Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is a Xhosa from the Eastern Cape. Leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia Trial in 1964. He spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on Robben Island. Released in 1990, he was elected President in 1994 in South Africa's first free elections.
Nelson Mandela (Rolihlahla Mandela; b. 18 July 1918) was born in the Transkei region of South Africa, in the small village of Qunu - a collection of beehive-shaped huts with thatch roofs, known as rondavels.
Mandela's mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third wife of Gadla Henry Mphakan-yiswa, a councillor to the Thembu king and a member of the Xhosa tribe. His father had four wives and thirteen children (four boys and nine girls)
His mother had three huts and Mandela lived with her and his three immediate sisters. One hut was used for sleeping, another for cooking and the third for storing grain and other food. Everyone slept on mats on the ground, without pillows. His mother, as a married woman, had her own field to tend and her own cattle kraal - an enclosure for cattle made from thorn bushes
Mandela, who started school when he was seven, was given the name Nelson by a Methodist teacher, purportedly after the British admiral Horatio Nelson.
His father died of tuberculosis when he was nine and the Regent, Jongintaba became his guardian. In Xhosa society that was the natural thing to do. Jongintaba was the head of the Madiba clan. In terms of custom, all members of the clan were treated like people in the same family because they were all descended from the same ancestor. Mandela, or anyone else, could go to the home of any fellow Madiba member, whether in the same village or in a village miles away, and know that he would get food and shelter.
At 16, as is the Xhosa custom, Mandela went to a circumcision school on the banks of the Bashee River, the place where many of his ancestors were circumcised. By the standards of his tribe, he was now a man ready to take part in the 'parliament' of the tribe Imbizo.
When Mandela was nineteen he went to the Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort. After matriculating he went to Fort Hare University where he was befriended by Oliver Tambo. Before finishing his course Mandela left for Johannesburg.
Mandela's flight to Johannesburg
In 1964 Mandela recalled, "At 23, my guardian felt it was time for me to get married. He loved me very much and looked after me as diligently as my father had, but he was no democrat and did not think it worthwhile to consult me about a wife. He selected a girl, fat and dignified, paid lobola and arrangements were afoot for the wedding. I escaped to Johannesburg."
In Johannesburg he found temporary employment as a mine guard. Shortly after, his friend and lawyer, Walter Sisulu, helped him find work as an articled clerk.
In 1944 Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC). That same year he married Evelyn Ntoko Mase, who, like Mandela, was from the Transkei. They had three children, but they broke up in 1957 under the dual strains from his devotion to revolutionary agitation and her devotion to her faith as a Jehovah's Witness.
Mandela completed his degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) via correspondence, after which he started with his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. During this time Mandela lived in the Alexandra township.
In 1948 the Afrikaner-dominated National Party came to power with its apartheid policies of White domination.
Mandela was prominent in the African National Congress (ANC) Defiance Campaign (1952) and the Congress of the People (1955 ) where the Freedom Charter was first adopted.
During this time Mandela and Oliver Tambo operated the law firm of Mandela & Tambo, legal counsel to many blacks who would otherwise have been without legal representation.
Mandela and 150 others were arrested in December 1956 and charged with treason. The marathon Treason Trial of 1956–61 followed, but all were acquitted.
Mandela married Winnie, daughter of Columbus Madikizela, the Minister of Agriculture in the Transkei, in 1958, whilst an accused in the Treason Trial. He had two children with Winnie. She was twice detained under the Terrorism Act and repeatedly arrested whilst her husband was imprisoned. (Their marriage was to end in separation in 1992 and divorce four years later, fuelled by political estrangement.)
Following the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960, and the subsequent banning of the ANC and many other political organisations, the ANC took up armed resistance.
Albert Luthuli, criticised at the time for inertia, was peripheralised, and the ANC used the 1961 Conference for Mandela to issue a dramatic call to arms, announcing the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (translated as Spear of the Nation and commonly abbreviated to MK).
In January 1962 Mandela toured Africa and visited England. In all these countries he met the Heads of State or other senior government officials. In England he was received by Hugh Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party, and by Jo Grimond, leader of the Liberal Party.
Mandela became leader of MK and co-ordinated a sabotage campaign against military and government targets, and made plans for a possible guerrilla war if sabotage failed to end apartheid.
In August 1962 Mandela was arrested and imprisoned after living on the run for seventeen months - he was known as the Black Pimpernel. In October 1962 he was sentenced to five years, charged with leading workers to strike in 1961 and leaving the country illegally.
While Mandela was in prison, police arrested prominent ANC leaders in July 1963, at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, north of Johannesburg.
Mandela was charged with sabotage and other offences in the Rivonia Trial and on 14 June 1964 was sentenced, along with Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu, to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Dennis Goldberg was the only white person found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment in a white prison in Pretoria.
On 20 April 1964 Mandela opened the defence case in Pretoria Supreme Court by saying, "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the 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."
Bram Fischer led the defence and Harold Hanson was brought in at the end of the case to plead mitigation. All except Rusty Bernstein were found guilty, but they escaped the gallows and were sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island where he was destined to remain for the next 18 of his 27 years in prison. It was there he wrote the bulk of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
In 1980 a statement by Mandela was smuggled out of Robben Island, which read, "Unite! Mobilize! Fight on! Between the anvil of united mass action and the hammer of the armed struggle we shall crush apartheid!"
Refusing an offer of conditional release in return for renouncing armed struggle in February 1985, Mandela remained in prison until the resounding national and international campaign to "Free Nelson Mandela!" culminated in his release on 11 February 1990 and the unbanning of the ANC (ordered by State President Frederik de Klerk).
Nelson Mandela released
11 February 1990
On the day of his release, Mandela made a speech to the nation and the world from the balcony of Cape Town city hall, "Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle."