His story cannot be separated from that of his family, colleagues, and supporters in the African National Congress (ANC) and a wider coalition of liberation groups in South Africa. In his fight for the right to live an ordinary life, Mandela gave up career and family, lived the life of an outlaw, and endured 27 years of imprisonment.
Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, the eldest child of his father’s third wife, Nosekeni Fanny, in the village of Mvezo, Umtata, the capital of the Transkei, in the southeast of South Africa, and was called Rolihlahla. He was given the name Nelson Mandela at age seven when he attended a mission school, the first member of his family to do so.
Madiba, as ANC leaders call him affectionately, is his clan name. Following his father’s defiance of a local magistrate, the family lost their inheritance and moved to Qunu, a large village north of Mvezo, where Mandela enjoyed an idyllic childhood as a herd boy.
When he was nine, his father died and he was sent to the house of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people, who raised him to become an adviser to the Thembu royal house.
Through education Mandela gradually developed a tribal and national identity. Tribal elders expected him to learn by observation and passed down Xhosa history and culture to him. He witnessed the free speech and consensus decision-making of the men of the Thembu court, and also learned about British and Dutch imperialism.
At 16, he was circumcised, a traditional site of passage into manhood. Following his mother he became Christian, was baptized into the Methodist Church, and enrolled in a number of mission schools. At the Clarkebury Boarding Institute, Mandela reveled in sports and learned that ability was more important than lineage.
He then attended Healdtown, the Wesleyan College at Fort Beaufort, 175 miles southwest of Umtata, the largest liberal arts school for Africans south of the equator, and was appointed prefect. His education made him both an Anglophile and an African, as he came to admire British manners, to meet people from other tribes, and to think independently.
At 21, Mandela entered University College, Fort Hare, the only institution for higher education for blacks in South Africa. He studied law and joined the Student Christian Association, where he met Oliver Tambo. Mandela started a B.A., but did not complete it until 1943 because he disagreed with the principal about the voting system for the Student Representative Council.
At 23, to escape an arranged marriage, Mandela ran away to Johannesburg, where he lived on a meager wage and studied at night to complete his degree at the University of South Africa. Mandela was so poor that he went without food, wore patched clothes, and walked six miles to and from work to save the bus fare.
Although the partners at the law firm discouraged politics, Walter Sisulu and Gaur Radebe—a fellow articled clerk—believed that politics was the only long-term solution to the problem of race relations in South Africa. In the 1950s Mandela opened the first firm of black African lawyers with Oliver Tambo.
Mandela joined the ANC in 1943 and helped transform it from a deferential nongovernmental organization to a mass movement. Founded in 1912, the ANC was the oldest African organization in South Africa and advocated multiracialism.
By the 1940s, however, the ANC was more concerned with maintaining the privilege of elite black South Africans. Mandela enrolled in the law program at the University of Witswaterand, where he met white and Indian students his own age who would also become leaders in the struggle.
The ANC formed a Youth League on Easter Sunday 1944, and adopted its proposal for boycotts, strikes, and protest demonstrations. The Youth League had been inspired by Indian demonstrations in 1946 in response to laws restricting their movement and their right to buy property.
The National Party won national elections in 1948 and passed the Group Areas Act in 1950. Apartheid, or the separation of black and white into urban areas on the basis of white superiority, became law. On Freedom Day, May 1, 1948, two-thirds of African workers stayed at home, and the government banned meetings by anti-apartheid activists. A coalition of groups organized a National Day of Protest (NDP) on June 26, 1950.
The Defiance Campaign, in which 8,500 volunteers defied laws and went to jail on the anniversary of the NDP in 1952, was Mandela’s apprenticeship as a freedom fighter. Mandela believed that the form of resistance was determined by the enemy, and that nonviolent resistance was a tactic rather than a principle.
He traveled the country explaining the campaign and training volunteers to respond to police nonviolently. The government began to ban people, which was like informal imprisonment, and to conduct arrests and raids of the homes and offices of people linked to nongovernmental organizations.
The government increased repression with the Sophiatown evictions in 1953, the Bantu Education Act of 1955—which transferred control of education to the Native Affairs Department—and the massacre of 69 peaceful protesters at Sharpeville in 1960.
Oliver Tambo left the country and formed the external wing of the ANC. Mandela was arrested for treason in 1956, and when the trial ended in 1961, the government began to appoint its own judges, to use torture in prison, and— starting at the end of 1963—to harass and imprison wives of freedom fighters, including Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, whom Mandela had married in 1958.
For the next two years Mandela went underground and became an outlaw, disguising himself as a chauffeur, chef, or garden boy. By 1962 the ANC had established a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which adopted a policy of sabotage of infrastructure.
Mandela studied guerrilla warfare and surveyed the country’s industrial areas, transport system, and communications network. He attended the Pan African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa in Addis Ababa, and organized financial support for the MK.
The government passed the Sabotage Act, which allowed house arrests that were not subject to challenge in court, restricted the printing of the words of banned people, and passed the Ninety-Day Detention Law, which allowed detention without charge.
On his return to South Africa Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. He defended himself against the charges of inciting the country to strike and leaving the country without travel documents.
Standing in the courtroom in his kaross, or traditional clothing, he put the state on trail, arguing that in a state where there was no justice without representation, he had no option but to follow his conscience in defiance of the law.
In late May 1963 Mandela was transferred to Robben Island, to the north of Cape Town. He knew about the island from childhood stories of Xhosa warriors who had been banished there.
Nine months into his sentence the police discovered Rivonia, the house from which the ANC had operated underground; they arrested the commanders of the MK and charged them with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Realizing they could face the death penalty, the accused defended themselves on moral grounds.
Mandela rejected the allegation that he was a communist and admitted his African nationalism and support for British parliamentary democracy. The MK, seeking to respond to increased Afrikaner repression and growing African restlessness, had adopted a policy of sabotage to prevent civil war and to provide the best conditions for future relations.
Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment; he would be imprisoned for 27 years. By 1962 Robben Island had become the toughest correctional facility in South Africa. Prisoners were classified into four groups according to political opinion and the extent to which they were prepared to adopt servile behavior.
The prisoners could write and receive only one letter of 500 words every six months to or from their immediate families, defined according to Western culture. Prisoners were not permitted to touch their relatives or to speak in their native language.
They were given insufficient clothing, bedding, and food. In 1979, after 15 years of protests, African, Indian, and mixed-race prisoners received the same food as white prisoners, including fresh vegetables and meat.
Mandela considered the struggle in prison a microcosm of the struggle in the country. He refused to be robbed of his dignity, to show emotion, or to despair. He fought for reforms such as better food, study privileges, and dismissal of officers, communicating his complaints during the visits of dignitaries such as the Red Cross, three justices of the Supreme Court, and Mrs. Helen Suzman, the only member of the Liberal Progressive Party in the parliament and the sole parliamentary opposition to apartheid.
Mandela’s first protest was against short trousers. He refused a pair of long trousers until all prisoners were given them in 1965. He endured 13 years of hard labor in the limestone quarry until it was abolished in 1977.
It took three years to convince the authorities that prisoners needed sunglasses, and when they were given them, the prisoners had to pay for these glasses themselves. Sunday services with a sympathetic preacher, books, games, tournaments, plays, concerts, and gardening provided some relief.
Beginning in the early 1980s, Mandela sought to bring the government and the ANC to the point of talks. In March 1982 Mandela was transferred off Robben Island, and in 1988 he was relocated to a cottage within Victor Verster prison, in the town of Paarl, northeast of Cape Town.
South African president F. W. de Klerk began to dismantle apartheid. He seemed prepared to negotiate with Mandela, but often sought to secure his own power through the guise of equality.
On February 3, 1990, Mandela was released and greeted by a great crowd in Cape Town. He challenged the people to bring the government to the negotiating table. After his release Mandela knew that his dream of a simple family life would again be sacrificed as he worked for a new South Africa. (His first marriage, to Evelyn, had ended in 1955 when she became more interested in the Jehovah’s Witnesses than in politics.)
In 1992 Mandela and Winnie separated. Democratic elections were held in 1994. Mandela was elected president for a five-year term and immediately embarked upon an ambitious program of reconstruction, which remained the struggle for South Africans into the 21st century.