Nelson Mandela - A Brief Biography

Mandela's words, "The struggle is my life," are not to be taken lightly. Nelson Mandela personifies struggle. He is still leading the fight against apartheid with extraordinary vigour and resilience after spending nearly three decades of his life behind bars. He has sacrificed his private life and his youth for his people, and remains South Africa's best known and loved hero.

Nelson Mandela has held numerous positions in the ANC: ANCYL secretary (1948); ANCYL president (1950); ANC Transvaal president (1952); deputy national president (1952) and ANC president (1991).

"I believe that South Africa is the most beautiful place on earth. Admittedly, I am biased, but when you combine the natural beauty of South Africa with the friendliness and cultural diversity of our people, and the fact that the region is a haven for Africa's most splendid wildlife, then I think even the most scrupulous critic would agree that we have been blessed with a truly wonderful land. I would like to extend a personal invitation to you to come and see for yourself the splendour of South Africa. I know that my people will be delighted to welcome you and I think you will be enchanted by their warmth and hospitality. I am equally sure that you will enjoy our culture, our cuisine and the warmth of our people." Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa, 1994-1999

He was born at Qunu, near Umtata on 18 July 1918. His father, Henry Mgadla Mandela, was chief councillor to Thembuland's acting paramount chief David Dalindyebo. When his father died, Mandela became the chief's ward and was groomed for the chieftainship.

Mandela matriculated at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School and then started a BA degree at Fort Hare. As an SRC member he participated in a student strike and was expelled, along with the late Oliver Tambo, in 1940. He completed his degree by correspondence from Johannesburg, did articles of clerkship and enrolled for an LL.B. at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1944 he helped found the ANC Youth League, whose Programme of Action was adopted by the ANC in 1949.

Mandela was elected national volunteer-in-chief of the 1952 Defiance Campaign. He travelled the country organising resistance to discriminatory legislation. He was given a suspended sentence for his part in the campaign. Shortly afterwards a banning order confined him to Johannesburg for six months. During this period he formulated the "M Plan", in terms of which ANC branches were broken down into underground cells.

By 1952 Mandela and Tambo had opened the first black legal firm in the country, and Mandela was both Transvaal president of the ANC and deputy national president. A petition by the Transvaal Law Society to strike Mandela off the roll of attorneys was refused by the Supreme Court.

In the 'fifties, after being forced through constant bannings to resign officially from the ANC, Mandela analysed the Bantustan policy as a political swindle. He predicted mass removals, political persecutions and police terror. For the second half of the 'fifties, he was one of the accused in the Treason Trial. With Duma Nokwe, he conducted the defense.

When the ANC was banned after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he was detained until 1961 when he went underground to lead a campaign for a new national convention.

Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the ANC, was born the same year. Under his leadership it launched a campaign of sabotage against government and economic installations.

In 1962 Mandela left the country for military training in Algeria and to arrange training for other MK members. On his return he was arrested for leaving the country illegally and for incitement to strike. He conducted his own defense. He was convicted and jailed for five years in November 1962. While serving his sentence, he was charged, in the Rivonia trial, with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A decade before being imprisoned, Mandela had spoken out against the introduction of Bantu Education, recommending that community activists "make every home, every shack or rickety structure a centre of learning". Robben Island, where he was imprisoned, became a centre for learning, and Mandela was a central figure in the organised political education classes. In prison Mandela never compromised his political principles and was always a source of strength for the other prisoners.

During the 'seventies he refused the offer of a remission of sentence if he recognised Transkei and settled there. In the 'eighties he again rejected PW Botha's offer of freedom if he renounced violence. It is significant that shortly after his release on Sunday 11 February 1990, Mandela and his delegation agreed to the suspension of armed struggle.

Mandela held honorary degrees from more than 50 international universities and was chancellor of the University of the North. He was inaugurated as the first democratically elected State President of South Africa on 10 May 1994 - June 1999. Nelson Mandela retired from public life in June 1999 and died on the 5th of December 2013 at the age of 95, after suffering from a prolonged respiratory infection.

"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's statement from the dock in the Rivonia Trial ended with these words

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