Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the village of Mveso, Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918 to Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa and Noqaphi Nosekeni, the third of Gadla’s four wives. In Mandela’s native language, his name, Rolihlahla, meant “troublemaker”.
When Nelson was an infant, his father rebelled against the British Magistrate by refusing mandatory appearance therefore he was stripped of his chieftaincy title and wealth. The family had no choice but to live in more modest circumstances. The family lived in mud huts and survived on the crops they grew and the cattle and sheep they raised. Mandela, along with the other village boys, worked herding sheep and cattle. He later recalled this as one of the happiest periods in his life. Many evenings, villagers sat around the fire, telling the children stories passed down through generations, of what life had been like before the white man had arrived. Hearing the elders’ stories of his ancestors’ valour during the wars of resistance, he dreamed also of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.
Mandela completed his law studies in 1952 and, with partner Oliver Tambo, opened the first black law practice in Johannesburg. The practice was busy from the start. Clients included Africans who suffered the injustices of racism, such as seizure of property by whites and beatings by the police. Despite facing hostility from white judges and lawyers, Mandela was a successful attorney. He had a dramatic, impassioned style in the courtroom. He was very keen to fight for his country and being the very outspoken individual that he was, that was no problem.
During the 1950s, Mandela became more actively involved with the protest movement. He was elected president of the ANC Youth League in 1950. In June 1952, the ANC, along with Indians and “colored” (biracial) people—two other groups also targeted by discriminatory laws—began a period of nonviolent protest known as the “Defiance Campaign.” Mandela spearheaded the campaign by recruiting, training, and organizing volunteers.
The campaign lasted six months, with cities and towns throughout South Africa participating. Volunteers defied the laws by entering areas meant for whites only. Several thousand were arrested in that six-month time, including Mandela and other ANC leaders. He and the other members of the group were found guilty of “statutory communism” and sentenced to nine months of hard labor, but the sentence was suspended.Because of this campaign, the government banned Mandela, meaning that he could not attend public meetings, oreven family gatherings, because of his involvement in the ANC. His 1953 banning lasted two years.
Mandela and his seven co-defendants received guilty verdicts on June 11, 1964. They could have been sentenced to death for so serious a charge, but each was given life imprisonment. During his time in prison, Mandela suffered personal losses during his imprisonment. His mother died in January 1968 and his 25-year-old son Thembi died in a car accident the following year. A heartbroken Mandela was not allowed to attend either funeral. Whilst in prison, Mandela led the prisoners in numerous protests—hunger strikes, food boycotts, and work slowdowns. He also demanded reading and study privileges. In most cases, the protests eventually yielded results.
On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was given an unconditional release from prison. After 27 years in custody, he was a free man at the age of 71. Mandela was welcomed home by thousands of people cheering in the streets. Soon after his return home, Mandela learned that his wife Winnie had fallen in love with another man in his absence. The Mandelas separated in April 1992 and later divorced. In 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel on his eightieth birthday. Machel, 52 years old, was the widow of a former president of Mozambique.
In 2009, the United Nations General Assembly designated July 18, Mandela’s birthday, as Nelson Mandela International Day. Nelson Mandela died at his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95.
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