Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, fondly referred to as Madiba, became a legend in his lifetime. In a worldwide survey done some years ago in which photos of famous people in the world had to be named, Nelson’s photo was, by far, the most recognised, more so than photos of any other world leader or icon. He was considered to be one of the world’s greatest leaders despite having been incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island on charges of treason before being freed. His prison number, 46664, is known throughout the world and serves as a symbol and a reminder of a great man who unified South Africa. But who exactly was he?
Childhood and Education
18 July 1918: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is born near Umtata (in the Transkei) as the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela, a chief and chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu and a member of the Madiba clan.
1927: Mandela’s father dies. His guardian is Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting chief of the Thembu tribe.
1938: Mandela matriculates at Healdtown : Methodist Boarding School as part of a very small number of black pupils who matriculated in the country.
1939: While studying for a BA degree at Fort Hare Mandela becomes involved in a boycott against the university’s policies and is forced to leave. He goes back home where an arranged marriage is planned and flees to Johannesburg.
1942: After completing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Unisa, he begins studying for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand. He does not complete this degree and starts studying again through the University of London after his imprisonment in 1962 but also does not complete that degree.
1943: Mandela becomes a member of the African National Congress (ANC).
1944: He helps form the ANC Youth League with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. He marries Evelyn Mase, Sisulu’s cousin. They have 4 children – one of whom dies as an infant. 1948: The National Party comes to power in South Africa and implements apartheid.
1952: Mandela leads the Defiance Campaign encouraging people to break racial separation laws. He is convicted under Suppression of Communism Act and is banned from attending gatherings and leaving Johannesburg. With Tambo, he forms the first black law partnership in South Africa. While providing free or cheap legal aid to blacks, Mandela is actively involved in the ANC’s defiance campaign.
1955: Freedom Charter calling for equal rights is adopted at the Congress of the People.
1956: Mandela is one of 156 South Africans charged with treason for their support of the Freedom Charter calling for a non-racial democracy and a socialist-based economy. All are acquitted in 1961 .
1958: Mandela marries social worker Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela after divorcing Eveyln in 1957.
1960: 69 protesters are killed by police in Sharpeville. A state of emergency is declared, and the ANC is outlawed.
1961: Helps establish Umkhonto we Sizwe- “Spear of the Nation.” 16 August 1962: He is sentenced to five years’ hard labour after being charged with illegally leaving the country and incitement to strike. He goes on the run. The government declares Winnie Mandela a banned person and restricts her to soweto.
An ode to Madiba
On September 23, 1996 Ivy Smit wrote this poem for President Nelson Mandela. He acknowledged receipt of it and she was sent an autographed photo and letter of thanks from the President’s Office.
From prisoner to President
Who would have thought, as you went through hell Alone is your cold, damp prison cell That one day for South Africa, you’d be heaven-sent And be transferred from… prisoner to President!
What were your thoughts as day by day You watched your young life passing away? Condemned and imprisoned for a cause well-meant Never dreaming you’d go from… prisoner to President!
Longing for loved ones and many a true friend As your small garden on Robben Island you would tend Your hands calloused and rough with many a dent Little knowing your destiny was from… prisoner to President.
Oh, how hard it must have been for you To lose your mother and precious son too I can imagine your sorrow as to your cell you went God took pity and decided you’d go from… prisoner to President.
You were imprisoned by believers of dreaded apartheid And could have been consumed with malice and hate Instead you were the Saviour for South Africa sent The long walk from… prisoner to President.