Nelson Mandela: The Man Behind The Myth


Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtatu , then a part of South Africa’s Cape Province. Given the
forename Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term colloquially meaning “troublemaker”, in later years he became known by his clan name, Madiba.
His patrilineal great-grandfather, Ngubengcuka , was ruler of the Thembu people in the Transkeian Territories of South Africa’s
modern Eastern Cape province.  One of this king’s sons, named Mandela, became Nelson’s grandfather and the source of his
surname.  Because Mandela was only the king’s child by a wife of the Ixhiba clan , a so-called “Left-Hand House”, the
descendants of his cadet branch of the royal family were morganatic, ineligible to inherit the throne but recognised as hereditary
royal councillors.  His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a local chief and councillor to the monarch; he had been appointed
to the position in 1915, after his predecessor was accused of corruption by a governing white magistrate.  In 1926, Gadla, too, was
sacked for corruption, but Nelson was told that he had lost his job for standing up to the magistrate’s unreasonable demands.
A devotee of the god Qamata , Gadla was a polygamist, having four wives, four sons and nine daughters, who lived in different
villages. Nelson’s mother was Gadla’s third wife, Nosekeni Fanny, who was daughter of Nkedama of the Right Hand House and a
member of the amaMpemvu clan of Xhosa.
Later stating that his early life was dominated by “custom, ritual and taboo”,
Mandela grew up with two sisters in his mother’s kraal in the village of
Qunu, where he tended herds as a cattle-boy, spending much time outside with
other boys. Both his parents were illiterate, but being a devout Christian,
his mother sent him to a local Methodist school when he was about seven.
Baptised a Methodist, Mandela was given the English forename of “Nelson” by
his teacher.  When Mandela was about nine, his father came to stay at
Qunu, where he died of an undiagnosed ailment which Mandela believed to be
lung disease.  Feeling “cut adrift”, he later said that he inherited his
father’s “proud rebelliousness” and “stubborn sense of fairness”.
His mother took Mandela to the “Great Place” palace at Mqhekezweni, where
he was entrusted under the guardianship of Thembu regent , Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Although he did not see his mother again
for many years, Mandela felt that Jongintaba and his wife Noengland treated him as their own child, raising him alongside their
son Justice and daughter Nomafu.  As Mandela attended church services every Sunday with his guardians, Christianity became a
significant part of his life.  He attended a Methodist mission school located next to the palace, studying English, Xhosa, history
and geography. He developed a love of African history, listening to the tales told by elderly visitors to the palace, and became
influenced by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Chief Joyi. At the time he nevertheless considered the European colonialists as
benefactors, not oppressors. Aged 16, he, Justice and several other boys travelled to Tyhalarha to undergo the circumcision
ritual that symbolically marked their transition from boys to men; the rite over, he was given the name Dalibunga.


A Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family, Mandela attended the Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand , where
he studied law. Living in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the ANC and becoming a founding member
of its Youth League . After the South African National Party came to power in 1948, he rose to prominence in the ANC’s 1952
Defiance Campaign , was appointed superintendent of the organisation’s Transvaal chapter and presided over the 1955 Congress of
the People . Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and, with the ANC leadership, was
unsuccessfully prosecuted in the Treason Trial from 1956 to 1961. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, he co-founded
the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, in association with the South African Communist Party, leading a sabotage campaign
against the apartheid government. In 1962, he was arrested, convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state, and sentenced to life
imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial .

Mandela served over 27 years in prison, initially on Robben Island , and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison . An
international campaign lobbied for his release. He was released in 1990, during a time of escalating civil strife. Mandela joined
negotiations with President F. W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994 , in which he led the ANC
to victory and became South Africa’s first black president. He published his autobiography in 1995. During his tenure in the
Government of National Unity he invited several other political parties to join the cabinet. As agreed to during the negotiations to
end apartheid in South Africa , he promulgated a new constitution. He also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to
investigate past human rights abuses. While continuing the former government’s liberal economic policy , his administration also
introduced measures to encourage land reform , combat poverty, and expand healthcare services. Internationally, he acted as
mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial, and oversaw military intervention in
Lesotho. He declined to run for a second term, and was succeeded by his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Mandela became an elder statesman,
focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Mandela was a controversial figure for much of his life. Denounced as a Marxist terrorist by critics, he nevertheless gained
international acclaim for his activism, having received more than 250 honours, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize , the US
Presidential Medal of Freedom , the Soviet Order of Lenin and the Bharat Ratna. He is held in deep respect within South Africa,
where he is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, or as Tata (“Father”); he is often described as “the father of the


Nelson Mandela knew he would become South Africa ’s president in the 1940 s .
He was one of the younger members of the ANCYL ( African National Congress Youth League ) when he made this assertion at a meeting
of the party ’s leaders . It was a courageous move , bordering on rebellion , and stood in contrast to traditional customs which revere the
But Mandela was different . He grew up among the royals who governed the Transkei homestead, and was groomed to one day take the
reins. Strong- willed and independent – minded , it was the attention he paid to ” little details ” which set him apart from his peers .
At Fort Hare University , a bastion of black intellectualism for southern and eastern Africa , his attire , not so much his political activity,
stirred the curiosity of his peers .
I thought Nelson had even better qualities than me , and I wanted him to have even more .
Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela mentor and ANC leader
” A white silk shirt on Nelson Mandela is different from a white silk shirt that we have . His is really white , and yours is not quite the
right white . He [ was ] a meticulous dresser ,” Joe Mathews , his former colleague and friend said . However, this was not just a man with
impeccable dress sense.
Mandela awoke early each morning at 4.30 am to begin a strict one- hour exercise regimen – one that few were able to keep up with , and
one that he continued to practice while imprisoned on Robben Island, and even after his release and subsequent presidency.
Essop Essak Jassat , a former parliamentarian and fellow activist in the Transvaal Indian Congress said that this discipline
also displayed itself in Mandela ’s diet. ” It was amazing how disciplined he was about his eating habits. Being our guest , my wife started
cooking exotic foods , but he just wanted one meal a day .”
A person through other people
In Johannesburg, soon after his arrival in the 1940 s , he decided he wanted to be the first black lawyer in the country. Here, he was
introduced to his future mentor , comrade and confidante , Walter Sisulu. From the beginning Sisulu, already an activist, identified Mandela
as a potential leader.



” He happened to strike me more than any person I had met … When a young man of Nelson ‘ s nature came , it was a Godsend to me,”
Sisulu said in an interview with PBS . “ It ‘ s me who asked him what he wanted to do, and he told me he undertook to study law .”
Sisulu, an estate agent by trade , assisted Mandela and encouraged his ambitions.
” I thought Nelson had even better qualities than me , and I wanted him to have even more … I was also encouraged by his ability to
change , by his attitude to people … because of that, my natural behaviour was to encourage him to take a leading position ,” he said .
The Ubuntu philosophy recognises the social role in moulding each person : ” A person is a person through other people.”
Mandela , confident and disciplined as he was , was also carried on the shoulders of many extraordinary people who guided him , advised him
and engaged him .
As the cash – strapped young husband of Evelyn Ntoko Mase , Mandela ’s first wife, he was afforded the opportunity to study at the
University of Witwatersrand through funding from the Bantu Welfare Trust , of which Sisulu was a board member . Only a handful of
non – whites were then accepted at the university and it was here that his political thinking met alternate viewpoints .
Anti – racist politics of the left
Mandela ’s enrolment at the University of Witwatersrand also marked the beginning of his friendships and political asssociations with
people from other races .
” It was through the university that he met Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Bram Fischer , George Bizos , JN Singh and Ismail Meer , among others .
Like Mandela , nearly all these people had been raised within narrow racial confines , but were commingled by their interest in the anti –
racist politics of the left ,” David James Smith writes in Young Mandela : The Revolutionary Years.
When he missed the African curfew – a rule that black people had to return to their homes overnight – he often stayed over in
Ferreirastown in Johannesburg , at Meer’s home , and at the apartment that later became the home of Ahmed Kathrada ‘ s in Kholvad
House, where clandestine activist meetings were held.
Yusuf Dadoo and Monty Naicker, two activists who believed that non – whites should unite in non – violent resistance against the apartheid
laws , and other political activists , including Moses Kotane , Maulvi and Yusuf Cachalia , from the Communist Party of South Africa and
Sisulu frequented the flat .


They often engaged in heated and vibrant political discussions about Africanism, socialism , communism , and Ghandism.
Anti – apartheid activist Moosa ” Mosie ” Moolla said that while Mandela was strong -minded and had his own way of thinking,
contact with leaders from other anti – apartheid organisations also influenced him . At the same time, Mandela and other activists enjoyed
a semblance of liberalism within their social and political circle of university friends.
Smith remembers that the parties of white activists , the Slovos , were renowned for their music , dancing and free -flowing alcohol, but
also known for being able to ” bring everyone together in close approximation of equality ” .
It is no question that the equality that existed within Mandela ’s social circles also inspired a sense of possibility within him and among his
peers .
‘Beyond the ability of black people’
However, this was sharply tested when Mandela failed in his dream of becoming a lawyer and was forced to settle with becoming an
attorney .
Studying part -time for seven years , he failed the final year three times and was denied a fourth attempt.
” I was a part- time student and resided in Orlando Native Location in a noisy neighbourhood ,” Mandela wrote in a letter to the dean of
the law faculty, begging for another chance at the exam . ” In the absence of electric light , I was compelled to study in the evenings with
a paraffin lamp and sometimes with a candle light .”
While this is an aspect of Mandela ’s life that he spoke little of, he later said the dean had told him that becoming a barrister was
” beyond the ability of black people ” . The sting of the remark must have stayed with him for years .
Smith writes that Mandela ’s first wife, Mase , believed that this was ” a personal motivation for his fight against apartheid .”
At the same time his political frustrations were rising .
Political pragmatism
” Ironically , Mandela ’s growing friendship with white and Indian communists and radicals coincided with the rise of his ANC Youth League
nationalism ,” writes Smith .
” While he was personally close with many white [ s ] and Indians , he was suspicious that many of them felt themselves to be intellectually
superior and would take over if the ANC tried to work with them .”
He says: ” Mandela [ along with other ANCYL members ] believed the struggle was the struggle of black Africans, first and foremost. ”
The apartheid regime passed three acts in 1950 , the Suppression of Communism Act , the Population and Registration Act and the Group
Areas Act , which strictly enforced the apartheid policies and were designed to crush any mass opposition movement. Activist Moolla says
that , while other parties of the time, the Transvaal ANC , the Transvaal Indian Congress; the South African Communist Party and others
launched strikes against the acts – in which people were killed – Mandela initially opposed the protest action.
” He was not convinced as yet ,” says Moolla . Despite this, in 1951 , Mandela was elected national president of the ANC Youth League .
Moolla says that this changed Mandela . In what he describes as a turning point for the leader, and more than just a sign of political
maturity , Moolla says Mandela began to look at things more pragmatically and objectively. ” It was a time of reflection for Mandela and
he realised that this was the will of the people, ” he says .
Mandela decided to put the people ahead of his own reservations and publically agreed with Dadoo ’s call for a united struggle between
the disparate anti – apartheid parties . In June 1952 , the Defiance Campaign , a non – violent programme of mass resistance , was launched,
with the ANC ’s Mandela at the helm .
The movement galvanised people and organisations comprising more than 8,500 people to confront the enemy , the apartheid regime , says
Moolla. The foundation stone was laid for the ANC coalition that would dominate the decades to come , Smith quotes white communist
Rusty Bernstein as saying .


Different type of intelligentsia
During the same year , Mandela also opened the first black – owned legal firm in the country with Oliver Reginald Tambo , ” Mandela &
Tambo Attorneys” . Mandela and Tambo dedicated their days to the plight of their black clients who travelled from across the country to
be represented by them . His awareness of the plight of Africans developed even further.
Communist Party leader Chris Hani said that it was ultimately this selflessness that made Mandela as admirable as he was . ” We admired
[ Mandela and Tambo ] because we saw in them as a different type of intelligentsia ; an intelligentsia which is selfless, which was not just
concerned about making money, creating a comfortable situation for themselves , but an intelligentsia which had lots of time for the
struggle of the oppressed people of South Africa ,” Hani told historian Luli Callinicos in her book The World that made Mandela. ” How
they used their legal knowledge to alleviate the judicial persecution of the blacks .”
Later , shortly before his arrest, Mandela went into hiding. Yusuf Wadee, one of many anti – apartheid activists who hid Mandela in his
home says that Mandela had a deep -seated feeling for the well – being of people at large . Phathekile Holomisa , president of South
Africa ’s Council of Traditional Leaders, says that Mandela was the kind of leader that considered himself a servant of the people , rather
than a leader that would be served by other people.
As Mandela is laid to rest , it is perhaps his characteristic concern that ensures he will preside over hearts and minds long after he is
gone .


Posted by Aduari Tekena.


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