Life and Career of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela


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Nelson Mandela was born to Chief Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa and his third wife, Nosekani Fanny, at the Eastern Cape village of Mvezo. When his father died and young Mandela was taken into the care of his uncle Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who was an acting regent of the old Tembu, there was a profound turn in Mandela’s life. He had a traditional pastoral childhood as a member of the Tembu ruling family, herding sheep, and helping with the ploughing and when he listened to the paramount chief trying cases in the tribal court, he dreamt of becoming a lawyer. From a Methodist school, he went on to Fort Hare College to study for his B.A. degree, but during his third year, he was suspended from college  for helping to organize a boycott of the student’s representative council after it had been deprived of its power by the authorities. He returned home and might then have been drawn back into tribal duties and politics in the Transkei but for the fact that he wished to continue his studies and because of the threat of an arranged marriage, both of which drove him to Johannesburg (Mandela, 1990, p.1).

Active participation in student politics

In Johannesburg, Mandela met Walter Sisulu and there began a remarkable friendship between the two. Sisulu arranged for Mandela to study law. While studying in the city, Mandela saw the crowded black locations mushroomed after wartime industrial boom, and learned how the blacks in the city led a life of segregation, poverty, exclusion from skilled work and constant harassment by the police. Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1944, and together with his close friends, helped to form its youth league. Mandela was elected General Secretary of the youth wing of ANC. The youth leaguers had burning desire to bring justice to the blacks of Africa and to end the era of oppression and humiliation. Unlike softer stance taken by ANC, the youth wing wanted more dynamic action. When the Afrikaner National Government came to power in 1948, they followed a policy of apartheid and introduced drastic laws to subjugate and segregate the black population. During those years, Mandela became politically involved and in 1949, he persuaded the ANC to pursue a more aggressive programme like strikes, civil disobedience, and boycott against repressive legislations. Soon ANC started working with Indian Congress and other allies and organized defiance campaign against unjust apartheid laws. Mandela was appointed as national volunteer in chief. His experience of working with other groups had changed his political outlook, and broadened his hitherto narrow nationalism (Mandela, 1990, p.2).

Legal career

The Tambo and Mandela legal partnership founded in Johannesburg in 1952 was the first legal office in Johannesburg. Their legal partnership was a pioneering venture amongst African professionals and business persons. The team consisted of hard working, goal directed an disciplined teamsters, who often faced scores of clients waiting in each morning. Their prodigious capacity for work made them successful lawyers. Mandela and Tambo’s legal practice sent a message to Africans that they could create for themselves places in the urban areas (Buthelezi, 2002, p.57). During his legal practice, Mandela contested all forms of debasement unleashed by the white minority. He remonstrated against the police who degraded him. He insisted that members of the special branch called him Mr.Mandela instead of Nelson. He turned the white men’s courts into his own court and would turn to African audience in the gallery when the magistrate was seen to be thwarting in cross examination. He courageously talked back and looked white officials in the face (Buthelezi, 2002,  p.64).

Long years in prison

In 1960, after the massacre of 69 Africans at a demonstration protesting apartheid in Sharpeville, the government outlawed the ANC and arrested the key leaders, including Nelson Mandela. By the mid 1960s, the government had subdued all efforts to end apartheid. Nelson Mandela had articulated the aspirations of blacks and was prepared to pay the price for his convictions. He stayed in the prison for 27 years and after growing international pressure and local bloodbaths, he was released from prison in 1989 and he emerged as a national hero (Lassiter, 1998, p.6).

Mandela became immensely popular during his prison terms. In the 27 years of his confinement Nelson Mandela accumulated honorary degrees, and awards from governments. Free Mandela Committee was established at the time of Mandela’s 1962 trial, and its organizers distributed lapel buttons bearing the portrait of the imprisoned leader wrapped in West African Toga. He became a living legend so much so that his face appeared on postage stamps, and official sculpture and his deeds mythical and real were celebrated at rock concerts. By 80s, his popularity soared so much that he had become world’s most famous political prisoner. His action commanded him tremendous respect. He was honor, courage, and chivalry personified. However, this unprecedented popularity didn’t stem from Mandela’s charismatic leadership alone. Mandela’s popularity in the international sphere stemmed from the moral appeal of South African liberation struggle, and its resonance in international politics of anti-racism and decolonalisation and emergence of trans-national anti-apartheid new social movement (Lodge, 2003, p.8).

Political Career

After his release from jail, Mandela was elected deputy president of ANC. Soon he went abroad and met with leaders throughout Africa, Europe, and America. He was greeted with unbridled enthusiasm wherever he went. What endeared him to even his bitterest critics was his lack of vengeful attitude towards those who imprisoned him (Finlayson, p.105). The attribution of redemptive qualities of leadership to Mandela reached new height during his visit to the United States in 1990, four months after his release from prison. During his trip, Mandela raised fund for the ANC, totally $7 million. His American tour was a spectacular success, as he was received in Harlem by city’s first   black mayor, and the city’s second black commissioner was appointed to look after Mandela’s security. All the important black community leaders in Brooklyn and Harlem assembled to welcome Mandela. His American journey helped to consolidate the leadership credentials of African American elite personalities (Lodge, 2003, p.13). During the early 1990s, Mandela had difficult times in personal front but he stayed focuses politically. He negotiated with the government to create a new political structure and in June 1993, Mandela presented a formula for a new political system that gave rights to all South Africans. This paved the way for the first national, racially unrestricted, and one person one vote election in 1994 (Finlayson, 1998, p.105).

In April 1994, in South Africa’s first non-racial elections for members of a constituent assembly, the ANC won 62.6 percent of popular vote, and this body elected Mandela as president. De Klerk served in the coalition government as deputy vice president but when the new constitution was adopted in May 1996, he withdrew from the government. Mandela won respect, even from whites with his effective efforts for reconciliation, while his political skills helped bind together the diverse elements of the new South Africa. He gained further acclaim abroad and became the most influential head of State in Africa and probably the most admired political leader in the world Abram et al., 1991, p.56). In personal front, his marriage with Winnie broke up after his return from prison but Mandela found great happiness in his eightieth year in his marriage in 1998 to Graca Machel, the widow of the first president of Mozambique, who was a stateswoman in her own right through her internationally recognize work on refugee  (Abram et al,  1991, p.56).


Mandela and President De Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1993 for their effort in bringing peace to the strife torn South Africa, and helping to end apartheid. While De Klerk was vitally important in the transformation of South Africa, the crucial contribution to change in South Africa has been Nelson Mandela. He was a dignified personality who passionately loved South Africa, and all her people and was willing to go to any length for their true liberation, in a new non-racial, non-sexist, democratic dispensation. He genuinely wanted reconciliation and peace in a land so deeply polarized by decades of apartheid, repression and alienation. Mandela was instrument and crucial factor in making for change in South Africa (Fara et al., 1996, p.19).


Abrams, I., Nobelstiftelsen., Frangsmyr, T., Haberman, F.W., & Nobelstifelsen (1991) Peace 1991-1995, World Scientific publishers, pp. 153

Buthelezi, J.C. (2002) Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela, An ecological study, Trafford Publishing, pp.647

Fara, P., Gathercole, P.W., and Laskey, R.A. (1996) The Changing World, Cambridge University Press, pp. 200

Finlayson, R (1998) Nelson Mandela, Twenty First Century Books, pp.112

Lassiter, S.M. (1998) Cultures of Color in America, Greenwood Publishing Group, pp. 207

Lodge, T (2003) Politics in South Africa: from Mandela to Mbeki, New Africa Books, pp.314

Mandela, N (1990)  Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is my life, Popular Prakashan, pp.282


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