About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born 18 July 1918 in Mvezo in the Transkei. He went to Johannesburg in 1941 where he made the acquaintance of Walter Sisulu. This contact played a seminal role in Mandela joining and becoming active in the African National Congress of South Africa (ANC). The two of them, together with Oliver Tambo, Anton Lembede, Peter Mda and others, founded the ANC Youth League in 1944. They led the process that culminated in the ANC adopting the militant Programme of Action in 1949. Mandela was appointed National Volunteer-in-Chief (with Maulvi Cachalia as his deputy) of the Defiance Campaign, which was launched on 26 June 1952. In the court trial that followed he and the other accused were given nine months' suspended sentences. Mandela was elected President of the Transvaal ANC in October 1952. In 1953 he was banned. The ban was repeatedly renewed. He was among those arrested in 1956 for treason and was among the 30 accused whose trial continued until 29 March 1961, when they were acquitted. Mandela immediately went underground to organise and lead the national strike of 31 May 1961.

He was a founders member and Commander-in-Chief of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK). While underground, he slipped out of the country in 1962 to visit various African countries and the United Kingdom. Shortly after his return he was arrested near Howick, Natal, on 5 August 1962 and sentenced to five years imprisonment for organising the 1961 strike and for leaving the country without a passport. While serving his sentence on Robben Island he was put on trial together with those arrested at Rivonia.

The accused in the Rivonia trial were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi (all of whom were sentenced to life imprisonment), Rusty Bernstein (acquitted and re-arrested) and James Kantor, (who was discharged mid-trial.)

In 1986 Mandela took the initiative to engage the apartheid government in a process that led to the negotiated resolution of the South African conflict. He was elected President of the ANC in 1991. He led the negotiations and was elected President of the Republic of South Africa after the first democratic elections held on 27 April 1994. He served his full term and retired after the 1999 elections.

He has received numerous international awards (including the Nobel Peace Prize 1993), decorations from at least 30 states, the freedom of more that 40 cities around the world, and at least 50 honorary doctorates from universities. He is founder of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, and after retiring as President, he established the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He is currently chairman of the team facilitating a negotiated resolution of the conflict in Burundi.

His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was published in 1994 by Little, Brown & Co., London, United Kingdom.

Nelson Mandela
by Kagiso Pat Mautloa

Profile

Tempered steel. By 1976 Mandela had developed an immense capacity for self-control.

This did not come naturally to him; his self-control was consciously cultivated and nurtured. He explained it this way; 'When one is faced with (provocative) situations you want to think clearly, and obviously you think more clearly if you are cool, you are steady, you are not rattled. Once you become rattled you can make serious mistakes.'1

There was a period in prison when I became 'ratty'. Any provocation by a warder would incite me to backchat. I began to accumulate prison charges for cutting remarks and intemperate language. Mandela called me aside. My reactions, he explained, were correct and we ought to challenge the warders. The warders were at fault and were being provocative. The problem was that an injudicious word by me was picked on by the authorities to charge me. Prison rules and regulations were stacked against the prisoner. Patiently he advised me to maintain my stance; but instead of erupting spontaneously, I should pause, count to ten, measure my response, and choose my words. That way, he said, the anger would still charge my response, but I would be in control; my anger would not control me. Rather simulate the anger needed to give effect to the response, he counseled. That way your response would cut to the quick while keeping your defences intact.

From that time, it was the warder who squirmed with frustration. Never again did a warder succeed in pinning a charge against me. The advice stuck. My problem now is that I am often not sure when I am simulating anger!

How did Mandela achieve such extraordinary self-control? The secret, I believe, lies in his ability for introspection in the privacy of his self. The exercise of 'thinking clearly' involves many elements.

The first element involves analysing the issues and getting a firm grip of the critical elements, such that one has a clear guide to one's positions and line of march.

Mandela's greatest achievements stem from engaging with others by proceeding from their assumptions and carefully marshalling arguments to move them to his conclusions. His line of advance is developed on the other party's line of attack. In his privacy, he never stops trying to understand the other side, be it the enemy, an adversary, an opponent or his own colleague.

The second element of his introspection is his critical look at himself. It is never easy to hold up a mirror to oneself. In the courtroom of one's conscience there are usually witnesses for the defence only.

Self-control is not self-denial. What it achieves is an unparalleled focus. Iron is iron but there is a world of difference between a blade shaped out of wrought iron and a stiletto blade fashioned from tempered steel.

Mandela's personality is steeped in a passion for life and concern for the people. He is above all a servant of the people.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.