arguments were voted against, he worked to understand and accept the importance of including people of all races, creeds, and colours in the ANC's work.

In July 1952, Mandela was arrested and found guilty of 'statutory communism' for his activism against apartheid. Mandela was put on two years probation, if he broke the law during that time he would face six months of hard labour. During this period, Mandela's public involvement with the ANC was limited.

Mandela was arrested under the accusation of 'high treason' against the state in 1956. He was released on bail and entered a lengthy trial period. In October 1958 the prosecution withdrew its charges, arguing instead that the ANC leadership had committed 'high treason'.

The ANC was banned in 1960, following an anti-pass campaign, in which demonstrators including Mandela burned the identification passes they had to legally carry. Mandela was arrested in March 1960 and was imprisoned for five months before being judged as 'not guilty' based on insufficient evidence.

In response to the ANC being banned, Mandela pushed for the formation of a military wing, which came to be known as the Umkhonto we Sizwe. In 1962, Mandela was arrested once again and was sentenced to five years of imprisonment and hard labour. In 1964, this sentence was increased to life imprisonment.

Nelson Mandela: prison

Mandela spent a total of 27 years in prison, following his 1962 sentence. During his imprisonment, Mandela smuggled letters out of prison in support of the anti-apartheid movement, and in 1976 his autobiography was taken out of the prison.

Prison conditions: The first 18 years of Mandela's sentence were spent at the Robben Island prison, where Mandela slept in a cell with no bed or plumbing facilities, and could only have a visitor once a year for 30 minutes. Mandela spent a total of 10,052 days incarcerated.

An international campaign to free Nelson Mandela, backed by the United Nations Security Council, began in 1980. However, the South African Government, backed by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher, refused to do so. Following a period of unrest, in 1985 Mandela was offered a release from prison on the condition he rejected militant action as a form of political protest. Mandela rejected this offer stating;

What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.2

Between 1982 and 1988 Mandela served 6 years at Pollsmoor Prison, before being placed under house arrest. In 1988, in honour of Mandela's 70th birthday, a tribute concert was held at Wembley Stadium, London. Mandela was at last released from prison under the order of F.W. de Klerk, who became president of South Africa in 1989, in 1990.

Nelson Mandela: release from prison

After being released from prison, Mandela worked to end apartheid. He pushed the international community to place and support sanctions against the apartheid government and entered preliminary negotiations in May 1990. In December 1991, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa took place, followed by a second conference in May 1992. Socio-political conflict continued in South Africa during this period of negotiations, marked by events such as the Bisho massacre and the storming of the Kempton Park World Trade Centre.

Bisho massacre: On September 7th, 1992, 28 ANC supporters and a soldier were killed after being fired upon by the Ciskei Defense Force during a protest march.

Storming of the Kempton Park World Trade Centre: On June 25th, 1993, 3,000 members of several right-wing Afrikaner, pro-apartheid, paramilitary groups stormed the Kempton World Trade Centre during negotiations to end apartheid.

In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1994 the ANC won the general election under the slogan 'a better life for all'. Following the election victory, Mandela was formally elected as chief executive of South Africa. In December that same year, Mandela published his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, based on the same manuscript he had smuggled out of prison nearly twenty years earlier. During his time as President, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995, which investigated apartheid human rights abuses, and oversaw the introduction and enactment of a democratic South African constitution. Mandela retired from political life, and stepped down as president, in 1999.

In 2004, Mandela re-entered the political world, founding the Nelson Mandela Legacy Trust in 2005, meeting with US p`resident George W. Bush, and pushing for Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's resignation.

After suffering from a respiratory infection, which began in 2011, Mandela died on December 5th, 2013 at age 95.

Nelson Mandela: facts

Now that we've learned about Nelson Mandela's life, here are some interesting facts about him:

  1. Nelson Mandela had royal heritage by birth, his great-grandfather on his father's side, Ngubengcuka, ruled the Thembu Kingdom.

  2. Nelson is not Nelson Mandela's birth name. He was born as Rolihlahla, which means troublemaker.

  3. In 1953 Nelson Mandela opened a law firm with Oliver Tambo called 'Mandela and Tambo'. At the time it was set up, 'Mandela and Tambo' was the only African-run law firm in South Africa.

  4. In 2009, July 18th (Nelson Mandela's birthday) was proclaimed 'Nelson Mandela International Day' by the United Nations.

  5. Later in life, Nelson Mandela became an advocate for those suffering from HIV/AIDS, a course promoted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Nelson Mandela: important works

Mandela became the face of the anti-apartheid movement through both his actions and words which spurred forward the movement. Today, he is remembered as a symbolic figure in the fight for equal rights, and his legacy is captured by his autobiography, letters, and speeches.

Nelson Mandela: books

Mandela's most famous book published during his lifetime is his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Following Mandela's death, a sequel to his autobiography, titled Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, was published in 2017. This sequel focused on Mandela's work toward creating a multi-racial democracy after the end of apartheid, and was constructed by novelist Mandla Langa, from Mandela's unfinished draft and archive material.

Long Walk to Freedom (1994)

Long Walk to Freedom, recounts Mandela's journey to ending apartheid in South Africa, from his early childhood to his election as president in 1994. Mandela began writing his autobiography while incarcerated, and a miniature manuscript that formed the base for this work was smuggled out of prison by a newly released prisoner in 1976.

Mandela's work provides readers with an understanding of his life both as an individual and as a political figure. Key themes apparent in Mandela's biography are oppression and political activism. In a 2020 paper, Jiangping Zhou presented the argument that Mandela utilises a passive voice in his writing to encourage the reader to align with him in his fight for freedom.3

In 1995, the autobiography received the Alan Paton Award, and in 2013 a film adaptation starring Idris Elba as Mandela was released.

Nelson Mandela Speeches

During his time in prison, Mandela gained political fame from his speeches and letters. In 2018, 255 of Mandela's letters sent from prison were compiled in The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela. This collection of Mandela's letters provides a unique insight into his personal and political life while incarcerated.

Mandela's speeches have been published in many books, including The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches (1992), Conversations With Myself (2010), and Selected Speeches and Writings of Nelson Mandela (2010). Some of Mandela's most famous speeches include;

  1. 'No Easy Walk to Freedom' (1953)
  2. 'I Am Prepared to Die' (1964)
  3. 'The Struggle is My Life' (1961)

Nelson Mandela quotes

Now that we know about Mandela's life and his key works, here are some of his famous quotes. When reading the quotes, consider what insight they provide into Mandela's own life and his fight against apartheid.

'No Easy Walk to Freedom' (1953)

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops of our desires.

Mandela's 'No Easy Walk to Freedom' speech was read on his behalf at the 1953 ANC national conference. It set out a contingency plan to be put in place if the ANC was banned by the South African Government.

In this quote, Mandela highlights the challenges ahead, for him and his fellow activists campaigning for the end of apartheid. It is clear from Mandela's language that he knows he, and others, will face many challenges before reaching 'the mountain tops of' their 'desires'.

'I Am Prepared to Die' (1964)

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.... I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society...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.

Mandela read his 'I Am Prepared to Die' speech at his 1964 trial, which led to him being sentenced to life in prison. Here, Mandela encapsulates his loyalty to the cause of ending apartheid. While he hopes to live and see a South Africa with a 'democratic and free society', he is willing and prepared to die for this cause if it means other black and mixed South Africans can be free of apartheid.

Long Walk to Freedom (1994), part eleven

No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Here, Mandela reflects on racism and its causes, highlighting how the hatred of another person for their identity, whether it be their 'skin', 'background' or 'religion', is something that is taught and learnt. To bring apartheid to an end, Mandela understood that he and others had to educate and communicate with Afrikaners.

Nelson Mandela, Mural of Nelson Mandela in Northern Ireland against the background of an Irish tricolour and South African flag, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Mural of Nelson Mandela in Northern Ireland.


Nelson Mandela - Key takeaways

  • Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela in July 1918 and died in December 2013. He was a key activist and figure in South Africa's fight to end apartheid.
  • In 1944 Mandela joined the African National Congress and in 1950 he joined the ANC national executive.
  • In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison for 'high treason' against the South African government. While in prison, Mandela became a globally recognised figure and the public face of the anti-apartheid movement, to the extent that in 1980 the United Nations Security Council backed the international campaign to free Nelson Mandela.
  • After he was freed from prison in 1990, Mandela worked alongside others to bring apartheid to an end and instate democratic rule in South Africa. For this, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
  • While alive, Mandela wrote and published one autobography titled Long Walk to Freedom (1994). Following Mandela's death, a sequel to his autobiography, titled Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, was published in 2017.


References

  1. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom Volume I: 1918–1962, 1994
  2. Nelson Mandela, 'I am not prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free', from http://db.nelsonmandela.org/, 1985
  3. Jiangping Zhou, 'An Analysis of A Long Walk to Freedom from the Perspective of Transitivity System', in Open Journal of Modern Linguistics, 10, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions about Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was incarcerated for 'high treason' against the South African Government, due to his opposition and direct action against South Africa's apartheid laws. 

Nelson Mandela was a political activist and leader. In 1944 he joined the African National Congress, and began to protest against South Africa's apartheid laws. In 1990, after over 40 years of activism, and 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela became South Africa's president.

Nelson Mandela was a key activist and figure in South Africa's fight to end apartheid. 

Nelson Mandela died on December 5th 2013, after suffering from a respiratory infection which began in 2011.

There are many important facts about Nelson Mandela, including how;

  • In 1953 Nelson Mandela opened a law firm with Oliver Tambo called 'Mandela and Tambo'. At the time it was set up, 'Mandela and Tambo' was the only African-run law firm in South Africa.
  • In 1993 Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside F.W. de Klerk.
  • Nelson Mandela was South Africa's first democratically elected leader, and the country's first black president.

Final Nelson Mandela Quiz

Question

Who was Nelson Mandela?

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Answer

Nelson Mandela was a South African political leader and activist, who fought against apartheid.

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When was Nelson Mandela born?

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Answer

1918

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True or false: Nelson Mandela was given the name 'Nelson' by his teacher.

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True! Mandela recounts this in his autobiography, stating that on his first day of school, his teacher gave each student an English name.

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Which of these universities did Mandela not attend?

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University of Cape Town

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Why did the University of Witwatersrand deny Mandela his degree?

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He failed his final year three times.

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Which political organisation did Nelson Mandela join in 1944?

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African National Congress (ANC)

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What is the ANC?

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ANC stands for African National Congress, which is a political party originally known as the South African Native National Congress, founded in 1912. The ANC worked to promote and protect the interests and rights of Black and mixed-race South Africans, under the apartheid system of the National Party government. 

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What did Mandela push for a formation of after the ANC was banned in 1960?

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A military wing of the ANC.

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How many years did Mandela spend in prison?

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27

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What did Mandela smuggle out of prison?

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Letters and a miniature version of his autobiography.

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True or false: there was a UN backed international campaign to 'free Nelson Mandela'.

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True! The campaign began in 1980 and was backed by the UN Security Council.

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When did Mandela win the Nobel Peace Prize?

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In 1993, de Klerk and Mandela were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize

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Which commission did Mandela establish during his Presidency?

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The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995.

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True or false: Mandela set up a law firm.

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True! In 1953 Nelson Mandela opened a law firm with Oliver Tambo called 'Mandela and Tambo'. At the time it was set up, 'Mandela and Tambo' was the only African-run law firm in South Africa.

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What is the name of Mandela's 1994 autobiography?

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Long Walk to Freedom 

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When was Long Walk to Freedom published?

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1994.

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What genre is Long Walk to Freedom?

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Autobiography.

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What are two key themes in Long Walk to Freedom?

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Racial inequality and unity.

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What regime in South Africa was Mandela fighting against?

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Apartheid.

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What tribe was Mandela born into?

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The Thembu tribe.

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What profession did Mandela study in Johannesburg?

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Law.

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Why was Mandela's legal practice frequented by so many Black South Africans?

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Because they were being unfairly treated under the apartheid system.

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What was the ANC?

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The African National Congress, a group fighting racial discrimination.

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What was Umkhonto We Sizwe?

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The paramilitary branch of the ANC.

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What was Mandela's argument in favour of violent resistance?

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If peaceful protest is met with violence, it is rendered ineffective so violence must then be used.

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Why did Mandela have to go undercover in the early 1960s?

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Because he had been arrested multiple times and was at risk of being arrested again.

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What infamous place was Mandela imprisoned during his life sentence?

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Robben Island.

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Why is Long Walk to Freedom's status as an autobiography important?

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Because it is Mandela's story told in his own words.

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What spurred Mandela into activism?

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Witnessing discrimination being inflicted upon his fellow Black South Africans every day.

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Why is Mandela often seen today as wise?

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Because he recognised that while he had gained a victory for South Africa, the fight for global racial equality was not over.

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