Nelson Mandela Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Mandela dedicated his life to the struggle to end racial segregation and white minority rule under the apartheid system in South Africa. His contribution to the political education, mobilization, and organization of millions of people against the apartheid system has been unparalleled. In the 1990’s the South African government moved to abolish apartheid, and Mandela was elected president in 1994.

Early Life

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa, in a village called Mvezo on July 18, 1918. Although born of royal parentage, Mandela was reared in the traditional African setting among the Thembu. In addition to his mother, who was very strong-willed and dignified, Mandela’s father had three other wives. Along with his peers, Mandela was inculcated with a tremendous sense of responsibility to his family and community, reflected in some of his childhood duties such as ploughing land, herding cattle, and tending sheep.

An important element that contributed to the political consciousness of Mandela during his youth was his listening to the elders of his village discuss the history of their people. Mandela learned of the noble traditions of his people before the European colonial invasion and the gallant struggles of resistance to European colonial rule. Mandela’s insatiable thirst for knowledge was partially satisfied when he attended mission school as a child and then later while studying at Clarebury, a nearby training college. He learned much about some of the atrocities experienced by his people under European colonial rule. Mandela’s desire to study law emanated from his observations of the paramount chief conducting court in his village and from his commitment to helping to end minority rule in South Africa.

Perhaps the most significant event that raised Mandela’s political consciousness while still a teenager was the series of laws that were passed by the white-controlled, minority government in 1936. In the face of massive African opposition, the entire African population was effectively disenfranchised, the pass laws that restricted the movement and daily lives of Africans were extended throughout the country, and the increased expropriation of African land left the African majority population (80 percent) with only 12.7 percent of South African land. Like most South Africans, Mandela was deeply affected by these events.

Mandela’s initiation into political activism began in 1940 while he was working on his bachelor of arts degree at Fort Hare College in the Eastern Cape. As a member of the Student’s Representative Council, he was suspended from school for participating in a boycott to protest the reduction of the council’s powers by authorities. After returning home briefly, he soon left for Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage and being trained for chieftainship.

Mandela found a small room in Alexandra, an overcrowded township on the edge of Johannesburg. With the encouragement of Walter Sisulu, in 1941 he joined the African National Congress (ANC), a multiracial, antiapartheid organization founded in 1912. This marked the beginning of Mandela’s enduring struggle to establish justice and equality throughout South African society.

Life’s Work

Along with Oliver Tambo, his former schoolmate at Fort Hare College, and Sisulu, who provided Mandela with work and financial assistance to finish his B.A. by correspondence, Mandela helped to revitalize a faltering ANC. By 1944, Mandela was instrumental in founding the Youth League, which became an integral part of the ANC. As the most radical element within the ANC, the Youth League helped to turn the ANC into a mass movement. In 1949, Mandela was elected secretary of the Youth League and helped to develop its Program of Action, which it submitted to the ANC executive officers. The Program of Action called for a series of boycotts, strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience designed to end white minority rule in South Africa. As a newly elected member of the ANC national executive board, Mandela worked hard to ensure that the ANC would adopt the Program of Action and implement it on May Day of 1950. Despite brutal repression by the South African government, the Program of Action gained considerable support from African workers.

Near the end of 1950, with the apartheid system fully intact, Mandela was elected the national president of the Youth League. His natural charisma and dauntless personality contributed significantly to his outstanding leadership ability. As president, Mandela helped to formulate a plan to intensify the ANC’s antiapartheid activities, called the Defiance Campaign. In 1952, he was appointed the campaign’s national volunteer-in-chief, which required that he travel throughout South Africa visiting the many black townships in order to explain and win mass support for the campaign. During this period, Mandela played a leading role in forming the first significant alliance between the Africans, Asians, and so-called coloreds of South Africa against the apartheid system.

On June 26, 1952, the official start of the campaign, Mandela was arrested for the first time by South African police for violating the curfew restrictions imposed on Africans at that time. He was soon released and observed the rapid spread of the campaign throughout the country. Within a month, he, Sisulu and others were arrested once again, charged with “furthering the aims of communism,” under the Suppression of Communism Act. Their arrest merely fueled the antiapartheid movement across the country. Nevertheless, the South African government remained intransigent as it eventually crushed the movement.

Although Mandela was released after a few months in jail, his freedom of movement was severely restricted, and he lived under the...

(The entire section is 2406 words.)