Nelson Mandela: the life of a national hero

Nelson Mandela a national hero

Behind the smiles and colourful shirts,
beyond the dances and distinctive voice,
there is a man who lived a life that many don’t know of. Here are some of the highlights in the life of a national (and international) hero.

Born and named

Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo Transkei where his father was chief and counsellor to the king of Thembuland. In 1919 his father was dispossessed of his land and money by a local magistrate for “insubordination” and the family was moved to Qunu.


In 1925, he became the first member of his family to attend school. A Methodist teacher named him “Nelson” as she found it difficult to pronounce his name.

After his father’s death of TB in 1927, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, acting regent of the Tembu, becomes Mandela’s guardian.

Mandela is circumcised at the age of 16, as is custom, a ritual of transition into manhood.

He moved to Healdtown in 1937 where he attends the Wesleyan College in Fort Beaufort, a mission school of the Methodist church. He joins the University at Fort Hare in 1939, but is asked to leave in 1940 after a boycott against university policies.


In 1941 he flees to Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage. Mandela starts work as a clerk in a law firm Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman in Alexandra. He studies for his BA by correspondence course at UNISA. He graduates from UNISA in 1942 and befriends Walter Sisulu who becomes his mentor.

Mandela joins the ANC in 1943 and enrols at the University of the Witwatersrand for a bachelors of laws degree.

ANC Youth League

Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu form the ANC Youth League in 1944, believing the ANC leadership too staid.

He also marries Evelyn Mase and in 1946, their son, Makgatho is born. They have four children and divorce in 1957.

After six years at the law firm, Mandela continues his studies towards a law degree full time in 1947.

The ANCYL draws a Programme of Action, calling for passive resistance, protests, boycotts and mass strikes. Mandela becomes national president of the ANCYL in 1951 and starts work as an attorney at HM Basner.

He is arrested and charged for violating the Suppression of Communism Act in July 1952. His sentence of nine months imprisonment is suspended for two years.

In December 1952, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo open the first black law practice in Johannesburg. They take on cases involving people being persecuted under the new Apartheid laws.

The Freedom Charter

The Freedom Charter, which starts with “The People Shall Govern”, is written in 1955. It is a statement of core principles of the South African Congress Alliance consisting of; ANC and its allies, South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats, and the Coloured People’s Congress.

Not guilty

Mandela is arrested on 5 December 1956, with 155 other political activists, accused of conspiring to overthrow the South African state by violent means. He is charged with treason and the trial continues until 1961 where he and the other defendants are found not guilty.

Umkhonto we Siswe

In 1960, police fire on a crowd of protesters in Sharpeville, Soweto killing at least 69 people. The ANC is banned by the Apartheid government. The ANC responds to the ban by endorsing an “armed struggle” in 1961. Mandela forms Umkhonto we Siswe (The Spear of the Nation), also known as MK. Mandela escapes the country to travel Africa and Europe studying guerrilla warfare and building ANC support.

Robben Island

He return to SA in 1962 and is arrested on 5 August. He is sentenced to five years in prison on Robben Island. In the Rivonia Trial of October 1964, Mandela and other ANC leaders are charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow government by violent means. They are sentenced to life in prison.

When Mandela’s mother dies and his oldest son killed in a car crash, he is not allowed to attend their funerals. (1968-1969)

In March 1982, Mandela is moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland.

Edward Kennedy, hosted by Desmond Tutu, visits SA in 1985 to support the anti-apartheid movement. PW Botha offers to release Mandela if he will renounce violence. Zindzi, Mandela’s daughter then reads his response to a packed stadium near Johannesburg. Mandela rejects the deal.

In December 1988 after being treated for TB, Mandela is moved to Victor Verster Prison where he is housed in a cottage with gardens and a pool, with a personal chef called Jack Swart. Mandela continues negotiating with the government, in particular Kobie Coetsee, minister of justice.

FW de Klerk:  the fall of Apartheid

FW de Klerk is sworn in as acting president in August 1989 and releases most of the Rivonia Trial prisoners. De Klerk begins to dismantle the Apartheid structure and meets with Mandela for the first time on 13 December 1989. In his speech to parliament on 2 February 1990, De Klerk announces the lifting of all bans against the ANC and other political organisations and announces the release of Mandela from prison.

Mandela: a free man

Mandela is released from prison on February 11, 1990 becoming the deputy president of the ANC and travelling to Europe, USA and Sweden where he visits Oliver Tambo.

The ANC and NP start negotiations in May 1990 to form a new democracy in South Africa.

The IFP, a Zulu party, is formed in July 1990 and clashes with the ANC in particular over the armed struggle.

The Pretoria Minute is signed on 6 August 1990 where the ANC and NP agree to end the armed struggle. Mandela is elected ANC president in July 1991.

CODESA 1 and 2

Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) 1 starts on 20 December 1991. De Klerk berates the ANC in one speech and Mandela lashes out at De Klerk. They don’t meet for five months.

CODESA 2 ends in stalemate in May 1992, but both sides agree to work towards a solution to construct a plan for a future democracy.


After Chris Hani is assassinated on April 10, 1993, Mandela successfully heads of violence by calling on national television for restraint. Mandela and De Klerk are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993.

A democratic president

The first democratic election in South Africa was held on 26 April 1994 and Mandela is elected as president. On 10 May 1994 he is inaugurated as the 11th president of South Africa with De Klerk as deputy president.

A president resigns

Mandela steps down as president of South Africa in 1999 and succeeded by Thabo Mbeki.

He is appointed as mediator in the Burundi civil war in 2000 and criticises Robert Mugabe’s government in Zimbabwe. He is diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001. in 2003, Mandela criticises George W Bush and the USA for starting the war in Iraq.


He retires from public life in June 2004. His son, Makgatho Mandela, dies on 6 January 2005 and Mandela decides to announce that his son had HIV/Aids to try and break the stigma surrounding the disease.

5 December 2013

Rest in peace



No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

News and reviews from Bloemfontein and South Africa.