Who Was Nelson Mandela? - Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: James Brennan
This lesson describes the life's work of Nelson Mandela. You will be taken on a journey from his boyhood through the events that helped shape him into the President of South Africa. You will learn about the racial inequality of South Africa, and Nelson Mandela's quest to abolish apartheid there.

Nelson Mandela and his Legacy

How will history remember Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela? Will history remember him as Rolihlahla Mandela: the young unassuming boy born to a South African chieftain? A revolutionary: who supported violence in his fight against apartheid? Or, will history remember Prisoner 46664: the man charged with treason and sentenced to life in prison? Or, finally, President Mandela: the first President of South Africa elected through universal elections?

However history remembers Nelson Mandela, there is no denying that he led an extraordinary life. And it all began nearly one hundred years ago.

Early Life

Rolihlahla Mandela was born to his father, Gadla 'Henry' Mphakanyiswa, and his mother, Nosekeni 'Fanny', on July 18th, 1918. During that time, the Great War was coming to a close, and as the dust settled, the world was ripe for social and political change.

Mandela's given name, Rolihlahla, literally means 'tugging at the branches of a tree', but at primary school in Qunu, he was given a Christian name, Nelson. Although Nelson was son of the chief of Mvezo, he was not trained to rule. Instead, Nelson was groomed to help counsel the ruler of his tribe.

Gadla Mandela, Nelson's father, was illiterate, but believed strongly in formal education. As a member of the royal household, Nelson had access to the best education available to black people in South Africa. A good student, Nelson completed his junior certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute, and went on to Healdtown Wesleyan secondary school at the age of fourteen.

In 1939, at twenty-one years of age, Mandela enrolled in the elite University College of Fort Hare. Nelson gained more than a formal education from the school; he also was introduced to student protest. Activism became a great interest in Nelson's life, and by 1940, he and several other students were expelled for their role in boycotts against university policies.

Young Mandela

Apartheid and Activism

In his early twenties, Nelson moved to Johannesburg, where he first encountered the racial discrimination under apartheid that would later become the focal point of his life's work. In 1941, when Mandela arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa was an independent member of the British Commonwealth. Although independent, the constitutional government enforced a policy of favoring whites over the black majority.

In 1948, the National Party came to power and enforced a policy of apartheid. Apartheid is a system of segregation on grounds of race. The word apartheid literally means 'apartness.' Apartheid was not new in practice, but in 1948, the official state sanctioned law was new. Under apartheid, South Africa was a nation of tension and inequality, where the white minority ruled and enforced a policy that blacks and whites were segregated in schools, neighborhoods, and public buildings.

As Mandela pursued his law degree, he became entrenched in the anti-discrimination movement by joining the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was created in 1912 to help unite the African people in their cause against racism and oppression. The ANC became an important fixture in Mandela's life. It was responsible for organizing protests and strikes against the South African policy of apartheid.

Mandela rose up through the ranks of the ANC while calling for civil disobedience, or the refusal to obey laws that are considered unjust. The use of civil disobedience is a way to show displeasure through a nonviolent means. In 1944, Nelson joined Oliver Tambo in creating an African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) on some of the same principles as the ANC.

In 1952 to 1959, working as a lawyer, Nelson Mandela offered low cost legal representation to blacks accused of apartheid violations. Nelson often counseled blacks and indians accused of such things as riding whites-only buses, or not carrying proper identification. Although Mandela remained busy as a lawyer, he never lost his spirit as a freedom fighter.

Freedom Fighter

In 1956, Nelson was arrested for his role in the Freedom Charter, which called for equality, but was seen as a subversive document by the South African government. Nelson was charged with the crime of treason, which carried a hefty punishment. Narrowly avoiding a five-year prison sentence, Nelson was acquitted of treason later that same year. Unbeknownst to Mandela, his legal problems had just begun.

South African tensions came to a head in 1960 when police opened fire on a group of protesters, killing sixty unarmed people. Riots and protests broke out around the country in response to the even, causing a harsh reaction from the South African government.

In an attempt to gain control, the South African government banned the ANC, forcing Nelson Mandela to run the organization in an underground location on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Living as an underground fugitive and freedom fighter, Mandela avoided detection by masquerading as a houseboy or chauffeur.

A frustrated Mandela looked at the failed attempts to gain political rights through non cooperation, and began to see a need for a more revolutionary path to ending apartheid -- violence. Mandela could not bear having his peaceful demands met with force any longer, and joined forces with a more militant factions of the ANC known as Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).

A new phase in South African resistance began when Nelson Mandela became the leader of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, embarked on several sabotage campaigns intended to incite resistance by any means necessary, including force.

Arrest and Imprisonment

In 1962, Nelson traveled out of the country to attend the Pan African Freedom Movement for East, Central, and Southern Africa (PAFMESCA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In attempt to gain support for his cause, Mandela went on a whirlwind tour, making stops in Morocco, Egypt, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and England.

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