Civil rights activist. World leader. Writer. Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela took on many roles, all in the pursuit of peace. Born in 1918 in South Africa, he grew up in a culture of government-enforced racism and became involved in the anti-apartheid movement at a young age. Deeply committed to nonviolent activism, Mandela directed a peaceful campaign against the racist policies of his South African government, and spent twenty-seven years in prison as a result. In the years following his emergence as a free man, he continued his efforts to dismantle the country’s apartheid system and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside South African President F.W. de Klerk. In 1994 he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president and served until his retirement from active politics in 1999 at the age of eighty-one. He continued to promote global peace until his death in 2013, and his legacy lives on.
From Nelson Mandela’s childhood to his monumental impact on race relations and nonviolent activism, this comprehensive biography shares the truth about the man behind the iconic smile: his struggles, his triumphs, and the sacrifices along the way.
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ON AN ISLAND OFF THE coast of South Africa, a tall, thin man with graying hair sat in his prison cell. It was 1975. Nelson Mandela was fifty-seven, and he had lived in this cell, which measured seven feet by eight feet, for eleven years. Now he stared at the small barred window in front of him and called up scenes from his childhood.
In his mind’s eye, Mandela saw a landscape of rolling green hills. A small boy in an orange blanket appeared on one hilltop, driving cattle with a switch. Mandela seemed to smell roasting corn and taste milk fresh from the cows. He seemed to watch the flames in the fire pit as he listened to his mother’s voice, telling ancient folktales to him and his sisters.
Mandela began to write the story of his life.
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Nelson Mandela was born in a thatched hut in the village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River, on July 18, 1918. His mother was Nosekeni Fanny Nkedama, the third wife of the village chief, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa of the Mandela family. They belonged to the Thembu, one of several tribes in the Transkei region of South Africa who spoke the Xhosa language. They named their baby boy Rolihlahla, which literally means “pulling the branch of a tree.” It is also an expression meaning “troublemaker.”
The year of Rolihlahla’s birth, 1918, was the year that World War I ended in Europe. Also in 1918 a new South African organization, the African National Congress (ANC), sent a delegation to the Versailles peace conference in France. The ANC was protesting the unfair treatment of black South Africans, because the Union of South Africa had been created in 1910 with no black representatives in the government. The founders of the ANC hoped that by banding together instead of fighting each other, the tribes of South Africa could protect their rights. But in 1918 and for many years afterward, the protests of the ANC were ignored.
By the time of Rolihlahla’s birth, the Transkei, a section of the Eastern Cape of South Africa, was no longer ruled by the Xhosa tribes themselves. The British had seized control of the Cape early in the nineteenth century, and in the following decades they continued to struggle with the Dutch settlers, called “Boers,” for the remaining territories of South Africa. Therefore the British were more concerned about working out an agreement with the Boers than about protecting the rights of the native tribes. In 1910 the Boer-controlled lands joined the British-controlled lands to form the Union of South Africa, a dominion in the British Empire.
Meanwhile, the Thembu and other Xhosa were allowed to live in the Transkei, but they did not own the land. They paid rent to the British government. The chiefs and elders had a certain amount of power in their own villages, but the final authority in the Transkei was the all-white government of the Union of South Africa.
Several months after Rolihlahla’s birth, a villager in Mvezo went to the local white magistrate, protesting a decision the chief had made about a stray ox. The magistrate summoned Gadla Henry to appear before him. Gadla Henry refused, feeling that his authority as chief of the village should be respected. But the magistrate would not allow his authority to be defied. He removed Gadla Henry from the chieftainship, and he took away his herd of cattle and his land.
His wealth gone, Gadla Henry could no longer support such a large family. Nosekeni Fanny took her baby, Rolihlahla, and moved from Mvezo to Qunu, a village in a valley thirty miles to the north. Her relatives and friends there helped her set up her kraal, a fenced yard with three rondavels, round huts. The huts were made of mud bricks, and their grass thatch roofs were supported by a pole in the middle. There was no furniture except sleeping mats, no floors except hard-packed dirt. One hut was for cooking, one for sleeping, and one for storage.
By custom, Gadla Henry traveled among each of his four wives and their children, now separated by many miles. He spent about one week every month in Qunu. He was stern with his children, as was the custom among the Thembu.
Rolihlahla admired his tall, dark, dignified father and wanted to be like him. In fact, he did have his father’s high cheekbones and slanting eyes. Since Gadla Henry’s black hair grew in a white tuft above his forehead, the young boy tried to copy that look by rubbing white ashes into his hair.
Although Gadla Henry had been stripped of his chieftainship by the white magistrate, he still held a respected position among the Thembu. He was a descendant of the great Thembu king Ngubengcuka, who had united the various Thembu clans in the early nineteenth century. Gadla Henry was not of the royal branch in line to inherit the throne, but he was a counselor to the king of the Thembu. As a respected member of the court, he often traveled with the king and advised him during tribal councils.
Besides their son, Rolihlahla, Gadla Henry and Nosekeni Fanny had three younger daughters: Baliwe, Notancu Mabel, and Makhutswana. Like the other women in Qunu, Nosekeni Fanny grew corn (called “mealies”), beans, sorghum, and pumpkins to feed her family, and she kept her own cows and goats for milk. She cooked in a three-legged iron pot over an open fire.
At the end of the day the family would gather for a supper of “mealie pap,” or corn mush, sometimes mixed with milk or beans. Everyone ate from a common dish. After supper, Nosekeni Fanny told the children Xhosa legends and fables.
The people of Qunu lived by the same customs and traditions that had guided village life among the Thembu for many centuries. When a baby was born, the father would slaughter a goat for a feast and hang up its horns in the house. The women and children wore the traditional yellow-orange blanket, wrapped over the shoulder and pinned at the waist. Children were expected to learn by watching and listening, not by asking questions.
In villages like Qunu, people took it for granted that family members could always depend on one another. Rolihlahla grew up thinking of his aunts as mothers, and his cousins as brothers and sisters. The many children of his extended family flowed in and out of the women’s kraals, cared for by whichever woman or older girl happened to be nearby. The children slept together on mats, sharing blankets.
Another principle of Xhosa life was that people must honor their ancestors. They must learn the tribal history, telling and retelling the old stories for each new generation. Gadla Henry knew Xhosa history especially well. He was a gifted speaker, entertaining listeners with tales of brave Xhosa warriors and fierce battles.
Honoring the ancestors also meant knowing your lineage, tracing it back through many generations. Rolihlahla learned that he belonged to the Madiba clan, named after a Thembu chief of the eighteenth century. He was a descendant of Ngubengcuka, the last Thembu king to rule free of British supervision, who died in 1832. The family name, Mandela, was inherited from Rolihlahla’s grandfather. Even though Gadla Henry and Nosekeni Fanny and their children were now poor, they took a great deal of pride in their heritage.
As a child, Rolihlahla did not wonder why, if his lineage was so noble, his family was so poor. It was simply a fact of life that his family, like almost everyone else in Qunu, had to grow or raise or gather all the food they ate. Even young children needed to do their share of the work. The girls helped their mothers in the kraal, fetching water from the streams for cooking and washing and grinding the dry corn between stones to make meal.
The boys were responsible for tending the herds. They drove the cows, sheep, and goats to pasture every morning, watched over them all day, and drove them home and milked them every evening. By the time Rolihlahla was five, he was out in the pastures with the other boys, doing his part.
Day after day on the grassy hillsides, Rolihlahla learned from watching and imitating the older boys. When the boys were hungry, they drank milk straight from the goats and cows. They foraged for wild fruits and honey, and they fished in the many streams flowing through the valley. All their equipment, such as string and a bent wire for fishing, they made themselves.
In between their chores and duties, the children had time to play. A favorite game among the boys of the village was stick fighting. Stick fighting is something like fencing, except that each boy holds two sticks, one to strike with and one to fend off blows. Rolihlahla relished facing an opponent to test his skill at feinting, parrying, and quick footwork. The other boys respected him because Rolihlahla fought to win, but he was careful not to humiliate his opponent.
Rolihlahla and the other boys also rode calves or donkeys, getting tossed off until they learned to stay on. They slid down the large, smooth rocks in the fields, using a smaller flat rock like a sled. Sometimes they played with the girls, and at these times Rolihlahla’s favorite game was a flirtatious one called khetha, or “choose-the-one-you-like.” It was a carefree life for young Rolihlahla. At that time, his highest ambition was to become the best stick fighter in the village.
As for white people, Rolihlahla didn’t give them much thought. Qunu was far from the towns and cities of those unfamiliar beings. Only a few whites lived in the area. There was the keeper of the nearby store, where families with a little money bought coffee, tea, and sugar. The local magistrate was white, of course. And once in a while, a white traveler would pass through the village.
Much later, Rolihlahla would realize what a drastic effect the distant white government had on the Africans of Qunu. In 1913, a few years before Rolihlahla’s birth, the Natives Land Act had decreed that only 13 percent of the land in the Union of South Africa would be available for black Africans to live on. Hundreds of thousands of black farmers were forced to leave their lands and move to the Transkei.
The Transkei was the largest of the areas reserved for “natives,” but it could not support its greatly increased population with farming and herding. The pastures were overgrazed, and the soil became poorer season by season. During Nosekeni Fanny’s first years in Qunu, her fields yielded enough corn to supply her family. Later on, the harvest dwindled, and the family had to scrape up the money to buy extra mealie meal. The other villagers suffered the same hardship.
As a result, most of the men of the villages had to look for jobs outside the Transkei. While the women and girls tended the cornfields and the vegetable gardens, and the boys herded the livestock, the men labored on distant farms, or in the mines near Johannesburg. Their work for their white baas, or employer, took them so far away that they could come home only once or twice a year.
During Rolihlahla’s childhood, the government of South Africa did not provide any education for black Africans. Most of the villagers in Qunu, including Rolihlahla’s parents, had no formal schooling and could not read or write. But Gadla Henry had friends, the Mbekela brothers, who had been educated by Methodist missionaries. The Mbekelas were members of another tribe, the Mfengu, who had been driven from their homeland by the Zulu wars of the nineteenth century. Mfengu people were scorned by most Thembus, so it was a sign of Gadla Henry’s open mind that he was close to these men.
The Mbekelas persuaded Nosekeni Fanny to be baptized a Methodist, and to wear Western dress rather than the Xhosa blanket. She also had Rolihlahla baptized, although he didn’t attend church. As for Gadla Henry, he kept to his traditional faith.
He believed in Qamata, the Great Spirit of his ancestors, and he followed the ancient Xhosa rituals and traditions. In fact, he often acted as priest in the customary rites for marriages, funerals, harvests, and other important events in village life. However, Gadla Henry also had great respect for Western education.
When the Mbekela brothers urged Nosekeni Fanny to send Rolihlahla to the nearby Methodist school, Gadla Henry agreed. So at the age of seven, Rolihlahla became the first person in his family to receive a Western education. On his first day, walking over the hill from the village to the one-room schoolhouse, Rolihlahla was proud of the way he was dressed. The family had no money for new clothes, but Gadla Henry felt that his son should wear trousers, rather than the traditional Xhosa blanket. He gave Rolihlahla an old pair of his trousers, cut off at the knees and gathered around the boy’s waist with a piece of string.
The Methodist school offered a British-style education, and it was the custom of the mission-school teachers to give their African students English names. Rolihlahla’s teacher, Miss Mdingane, told him his name at school would be “Nelson.” She didn’t explain why she picked that name, but later Rolihlahla guessed that she might have been thinking of the British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. Rolihlahla did well in the little school, learning to read and write in his own language, Xhosa.
Gadla Henry showed his respect for education in his choice for a regent to rule the Thembu tribe. In his role as counselor, he had used his influence to have Jongintaba Dalindyebo appointed acting king, or regent, until the heir to the throne was of age. He had recommended Jongintaba, although he was not the oldest candidate, because he was the best educated.
When Rolihlahla was almost twelve years old, his father arrived in Qunu for the last time, ill with a lung disease. He lay racked with coughs in Nosekeni Fanny’s hut for several days. During that time he had a visit from Regent Jongintaba. Gadla Henry asked Jongintaba, head of the Madiba clan, to take Rolihlahla as his ward and educate him. Jongintaba promised to do so.
One night Gadla Henry grew worse. He called for his youngest wife, who was helping to care for him, to bring his pipe, but she and Nosekeni Fanny both felt that smoking would be bad for him. Finally, when he insisted, they brought him the pipe. As Rolihlahla watched, his father smoked his last pipe—and breathed his last breath.
After the funeral and the period of mourning, Nosekeni Fanny told her son to pack his small tin trunk and get ready for a journey. Rolihlahla trusted his mother completely, and he did not ask where he was going or why. At the same time, he sensed that he was leaving not only the village of Qunu, but also the happiest years of his childhood.
The boy and his mother left the village early in the morning. Before the huts of his mother’s kraal vanished behind the hills, Rolihlahla turned for one last look. They walked all day on dirt roads, up and down hill after hill, following the sun toward the west. Late in the afternoon they arrived at Mqhekezweni, from which Rolihlahla’s ancestor Ngubengcuka had ruled the Thembu long ago. This village was still the Great Place, the royal seat, of the Thembu.
In the middle of Mqhekezweni, Nosekeni Fanny stopped in front of a compound grander than any place Rolihlahla had ever seen. The regent and his family lived here in two Western-style houses with tin roofs and six large, well-kept rondavels. Lush gardens, orchards, and pastures full of livestock surrounded the dwellings.
A council of tribal elders sat in the shade in front of the regent’s home. As Rolihlahla watched, a shiny motorcar drove up, and a short, thickset man with a thin mustache, wearing a suit, got out. The boy could see that every movement, every gesture of this man expressed confidence and authority. The elders jumped up, shouting, “Bayete a-a-a, Jongintaba!” (“Hail, Jongintaba!”)
Rolihlahla was overcome with awe: this kingly man was to be his guardian. He felt, he said many years later, “like a sapling pulled root and branch from the earth and flung into the center of a stream whose strong current I could not resist.” Clearly, from now on his life would be entirely different.