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Nelson Mandela

Imagine knowing someone as a father figure, but you’ve never even met them before.

Nelson Mandela-2008 (edit)CC BY 2.0 South Africa The Good News - Flickr: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela-2008 CC BY 2.0
South Africa The Good News – Flickr: Nelson Mandela

This was a quote shared to British media before the start of the 2010 Football World Cup in South Africa. When you learn who the quoted student was talking about, you will probably begin to relate.

The man he was referring to is Nelson Mandela, The Shaker of Trees, The Troublemaker.

Throughout history there have been great men, great men who have gone on to accomplish great deeds, and even those who accomplished so much yet remained so humble. Mandela was a fit to all of these descriptions, remaining ever humble, even when there is no doubt that he changed his nation of South Africa, and left an impact that is still felt arounf the world.

From Rural Xhosa South Africa to Revolutionary Freedom Fighter: A Boy on a Path

In the rolling green hills of rural South Africa is the village of Quno. This unassuming village is typical of many in South Africa. With less than 200 people, family ties are strong, ways are simple, and the tribal royals rule to this day.

This is the village where Nelson Rohilhalha Mandela was born on the 18th of July, 1918. The name given to him, Rohilhalha, or The Shaker of Trees (more colloquially translated to ‘troublemaker’) gives a startling indication of how this man would turn out to be.

Mandela remembered his childhood as simplicity, in a culture based around rituals and customs, but with a strong sense of family. In African cultures there are no distinctions within families like there are in western ones. Aunts are mothers, cousins are thought of as brothers and sisters, and whole families will live together, eat together, share, and work together.

From a young age Mandela had a sense of unity amongst his social group. This is something that would translate to his ideals and struggles later in life.

Mandela’s mother was a devout Christian, and sent him to a nearby Methodist school for education at the age of seven. The first of his family to attend school, this is where he was given his English name ‘Nelson’ from his schoolteacher. Mandela’s father died around this time, leaving Mandela with a feeling which he described as being ‘cut adrift’.

Later sent to live under the guardianship of Thembu tribal leaders at Mqhekezweni, Mandela began to take more interest in Christianity as he was exposed to the religion. He attended a Methodist school while at Mqhekezweni and began studying English, History, and Geography among other subjects. He held a special interest in African history and the local stories and legends of his people. The stories that were told by visiting elders probably helped to develop the anti-colonialist attitude that would feature in some of his early activist activities.

As he was now a part of the Thembu royal house, it was the intention of his guardians for Mandela to become a legal representative for the tribal group. He went on to study secondary school at a boarding institute that was heavily based on western style lessons, with western leaning subject matters. Mandela cites his time in boarding school as a turning point that rid him of the ‘snobby’ attitude that he had developed while staying at Mqhekezweni.

He later went on to study at the Healdtown Methodist College in Fort Beaufort. Again, the school lent heavily towards western teachings and emphasised the superiority of British culture and social structures. To the contrary of his lessons, Mandela became even more interested in his native African culture. He immersed himself by further learning the history and ways of the African peoples, especially that of his own Xhosa people.

Throughout college Mandela was active in sports as much as he was his academic studies. As a young adult he was well known for his fitness and athletic stature, and the makings of this were seen as he took up long distance running and boxing throughout secondary studies.

It’s important to mention that throughout this time, South Africa was deeply institutionalised as an apartheid society, and as such, the schools he attended were for blacks only. Supported financially by his Thembu family, especially his father figure Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, Mandela went on to enrol in the University of Fort Hare. This was a tertiary establishment that catered exclusively to the elite black groups. Nelson studied for a Bachelor of Arts and took a strong focus on Politics, English and Roman Dutch Law. At Fort Hare he would meet the young Oliver Tambo, an integral member of the movements that Mandela was involved with in later years, and a man who would eventually become one of Mandela’s closest allies.

Nelson would make many friends in the African National Congress (ANC) during University, but he never joined the movement at this stage. The ANC would feature heavily in Nelson’s later life, with him eventually become a high ranking figure and eventually their outright leader. For now though, Mandela wasn’t interested in the movement for an independent South Africa, and was even supportive of the British war effort with the onset of the Second World War in the late 1930s.


As a young man, strong signs of Mandela’s leadership characteristics and tendency to challenge the systems of inequality would show. During his time in University he was a founding member of a group of first year students who would challenge the domination of the senior students. He even became involved in a representative council that was involved with a micro protest movement to boycott poor quality foods. His involvement led to a temporary suspension from the University, but he left of his own accord eventually, without receiving his degree.

Early 1940s Johannesburg. The Turning Point, and the Making of a Man

In 1940 Mandela was faced with a problem. A young man who had been exposed to western teachings, yet also a man who was deeply rooted in African culture, Mandela was surprised and dismayed to find that his adoptive father Mqhekezweni had arranged a marriage for him. This was tradition within the tribal societies, and still is to this day, but even with his love of African culture Mandela wasn’t ready for the responsibility. He fled with Mqhekezweni’s son Justice (who also returned to find an arranged marriage waiting) and they both set off for Johannesburg.

Even in the 40s Johannesburg was a bustling city. It was in stark contrast to what Mandela was used to, and the city immediately amazed the young man. He began working as a watchman at a South African mine, and in later years he referred to the job as his first exposure to capitalism in Africa.

After working at the mine he began to meet more activists who were affiliated with, or full members of the ANC. One of these activists helped Mandela to get a job at a local law firm as a clerk. This would begin Mandela’s own political life, especially as the Jewish owner of the firm was sympathetic to the ANC’s cause. With further dealings and networking amongst ANC members, Mandela became increasingly politically aware. The ANC fit right with his own values and desire to fight the racialist establishment in South Africa.

One thing about Johannesburg that impressed Mandela so much was the level in which different cultures were integrated in the city. Although there was still segregation and constant reminders of the type of society that existed, he could still witness Africans of European decent, native Africans, Indians, and Coloured Africans all intermingling on a daily basis, more or less as equals. This was a nod towards the kind of South Africa that Mandela could accept, and the one that he would eventually strive towards in his own political struggle.

Mandela was involved in some small time activism while in Johannesburg, involving himself in protests against inequality, especially the persecution and suppression of the native African population, the impoverished whites, the coloureds, and the immigrants.

While in Johannesburg Mandela began a correspondence course with the University of South Africa to complete his degree, and passed his BA exams in 1943. By this time he no longer had interest in working as a legal representative for the tribe back in his rural homeland, and instead went on to further his studies with the aim of becoming a lawyer.

A Revolutionary, Fighting for a United Africa

In the 1940s, black Africans had no right to vote in South Africa. Only the minority white had this privilege. Understanding this is integral to understanding the mind of Mandela, along with the various revolutionary movements of the time.

By the end of the 1940s Mandela had become fully integrated with the African National Congress. By this time he had continued his studies, married a woman that he loved, had children, lost a child to illness, and seen racial segregation reach a peak in South Africa.johannesburg-436018_1280

Far more involved in activism and beginning to form his own opinions of not only what he was fighting for and against, but also what the ideals of the ANC should be, Mandela was on a collision course with his own political destiny.

In 1948 a coalition of political parties formed to create the National Party in South Africa. Completely racialist in charter, they bought new legislation that intensified apartheid in the country. As a member of the ANC Mandela worked towards strategies of direct action. He helped to form protests, boycotts, hunger strikes, worker strikes, and similar displays of protest against the government and the oppressive segregation that was being seen across the nation.

Not all of the movement believed in these kind of tactics, one of the most vocal being the then current president of the ANC. In a vote of no confidence a more direct and militant leadership took over the party. One of the members of the cabinet was Mandela’s close friend Oliver Tambo.

With a more militant ANC willing to take direct action and stage more displays, even with the possibility of violent action and repercussions from the government, South Africa was about to enter a period of great oppression, struggle, and ultimately social change. Mandela, right in the thick of it, was only just beginning on his own journey.

With Rising Influence in the ANC, Mandela the Leader Begins to Grow

1950 saw Mandela rise to an executive level within the ANC. The same year saw increased protests being staged that were organised between different political activist organisations. There was striking around South Africa in protest of the Apartheid laws. Rather than inciting change in the ruling government, these movements only worked to increase the suppression from the government, enforced by the police and security forces of South Africa. Laws were passed during this period to outlaw communist parties, but worked in effect to suppress any activist groups. An excerpt from the Suppression of Communism Act, 1950 shows just how little freedom the National government was allowing at this point;

‘any scheme aimed at bringing about any political, industrial, social, or economic change within the Union by the promotion of disturbance or disorder’

This essentially pushed all movements’ further underground, and gave the government further power to stifle activities and arrest activists.

This period of Mandela’s life was characterised by his growing ranking within the ANC, and the development of his own political ideals. Mandela by this point had become the leader of the ANC’s youth division, and was become increasingly influenced by Communist texts. While Mandela never saw communism as appropriate to African culture, or South Africa’s mixed cultures, he took some of the ideals of equality in to his own political views.

With activism rising month by month, Mandela was addressing crowds of up to 10,000 people throughout the ANC’s campaigns. The increased campaigning and staging of protests led to more arrests, even on Mandela himself who was detained and imprisoned at one point. The ANC however was gaining more influence with the people, thanks in part to Mandela’s influence and powers of persuasion in leadership, as well as his skills in public address. With 100,000 members of the ANC by 1953 and many sympathisers amongst the population, the government moved to introduce martial law and conducted mass arrests at rallies and peaceful gatherings.

Mandela would soon rise to become the president of the Transvaal wing of the ANC, a sign of his ever growing influence and popularity amongst both the inner hierarchy, and the people of the movement. He was arrested again, and even tried for treason for his actions as a leader in the ANC. Mass protests were staged as Mandela and other ranking ANC leaders were tried. Over a six year trial period, marred with corrupt government proceedings, the judges eventually declared the defendants not guilty. A win for Mandela and the ANC in the eyes of the people, and an embarrassing slight to the government in power.

The 50s saw the rise of Mandela as a central power figure of the ANC, and the government had begun to notice him too. Aware of his growing influence, he was banned from speaking in public, which was yet another blatant display of the oppression of freedoms in South Africa. It was also a fitting reminder of how the nation desperately needed change.

Activism Escalates, Imprisonment, and Growing International Support

The next few decades were a whirlwind of developments of both social change in South Africa along with the development of the Mandela that the world grew to respect and love. These were trying times for the ANC, the nation, and for Mandela the man.

Increasing protests and rising civil discontent led to Mandela and the ANC taking on new measures. Looking to sabotage as ways to destabilise the government, Mandela went on a continent wide mission to gain support for the ANC movement, studying guerrilla warfare along his journey. Mandela sought support as far away as Egypt and made friends and gained powerful sympathisers along the way.

Sabotage through domestic terrorism seemed the only option left to the ANC at this stage. Looking to put maximum pressure on the government in their efforts for social change, Mandela and other ANC leaders wanted to make a dramatic impact, but weren’t prepared to endanger the South African people.

Planning and carrying out strikes on strategic targets that would not put people in danger, this type of guerrilla warfare would lead to a massive government crackdown on movements and the ANC especially. The ANC bombed infrastructure and government installations from their militant wing, led by Mandela and his inner circle.

Because of the oppression and major power still held by the government and their security forces, these activities only led to an increased hunt for the ANCs leading men. During August of 1962, Mandela was captured along with other ranking ANC members.

Charged under crimes relating to inciting violence and social disorder, Mandela was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment, however things would become worse, as security forces later found guerrilla plans for bombings and sabotage which implicated Mandela and fellow members of the ANC, leading to a trial that could result in the death penalty for all involved. Mandela never issued a defence during the trial, but rather a manifest, and the words he spoke in court ring hard in the collective ears of the nation today.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

As expected, all accused members were found guilty, and Mandela himself received a sentence of life in prison. Mandela was 46 when he was sent to Maximum security prison. But it wasn’t to be the end of the man or his movement, and in some ways it shaped him more into the leader he was to become.

From prison things would escalate to a point where the whole world supported the change movement in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela became the face of their struggle.

From Imprisonment, to Freedom, to a Changing South Africa

Prison could break a man, especially a prison where the guards would constantly belittle and indignify a man, where inmates were not allowed to speak, and where hard labour was a constant with the only reprieve coming in the form of a toilet break, with never an interval or nutritious meal.

Mandela was initially allowed to send or receive a letter every six months. He sent these to his then wife, Winnie. Guards would try to dismay him by leaving newspaper clippings of alleged affairs she was having (she had grown to a strong and popular political activist in her own right). Mandela would not be broken though. In his own inimitable way, he began to train the guards to respect him and his fellow inmates.

At all costs it was his dignity that he would not give up. He would mock the guards. When they weren’t on the work fields a large escort would take Mandela any time that he moved. He referred to them as his guard of honour. A subtle slight, but also one with underlying motivation. Slowly but surely he was forcing the guards to treat him with dignity and respect, and it began to work.

While Mandela was imprisoned, fresh political prisoners began to come through. Many of these were of a younger generation, who were involved in more violent means of protest. Isolated from the outside, Mandela never saw the mass riots and armed confrontations that were taking place almost on a monthly basis. The nation was in a state of turmoil and massive civil unrest. Mandela’s image and words had been banned on the outside, he became almost a myth, but things were about to change.

No longer tolerating apartheid and loss of liberties in South Africa, the world stage began to condemn the government. Mandela became an international figure for the struggle that the nation faced, and there was mounting international pressure to release him from prison. The government had even considered it when looking to alleviate the social situation, however it would take time before traction was gained.

By 1982 after almost 20 years in prison, Mandela and other ranking ANC members were moved to Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. With better conditions and a more relaxed force of guards, Mandela was allowed more freedom to read, write, and communicate with the outside world.

Violence on the outside was still escalating, and international pressure was mounting to release Mandela. In 1985, then President P.W. Botha offered Mandela a release on the condition that he would reject violence as a political weapon. The offer was refused, with Mandela famously stating ‘Only free men can negotiate’.

Over the next few years he did indeed get the chance to negotiate, although not yet as a free man. In secret meetings from prison with key government officials, Mandela was negotiating not only his release, but the beginnings of political reforms that would see the nation released from the grasp of oppression.

In 1990, Mandela was released unconditionally after long negotiations with a government that was weary of battling their citizens on issues that no other nation was willing to support them with. Formerly banned political oppositions like the ANC were legalised at the same time.

Mandela was free. The nation rejoiced, and the international community joined them in celebration.

The road to change and presidency

Mandela was free but his journey was not over. Many had expected sudden changes when Mandela was released, but things wouldn’t be that easy.

No longer limited in his freedom to campaign and publicly address his supporters, Mandela set out as the head of the ANC to gather further support, with the eventual goal of a free election for all of South Africa.

The abolishment of apartheid was key to his political agenda, and it formed the basis of everything he and the ANC had fought for over so many years, even from behind prison walls. Mandela toured the world seeking support from governments and financial backers. He met with Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, President George Bush, and other world leaders from Cuba, to Malaysia, and even Australia.

Violence continued in South Africa, as did militant resistance against the reigning government, but in 1994 a date for a South African General Election was finally set. On the 27th of April 1994, after mounting civil unrest and violent conflicts, the General Election was held. Mandela and the ANC took a massive victory with a majority 62% of the vote.

From early beginnings in rural South Africa, to growing political inclinations, activism, sabotage, and political imprisonment, Nelson Mandela had become the first black President of a unified South Africa. Apartheid was now crumbling at its foundation, and South Africa had the man in charge who could see the country through these sweeping changes, leading to a newfound identity as a nation filled with pride and diversity.

A New Government, a Unified South Africa, a Future Still in the Making

South Africa today is testament to the changes that this great man gave to our nation. South Africa is unified, no longer segregated, and in Mandela’s lifetime he was able to see the fruits of his labours. He was a man who never gave up on furthering the people of South Africa, or from inspiring hope and change to those who suffer around the world.

The Fifa World Cup staged in South Africa in 2010 is one small example of the work that Mandela put in. In a single international event, South Africa was showcased to the world in all of its glory: a people as one, living together as equals. For a nation that just a couple of decades ago had been one of segregation and violent chaos, to stage the biggest international sporting event in the world was a crowning achievement.

In December of 2013 the world lost Nelson Mandela. At the age of 95 he died at home with his family. His life’s work and legacy lives on, and in the small space we have to talk about him we could never cover all of his deeds. Throughout his presidency and even after, he campaigned for equality and human rights, for education, and for changes that would see the end of poverty. He gave to charity, formed trusts to help children in need, and most of all he inspired billions.

No man is perfect. Mandela’s rise to greatness had its share of hard decisions, bold moves, and actions that went against the peaceful man that Mandela is remembered as. What is true though, is that Mandela always had a vision, he always valued human life, and he always put the struggle of his nation above that of his own life.

Today Mandela is more than a man, and he is more than the first president of a united South Africa. He is an ideal that many strive towards. He represents perseverance in the face of adversity, and conviction against all odds to meet your own beliefs.

South Africa will always be proud and thankful to this hero of the people. He ushered in a change that will never be forgotten, and a change that still makes waves today. Our nation is still young, still growing, and still learning.

The future is forever bright, and we the free people of South Africa will never forget who gave it to us.