Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Transkei, South Africa. He became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement and joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first black president.
"With freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."
– Nelson Mandela
Born as Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918 in Transkei, South Africa, in the tiny village of Mvezo on the banks of the Mbashe River in the province of Transkei. "Rolihlahla" in the language of Xhosa literally means "pulling the branch of a tree," but more commonly means "troublemaker." Mandela's father was destined to be a chief and for years served as a counselor to tribal chiefs. But over a dispute with the local colonial magistrate, he lost his title and his fortune. Rolihlahla was only an infant at the time and the loss of status forced his mother to move the family to Qunu, an even smaller village north of Mvezo. The village was nestled in a narrow grassy valley. There were no roads, only foot paths that linked the pastures where livestock grazed. The family lived in huts and ate a local harvest of maize, sorghum, pumpkin, and beans, which was all the family could afford. Water came from springs and streams and cooking was done outdoors. Nelson played the games of young boys, acting out male rights-of -passage scenarios with toys he made himself from the natural materials available, tree branches and clay. At the suggestion of one of Rolihlahla's father's friends, he was baptized into the Methodist church and became the first in his family to attend school. As was the custom at the time, and probably due to the bias of the British educational system in South Africa, his teacher told him that his new first name would be "Nelson." Mandela's father died of lung disease when Nelson was 9 years old. From that point, his life changed dramatically. He was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people. This gesture was done as a favor to Nelson's father who, years earlier, had recommended Jongintaba be made chief. Nelson left the carefree life he knew in Qunu, fearing he would never see is village again. He traveled by motorcar to Mqhekezweni, the provincial capital of Thembuland, to the chief's royal residence. Though he had not forgotten his beloved village of Qunu, he quickly adopted to the new, more sophisticated surroundings of Mqhekezweni. Mandela was given the same status and responsibilities as the regent's two other children, son Justice, the oldest and Nomafu, the regent's daughter. Mandela took classes in a one-room school next to the palace, studying English, Xhosa, history, and geography. It was during this period that Mandela developed his interest in African history from elder chiefs who came to the Great Palace on official business. He heard of how the African people had lived in relative peace until the coming of the white
people. Before then, the elders said, the children of southern Africa lived as brothers, but the white man shattered this fellowship. The black man shared the land, the air, and the water with the white man, but the white man took all this for himself. When Mandela was 16, it was time for him to partake in the circumcision ritual that would carry him into manhood. The ceremony of circumcision was not just a surgical procedure,
but an elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. In the African tradition, an uncircumcised male could not inherit his father's wealth, marry or officiate at tribal rituals. Mandela participated in the ceremony with 25 other boys. He welcomed the opportunity to partake in his people's customs and felt ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood. But during the proceedings, Chief Meligqili, the main speaker at the ceremony, spoke sadly of the young men, as a generation enslaved in their own country. Because their land was under the control of the white man, they would never have the power to govern themselves. The chief went on to lament that the promise of the young men would be squandered as they struggled to make a living and perform mindless chores for the white man. Mandela would later say that that the chief's words didn't make total sense to him at the time, but they would work on him and would eventually formulate his resolve for an independent South Africa. From the time Mandela came under the guardianship of the Regent Jongintaba, he was groomed to assume high office, though not as a chief, but as a counselor to one. As Thembu royalty, Nelson attended Wesleyan mission school, Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College. There he found interest and success in his academic studies through "plain hard work." He also excelled in track and later boxing. At first, he is mocked as a "country boy," but eventually makes friends with several classmates, including Mathona, his first female friend. In 1939, NMandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only residential center of higher learning for blacks in South Africa. Fort Hare was considered Africa's equivalent of Oxford or Harvard, drawing scholars from all parts of sub-Sahara Africa. In his first year, Mandela took the required courses, but focused on Roman Dutch law to prepare for a career in civil service as an interpreter or clerk, the best profession a black man could obtain. In his second year, he was elected to the Student Representative Council (SRC). For some time students had been dissatisfied with the food and lack of power held by the SRC. During this election, a majority of students voted to boycott unless their demands were met. Mandela aligned with the majority of the students and resigned his position. Seeing this as an act of insubordination, the university's Dr. Kerr expelled Mandela for the rest of the year, telling him he could come back when he agreed to serve on the SRC. When Mandela returned.