Nelson Mandela: Brief Biography

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Transkei, South Africa. Born to a polygamous family, he was the youngest among thirteen siblings (Harris, 2001). His father passed away when he was young, and an uncle took Mandela under his responsibility.

Mandela was the pioneer in his family to go to school when he joined primary school. Being the naturally born leader the world has come to know, Mandela started his political activism roots while still a student at the African Native college where he led the students and advocated for their rights at whatever cost. He symbolized the urgent need for change in the institution that was as similar in structure as that of the government of the time, landing him an academic expulsion. The vigilant Mandela ended up defying the odds to graduate at the same institution with an Arts degree, following it up with a Law degree from the University of South Africa (Harris, 2001).

With his visionary leadership and the plight of the people entrenched deep in his mind, he joined the African National Congress barely three years after completing his education. There, he helped establish the youth section for which he was made secretary. Despite all the efforts the ANC put to win the elections, they lost to the National Party which ended up introducing the infamous apartheid regime. Mandela greatly despised and opposed the regime that implemented its segregating and oppressive policies (Republican, 2003).

Mandela and other members of the ANC were arrested for treason in the year 1956 (Harris, 2001). He again showed immense courage and character by representing himself in a court overseen by the authoritarian regime that still executed racist policies against the blacks, including the killing of 69 black citizens who engaged in peaceful demonstrations against the racist pass laws (Harris, 2001). This dark day in the history of the nation came to be known as The Sharpeville Massacre. After being acquitted of all charges in 1961, Mandela and other ANC leaders destroyed their passes in an act of direct opposition to the racist pass law. This, coupled to the killing of innocent civilians by the police, sparked civil unrest. The government responded by banning the ANC and declaring a state of emergency.

The political authority reacted by instilling punitive control to the point of marshalling the combined troops of the state to quell any potential uprising from the people. With the continuing acts of violence from the government, violent resistance became inevitable. Mandela and other leaders from the ANC came up with an organized armed force that was known as the MK, Spear of the Nation or Umkhonto we Sizwe in Zulu. Its operations aimed at destabilizing the core government operations that planned and implemented the apartheid policies.

With the wave of independence sweeping through the continent, he showed his support by participating in an Algerian freedom conference in 1962. Little did he know that his country was far from redemption, and on arrival he was incarcerated for exiting the country against the harsh apartheid statutes and association with the inevitable armed resistance that rose against the regime.

Despite being tried for violence and armed resistance, the exemplary Mandela reiterated even from the docks his will and desire for equality, justice and most importantly, peace, in the quest for freedom of the African citizens of South Africa.

Mahatma Gandhi influenced Mandela’s actions. Gandhi had also resorted to mass, social disobedience and nonviolence to drive India to independence in 1947. Both of them were lawyers and fought for the independence of their respective countries. Gandhi was also a South African citizen. However, Mandela later came to believe in violence as a means of liberating his nation from a system that undermined and oppressed its citizens.

On June 12, 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for plotting to overthrow the government. He was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, a solitary prison located far from the capital. While at the facility, he went through gruesome experiences including using a bucket for a toilet and sleeping on straw mats in a tiny cell with a small barred window. He was later transferred to Polls Moor Prison in 1982, where he stayed for 8 years.

Mandela fell ill in 1988 when he contracted tuberculosis. While receiving treatment, he was approached by the uncompromising head of the National Party. This culminated in a series of private meetings where he was offered freedom if he opted to convince his supporters to use nonviolent means. Despite having spent close to a quarter century in prison, Mandela displayed his relentless quest for the freedom of his people before his own by declining the offer. The inflexible president, P.W. Botha later relinquished his office following a stroke. This paved way for the appointment of F.W. de Klerk as the next leader of the ruling party and thus head of state in 1989. This moment proved pivotal in the history of South Africa as he was less of a hardliner and immediately began political negotiations with Mandela and other members of the ANC.

In a sensational turn of events, F.W. de Klerk publicly declared the liberation of Nelson Mandela on 2nd February, 1990. He also repealed interjections banning the ANC and other previously illegal organizations. The discussions between the ANC and the ruling body proved to be successful and led to the lifting of most of the oppressive apartheid rules. With Mandela being the forerunner to most of the changes, he was elected to lead the ANC in the same year. In December 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were granted the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in ending the apartheid rule and establishing a framework for the future of democracy in South Africa (Nobel, 1998).

Mandela is similar to Martin Luther King, Jr in that they both drew inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. They also rose against racial oppression by using civil strikes and demonstrations. Mandela’s uprising resembled Martin’s Black Power Movement (Abrams, 2001).

According to Harris (2001), he became the president of South Africa on 9th May, 1994 after unanimous voting by the Congress. This followed the monumental win of the ANC in South Africa’s first all inclusive election where Africans voted. On the other hand, de Klerk received the appointment as one of two deputy assistant head of state.

Mandela is viewed by many as a hero who showed courage, patience and resilience while in the hands of the oppressors. He also demonstrated compassion and forgiveness when given dominion over them, where he put the interest of the nation before his own by serving only one term as a head of state. Through his actions, Nelson Madiba Mandela embodies all the attributes that make a great icon, leader and visionary. His inspiring life story makes him a true living legend.


Abrams, I. (2001). The Nobel Peace Prize 1993: Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk. Nobel lectures. Web.

Harris, B. (2001). Nelson Mandela hero file. Heroes and killers of the 20th Century. Web.

Nobel, C. (1998). Nelson Mandela Winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Peace. The Nobel Prize Internet Archive.

Republican, B. (2003). Information about apartheid. Turkcebilgi English Section.

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