Mourning an Icon: The Life of Nelson Mandela

The former South African president, who spent 27 years in prison because he fought apartheid, has died.

Former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela at his home in Cape Town on Aug. 20, 2008
Former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela at his home in Cape Town on Aug. 20, 2008 Rodger Bosch/AFP/GettyImages

On Feb. 11, 1990, South African political leader Nelson Mandela walked out of a prison after 27 years to fulfill his mission: dismantling the country’s apartheid regime. By 1994 the Nobel Prize winner had achieved just that by establishing the first democratic elections in South Africa and becoming its first black president. The towering statesman died today at the age of 95.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in a tiny village in rural South Africa, known as Mvezo. “Rolihlahla” in the Xhosa language means “pulling the branch of a tree,” or more commonly refers to “troublemaker.” Mandela’s mother — Nosekeni Fanny — was the third of his father’s four wives.

His father was set to be chief, but a dispute with the local colonial magistrate changed the future that had been carved out. Mandela’s father lost his title and fortune, which forced the family to move to an even smaller village, Qunu. 

The Student

A family friend suggested to Mandela’s father that he have his young son baptized in the Methodist Church so that he could attend school. Mandela became the first in the family to receive a formal education, and as a reflection of the British bias within the educational system, he was given the first name “Nelson.”

When Mandela was 9, his father died of lung disease, and a high-ranking Tembu chief adopted Mandela. Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo moved the young Mandela into his royal residence. Mandela took classes with the regent’s son and daughter in a one-room school next to the palace. He studied English, Xhosa, history and geography; he also learned the history of his country and people and how whites had arrived and taken the country from them.

Chief Jongintaba began grooming the teenage Mandela for high office, sending him to a Wesleyan — Methodist — mission school and Wesleyan College, which most Tembu royalty attended. Mandela succeeded there academically and also pursued track and boxing. 

At 21 Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only higher-learning center for blacks in South Africa. It was considered to be Africa’s Oxford or Harvard. He studied Roman Dutch law, which would have prepared him for a career in civil service as an interpreter or clerk — the best jobs available for black men. He also met Oliver Tambo there; the men would develop a lifelong bond.