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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Mandela, Nelson Rolihlanhla

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Major achievements

Nelson Rolihlanhla Mandela was an enthusiastic, young political activist and attorney with a vision who remained true to his decisions and principles and who, today, is seen as one of the most well-known and formidable men of state of the twentieth century.

Mandela was elected as state president in 1994 and with his charisma and the aura of a living legend, helped South-Africa with the difficult transition from minority rule to a complete democracy, without the usual instability. Mandela achieved what few other men of state could. He relieved the deep racial conflict in South Africa without any formal foreign involvement. For his contribution to the establishment of a new apartheid-free South Africa he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 together with F W de Klerk.

Mandela has  received honorary doctor's degrees from more than fifty universities worldwide and is Chancellor of the University of the North.

A brief Life History

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Qunu near Umtata in the Transkei. His father was chief advisor of the acting chief of Themboland. When his father died in 1927, Mandela became the charge of the chief and was raised to inherit the chieftaincy one day.

After his schooling at the Healdtown Methodist Boarding School, he attended the University of Fort Hare with the intention of obtaining a BA degree with legal subjects. As member of the Student Council he was part of a student strike and was subsequently suspended from the university in 1940. He obtained his degree by correspondence, did his articleship and enrolled for a LL B degree at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1944 he helped with the establishment of the ANC Youth League and in 1952 he became chief volunteer of the Defiance Campaign. As a result of his involvement he received a suspended sentence and shortly after that he had to remain in Johannesburg for a period of six months due to a restriction order. During this time he formulated his M-plan. This entailed the division of the ANC branches into smaller underground cells.

In 1952 Mandela and his life-long friend Oliver Tambo opened the first black legal practice in Johannesburg. At that time Mandela was the Transvaal president of the ANC and the national deputy president of the ANC.

In 1962 he left the country illegally in order to obtain military training in Algeria. On his return he was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment. While serving his sentence, he was accused of sabotage. He was found guilty at the Rivonia trial and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. He was detained in the maximum security jail on Robben Island.

In March 1982, after 18 years on Robben Island, he was transferred to the Pollsmoor jail.

In 1985 he had to undergo surgery and after his discharge from hospital he was placed in a single cell. In this way the government could meet with him in private. Secret negotiations between Kobie Coetsee, then the Minister of Defence, and Mandela started in July 1986. In the ANC rumours started that Mandela had sold them out. After Mandela contracted tuberculosis, he was transferred to the Victor Verster jail in the Paarl. There he was accommodated in his own cottage with private cook.

In the 27 years he spent in jail, he was offered two opportunities to regain his freedom. Both times he declined because the conditions were not acceptable to him. He was however released on 11 February 1990. This was the immediate result of the sensational speech of FW de Klerk with the opening of parliament on 2 February 1990 during which he unbanned the ANC and other political organisations.

On 27 April 1994, after four years of intensive negotiations, South Africa's first democratic election took place. Mandela was elected as president and the ANC won 252 of the 400 seats in the National Parliament.

After five years as State President of South Africa, Mandela announced his formal retirement from politics. Thabo Mbeki was elected as his successor. After his formal retirement from active politics he still remains involved locally as well as internationally. He is regarded as a symbol of hope and peace throughout the world.

Source: South African Encyclopedia

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.