Nelson Mandela: 18 July 1918 – 5 December 2013


The first democratic President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, lived his life dedicated to the fight for freedom.

Born on 18 July 1918 in the Transkei to the Thembu royal family he was named Rolihlahla Mandela. When he was 12 years old his father, who was the Principal Counsellor to Acting King of the Thembu, died. Hearing the stories of his ancestors he dreamed of making his contribution to the freedom struggle and was encouraged to live a life to fight for freedom. It was at primary school where he was named Nelson falling in with the custom to give all school children a Christian name.

After completing his schooling, he enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts in 1939 at Fort Hare University but was expelled in 1940 for taking part in a protest. He later completed his Bachelor of Arts through the University of South Africa in 1942 and went back to Fort Hare University for his graduation in 1943.

In 1943 he enrolled for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand but left in 1952 without graduating. He started studying again through the University of London after his imprisonment in 1962 but did not complete the degree. In 1989 he obtained an LLB through the University of South Africa.

In 1944 he joined the ANC where he co-founded the ANC Youth League and married Evelyn Mase. They had two sons and two daughters. They divorced in 1958.

In 1948 he was elected national secretary of the ANCYL. He rose through the ranks and 1952 he was chosen at the National Volunteer in Chief of the Defiance Campaign. This campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws caused him to be charged with Suppression of the Communism Act and was sentenced to nine months’ hard labour and two years suspended sentence.

A two-year Diploma in Law on top of his BA allowed him to practice law and in 1952 he opened the first black law firm and by the end of 1952 he was banned for the first time.

In 1953 he devises the M-Plan for the ANC’s future underground operations.

Nelson Mandela was arrested in a countrywide police swoop on 5 December 1955 which led to the Treason Trial. He was acquitted on 29 March 1961. During the Treason Trial Nelson Mandela married Winnie Madikizela on 14 June 1958. They had two daughters. They divorced in 1996.

On 21 March 1960 police killed 69 unarmed people in a protest in Sharpeville which led to a State of Emergency being imposed and Nelson Mandela was detained during this time.

On 8 April 1960, the ANC are banned. In 1961 he goes underground and Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) is formed.

On 11 January 1962 Nelson Mandela secretly left the country under the name David Motsamayi and travelled around Africa and visited England to obtain support. He received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa on 23 July. He was arrested on 5 August in a police roadblock after a visit to KwaZulu-Natal to brief ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli about his trip.

Timeline of his prison life:

  • 5 August 1962 arrested for leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to strike
  • 7 November 1962 sentenced to five years for leaving the country without a passport and incitement started serving his sentence at the Pretoria Local Prison
  • 27 May 1963 transferred to Robben Island
  • 12 June 1963 transferred back to Pretoria Local Prison
  • 9 October 1963 trial of sabotage known as the Rivonia Trial begins after police raid a secret ANC hideout in Rivonia
  • 20 April 1964 while facing the death penalty his words to the court at the end of his famous ‘Speech from the Docks’
    ‘I have fought against white domination; 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.’
  • 11 June 1964 convicted of sabotage
  • 12 June 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment
  • 13 June 1964 arrives on Robben Island
  • 31 March 1982 transferred to Pollsmoor Prison
  • 12 August 1988 taken to Tygerberg Hospital where TB is diagnosed
  • 31 August 1988 transferred to Constantiaberg MediClinic
  • 7 December 1988 transferred to Victor Verster Prison
  • 11 February 1990 Madiba is released nine days after the unbanning of the ANC

Timeline after prison:

  • 1991: Nelson Mandela was elected ANC President.
  • 1993: Nelson Mandela jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with President FW de Klerk.
  • 27 April 1994 voted for the first time.
  • 10 May 1994 inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President.
  • 1998: On his 80th birthday he married Graca Machel
  • 1999: true to his promise Nelson Mandela steps down

He continued to work with the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund he setup in 1995 and established the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

He died at his home in Johannesburg on 5 December 2013.

Respected all over the world Nelson Mandela lived a life of sacrifice to fight for freedom. Madiba will always be fondly remembered as one of the most influential visionary leaders in the world, a courageous, remarkable man who showed us the path to freedom.

Click here to read about tours to Robben Island.


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