Nelson Mandela


This biography has been written in chapters, please refer to the contents on the right to view the different periods in Mandela's life.

Childhood and education:

Mandela in Umtata, in his first suit, presented to him by the regent
© Mayibuye Centre

Nelson Rolihlahl Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo on the banks of the umbhashe river. He is the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela, a chief and chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu and a member of the Madiba clan.

Mandela’s middle name is Rolihlahla, which literally means ‘pulling the branch of a tree’, or colloquially, ‘troublemaker'. His was given the name Nelson by his white missionary school teacher.

In 1930 when his father died, Mandela was placed under the care of his father’s cousin, David Dalindyebo, the acting paramount chief of the Thembu. Mandela was the first member of his family to attend high school and when he matriculated at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School in 1938 he formed part of a very small number of black pupils who had attained a high school education in the country.

The patronage of Mandela’s relative the paramount chief resulted in Mandela joining the chief’s sons, Justice when they were sent to the only university for Blacks (African, Coloured and Indian) at Fort Hare near Alice in the Eastern Cape. At Fort Hare, Mandela befriended African, Indian and Coloured students, many of whom went on to play leading roles in the South African liberation struggle and in the anti-colonial struggle in some African countries. One of Mandela’s fellow students was Oliver Tambo. They would become business partners, close comrades and lifelong friends.

Mandela did not complete his degree at Fort Hare. He was involved in a dispute related to elections of the Student Representative Council. Mandela refused to take his seat on the council because he disagreed with the way the elections were run. After he rejected the university’s ultimatum to take the seat to which the was elected or face expulsion, the university gave him until the end of the student holidays to think the matter through, but he felt there were principles at stake that could not be compromised. He informed his guardian that he was not going back to Fort Hare and stubbornly stood his ground when the regent pleaded with him.

The regent had coincidently also made arrangements for his son Justice and Mandela to marry two young women chosen by the regent. Both young men decided to defy the regent, stole two of his cattle and used them to raise funds to secretly leave for Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, they contacted a “homeboy” who was employed at a gold mine as an Induna. He gave them shelter and jobs in the mine compound, but within days both were dismissed when the Induna learnt they had defied the chief and had left the Great Place without the chief’s permission.

Mandela found temporary lodging in Alexandra townships and communicated to the regent his regret about defying and disrespecting him. Mandela convinced the regent that he wanted to further his study in Johannesburg and received the regent’s consent to remain in Johannesburg as well as financial support.

A few months into his stay in Johannesburg Mandela was introduced to a young estate agent named Walter Sisulu who immediately took him under his wing. Mandela moved in with Sisulu and his mother in their home in Orland, Soweto. Sisulu became Mandela’s lifelong friend, political mentor and closest political confident.

Sisulu found Mandela a white firm of attorneys who were prepared to give him a job and register him as an articled clerk, an exceedingly rare offer in segregated South Africa. While working at the firm Mandela enrolled for a BA degree in law at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits). At Wits he befriended fellow students I.C. Meer, J. Singh, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, all of whom were members of the South African Communist Party. Mandela became very close to I.C. Meer and J.N. Singh, both of whom played leading roles under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo in making the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congress becoming mass-based and militant organisations. Both Meer and Singh served prison terms during the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance campaign.

Next: An African Nationalist comes of age (1940s)