Skip to main content

Who Was Nelson Mandela and What Did He Do?

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I am a mother with a degree in zoology/pre-medicine. I like to write about traveling, science, and frugal living.

A Remarkable Man, a Remarkable Life

Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in jail as a political prisoner for standing up for his beliefs and for acting against a government that he believed was committing egregious abuses against its citizens. Here's a small part of his big story.

Consider the Environment at the Time

To fully understand Nelson Mandela and the impact he had on the world, you first need to understand a little bit about the geographical and political environment that he was born into.

Two Names: Rolihlahla and Nelson

It was July 18, 1918, when Nelson Mandela came into this world, but he wasn't born with the name Nelson. His father gave him the name Rolihlahla, which means "troublemaker." His family was part of the Madiba clan, which is a part of the Thembu population. The Thembu are groups of people and nations in South Africa who speak Xhosa. The Madiba clan is the clan name of the Thembu kings, and Nelson Mandela's father was a nobleman. He was born in the Transkei territory, which is in southeastern South Africa.

When he was in the first grade, his teacher gave him the name Nelson. It was common for Black Africans to be given "Christian" names because Africans under colonial influence often ignored, or refused to pronounce, African names.

The National Party

At that time, South Africa had a population that was comprised mostly of Black citizens, but the White minority controlled the government and made all the laws. In 1948, the political party called The National Party came into power and ruled the country. The National Party implemented a system of social segregation called apartheid. They wanted to keep all the power under the control of the White people. So, under apartheid, they made a lot of laws that limited the ability of Black people to go places, own or lease land, marry who they wanted, etc.

They set it up so that Black people had very limited ability to vote for leaders. In some cases, they could only vote for local leaders, and in other cases, they could only vote for White leaders. The National Party set up ten different areas called Bantustans, and they tried to get all of the Black citizens to relocate and live in these "Black" areas. That would make 87% of the South African land area to be areas containing a White majority.

The African National Congress

There were parties created to oppose the harsh rules of the White minority, however, and a prominent one was the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was created in 1923 in response to the harsh treatment the Black majority was receiving at the hands of the White minority that held all the power. The ANC operated mainly by using tactics such as strikes, boycotts, and just general defiance to create change.

Map of South Africa.

Map of South Africa.

A quote from Mandela on courage.

A quote from Mandela on courage.

Working to Make A Better South Africa

Nelson Mandela grew up in this environment. He went to good schools and graduated from high school. After high school, he enrolled in the University College to earn a BA degree. However, in 1940, when he was 22, he participated in a student protest and, as a result, got expelled from the university. He left and went to Johannesburg, though, where he finished his BA degree through a correspondence course. He started studying law at the University of Witwatersrand, but he didn’t complete his degree there.

He became politically active to try to change the wrongs he saw happening all around him. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 and helped form the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). He became its president in 1950. In 1952, when he was 34, he was chosen to be the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws, which was an action proposed by the ANC to fight against six unjust laws through civil disobedience. He was arrested for participating in this campaign. He and 19 other people were charged, convicted, and sentenced to 9 months of hard labor, but the sentence was suspended for two years.

He continued his studies and earned a two-year law degree. In August 1952, he and his friend, Oliver Tambo, established South Africa's first Black law firm called Mandela and Tambo. However, at the end of 1952, he got banned, which placed restrictions on him that left him unable to participate in legal actions. He wasn’t allowed to attend meetings or leave the Johannesburg district. They continually renewed his ban for the next nine years.

The Ongoing Struggle for Human Rights

In December 1956, he was arrested during a countrywide police raid along with 156 other people, and he was charged with treason. His trial began in August of 1959. The trial lasted nearly three years, and on March 29, 1961, he was acquitted.

On March 21, 1960, there was a mass protest in Sharpeville against some laws that were passed. The police shot and killed 69 unarmed protesters and wounded over a hundred others, which led the government to declare a state of emergency. They banned the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress on April 8, 1960. Nelson Mandela was one of many people detained by the police as a result.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

Mandela continued his struggle for human rights, however. In 1960, he organized a national 3-day strike which was planned to take place on March 29-31. However, because of a massive response by the state security forces, the strike was called off early.

In June 1961, Mandela was asked to lead an armed struggle. He helped form the Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) group, which was an armed group that began its activities in December 1961 with a series of explosions.

From January through July of 1962, Mandela used a fictitious name, David Motsamayi. He left South Africa and went to England to garner support for the struggle, and he travelled around Africa. In Morocco and Ethiopia, he received some military training. He went back to South Africa in July 1962.

Soon after he returned, he went to visit the ANC leader Albert Luthuli to brief him on his travels. After he left his house, though, he got stopped at a roadblock on August 5, 1962. He was arrested and charged with leaving the country without a permit and incitement to strike. He was found guilty and sentenced to five years in jail. He went to the Pretoria Local Prison to begin serving his sentence.

The Rivonia Trial and Mandela's Life Sentence

Nearly a year later, on October 9, 1963 he and ten other people went on trial for sabotage. He faced the death penalty if convicted. The trial later became known as the Rivonia Trial. On April 20, 1964, in the courtroom, he gave a moving and compelling speech. The speech later became known as the "Speech from the Dock". On June 11, 1964, he was convicted of the crime, but he did not get sentenced to death. Instead, he was sentenced to serve life in prison. He was sent to Robben Island to begin serving his sentence.

Nelson Mandela and FW De Clerk.

Nelson Mandela and FW De Clerk.

From Prison to Liberation

While he was in prison, his mom died in 1968. Less than a year later, his oldest son was killed in a car crash. He was not allowed to leave prison to attend the funerals.

He remained in prison until he was finally released on February 11, 1990. All in all, he spent 27 years behind bars. He never gave up his ideals, however, and even from prison, he worked to make a change so that his Black countrymen could have more freedom and lead better lives.

Freedom and the End of Apartheid

After gaining his own freedom from prison, he continued to work hard for change. In 1991, he replaced his long-time friend, Oliver Tambo, as president of the ANC. 1991 also marked the official end of apartheid, although Blacks still weren't allowed to vote until 1993.

In 1993 he and South African President FW De Clerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. On April 27, 1994, when he was 76, he voted for the first time in his life.

On May 10, 1994, South Africa held a democratic election, and Nelson Mandela was elected President. He served one term as president before leaving to work on other projects.

In 1995, he created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) so that people who had suffered abuses and human rights violations in the past could come forward, talk about their experiences, and heal. Perpetrators were allowed to speak, also, and they were offered amnesty for their actions.

After leaving office, he worked on numerous charitable efforts, mostly aimed at alleviating poverty and combating HIV and AIDS.

On Dec. 5, 2013, he died in his home at the age 95.

A timeline of major events in Nelson Mandela's life.

A timeline of major events in Nelson Mandela's life.

For More Information

What Do You Think?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Related Articles