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23 Facts About Nelson Mandela and Top Questions about Him

The name Nelson Mandela brings to mind many concepts – freedom fighter, resistance leader, Nobel winner, endurance, apartheid, and more. He was many things in his lifetime and remains a powerful symbol for those fighting oppression. His story is incredibly relevant to almost anyone interested in human rights (meaning everyone!) and in this article we’ll explore 23 Nelson Mandela facts and look at the questions most commonly asked about this remarkable man.

Fact # 1 Nelson Mandela was given the birth name of Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela, which means “to pull a branch off a tree” and also “troublemaker”.

When people ask the question “who is Nelson Mandela?” there are many ways to answer. If you want the most basic, it is that fact above. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa was a Xhosa chief and a counselor to the royal house of the Thembu tribe in the Republic of Transkei.

If that were the entirety of his story it would still be interesting to learn more about him, his people, and what he grew up to become. Yet, it is not where his tale ends.

In fact, when answering the question of just who is Nelson Mandela, we can also say he became one of the world’s most famous resistance leaders, fighting apartheid, surviving long years in prison, and eventually becoming his country’s first black president. He won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside his nation’s current leader F.W. de Klerk.

He was married three times, becoming a father and a grandfather, he attended college, was a business owner and legal professional, as well as an inspiration to millions around the world.

Fact # 2 A Bantustan or Bantu is a South African homeland, also known as a black state. Today a Bantu is “any of 10 former territories that were designated by the white-dominated government of South Africa as pseudo-national homelands for the country’s black African (classified by the government as Bantu) population during the 20th century.” The Transkei was one such Bantu, bordering the Indian Ocean and Lesotho.

If you want to know the answer to “where was Nelson Mandela born?”, you have to understand the facts above. He was born in the Transkei, which was one of the ten Bantus of South Africa during the 20th century. The Transkei was one of only four Bantustans declared independent in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, the entire system was in collapse. The end of apartheid in the 1990s led to all of the Bantustans being incorporated back into South Africa and their inhabitants gaining full citizenship and the rights that entailed.

Fact # 3 1918 is a famous year for many reasons – it saw the end of World War I, it was the year that the Spanish flu pandemic killed millions around the globe, women in Great Britain were given the right to vote, the fight to repeal prohibition begins in the United States, and a long list of notable people were born – including Skitch Henderson, Julian Schwinger, Pearl Bailey and many more.

So, when was Nelson Mandela born? If you guessed 1918, you were right! His official date of birth is July 18, 1918. If you are curious about Mandela’s contemporaries, you can look at a list of other notable births and global events in that same year, here.

Fact # 4 Nelson Mandela had a very unique upbringing. His father was part of the royal family and had four wives. Mandela’s mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third wife and along with the others, produced nine daughters and four sons. Mandela’s father died when Nelson was only nine years-old, and he was adopted by “JongintabaDalindyebo, a high-ranking Thembu regent who began grooming his young ward for a role within the tribal leadership.”

So, if you want an answer to the question “what did Nelson Mandela do as a child?” you should know that he was learning about life as a tribal leader. At that time, he was given a Xhosa clan name, Madiba, and would be referred to using that name as a sign of respect throughout his life.

However, it was also during this time that he was given the name that the world knows him by – Nelson. As the first person in his entire family to pursue an education, he first attended a local missionary school. A teacher there gave him the name Nelson, as it was common practice for students to receive traditional English names rather than using tribal names.

From there, he proceeded to a secondary school, enrolling in the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Healdtown. This was a Methodist school and certainly opened Mandela’s eyes to a different point of view than his traditional, tribal upbringing. He was skilled in athletics, particularly track and boxing, but his academic skills were even greater.

Fact # 5 Nelson’s high academic achievements in high school allowed him a seat in one of the few colleges open to blacks in South Africa, but he did not graduate from this school

What college did Nelson Mandela attend? It ended up being several. At first, he was given a place in the only institute for higher education using Western methods and open to blacks in South Africa – the University of Fort Hare. Considered elite, it was quite an accomplishment for Mandela. Yet, his political leanings had already started to emerge as he lost his place at the school a year after beginning his studies for participating in a boycott against the school’s policies.

Mandela, and his best friend Oliver Tambo (who would become his business partner) both got sent home for their protesting. Once there, they learned that marriages had been arranged for both of them, and so they fled their homes and headed to the enormous city of Johannesburg.

Mandela worked at night and then switched to a position as a law clerk while he attended college and obtained a bachelor’s degree (via correspondence courses). He then enrolled in the law program at the University of Witwatersrand.

So, he attended three different schools before becoming a legal professional.

Fact # 6 Mandela’s time in Johannesburg allowed him to begin his fight against racial discrimination rampant throughout South Africa, and he forged bonds with black and white activists in the early 1940s.

A lot of people know about Mandela’s later life, and that he was in prison, but not as many can explain his time before jail. So, what did Nelson Mandela do that put him into the public eye as well as, eventually, landing him in jail for a huge chunk of his life?

As he attended the University of Witwatersrand, and began forging relationships with activists, he also learned of the ANC or the African National Congress. Along with his best friend Oliver Tambo, he built the ANCYL, a Youth League for the ANC.

It is useful to know a bit about the ANC if seeking an answer to the whole “what did Nelson Mandela do?” question. The ANC was formed around 1911 as response to the ongoing injustices against black South Africans at the hands of the government (European whites).

They initially fought against the need for passes for blacks to travel almost anywhere. Though interest in the fight diminished and reappeared over the decades, by the end of the 1940s they had rallied and were again encouraging resistance, defiance, strikes and boycotts. They eventually created the Defiance Campaign to combat all aspects of apartheid (officially a system of institutionalized racism and segregation that existed in South Africa beginning around 1948 and continuing until the 1990s).

It was this organization to which Mandela dedicated himself, beginning around 1944. However, interest in the ANC really surged after the Afrikaner controlled National Party won the country’s 1948 elections. This is when apartheid was formalized and made law. As one expert said, it “introduced a formal system of racial classification and segregation…that restricted nonwhites’ basic rights and barred them from government while maintaining white minority rule.”

In 1952, Mandela and Tambo decided to open their homeland’s only black law firm. The pair offered low-cost (often free) legal support to those affected by apartheid. Additionally, young Mandela became one of the leaders of the Campaign for Defiance of Unjust Laws and made his way all around South Africa, helping to inform as well as organize events that were in protest of apartheid. He was also helping to spread the word about the Freedom Charter that had been drafted and ratified in 1955 by the Congress of the People.

The charter was a way for multiple groups to itemize their core principles, and the Congress of the People included the South African Congress Alliance, ANC, Coloured People’s Congress, South African Indian Congress, South African Communist Party, and the South African Congress of Democrats.

However, the Afrikaner-controlled government deemed the Charter a communist document and ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Congress of the People, including those in the ANC.

Fact # 7 Mandela had experiences of prison prior to his year’s long imprisonment

Why did Nelson Mandela go to jail? There are several reasons he was arrested and put in jail. The first was just explained above – he and 155 other people involved in the ANC or the Congress of the People were arrested. They were all put on trial for treason because of the Charter, and after four years, all of them were acquitted.

As might be imagined, tensions mounted throughout this entire time, and even within the leadership of the ANC itself. This resulted in the creation of the PAC or Pan Africanist Congress in 1959. Also known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, which translates to Spear of the Nation, it was frequently described by the acronym MK. Meant to be an armed faction of the ANC, some say it may have been the reason behind the famous Sharpeville Massacre.

This occurred in 1960 when almost 70 people were killed during a non-violent, peaceful protest in the township, located in the Transvaal. A single day of protests had occurred on March 20, and the next day the 5,000 to 7,000 protester made their way to the police station nearby. Police opened fire on the crowd, and though most say that the crowd was peaceful, some say stones were thrown, triggering the harsh police response.

With the massacre, the leadership of the PAC and the ANC realized that they might also be in danger. The government put a ban on both organizations, and so Mandela and the other leaders began to wear disguises and attempt to remain out of police hands. However, Nelson Mandela had different ideas, and decided hiding was not for him.

So, he formed the MK, and the organization with ambitions of creating a “sabotage campaign” against the country’s government. Not only had South Africa instituted its horrible apartheid policies but had also withdrawn from the British Commonwealth and established itself as a republic, enabling itself to make any number of discriminatory laws. To do that, however, meant knowing more about the sort of guerilla warfare it would take to achieve his goals. So, he had to create a new identity (calling himself David Motsamayi) in order to get out of the country in secret. The laws at the time forbade him from leaving the country, but he needed to dedicate time in free Africa and Europe, attending a conference of African nationalist leaders far north in Ethiopia, training in guerilla tactics in Algeria and even spending time in far away London where Oliver Tambo was living in exile.

Upon return, though, he was immediately arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. The charges included his leaving the country without permission as well as his role in inciting workers to strike. Because he was trained in the law, Mandela was able to represent himself, but still ends up with a five year sentence of hard labor. During the trial, he is quoted as clearly saying he was opposed to racially-based thinking, stating: I want at once to make it clear that I am not a racialist and do not support any racialism of any kind, because to me racialism is a barbaric thing whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

While doing this five-year sentence, in July of 1962, South African police forces raided one of the ANC hideouts in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg. In the raid, they were able to gather evidence that pointed towards the planning of a guerilla insurgency. The people arrested were a group of racially diverse leaders, most of them part of Mandela’s MK. They had gathered to discuss the merits of guerilla insurgency and had with them material evidence that identified Mandela and seven others.

The group was tried in what became known as the Rivonia Trial, which stretched over eight long months and drew international attention. They were not sentenced to death on the charges of sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy under which they were charged. Instead, they were each sentenced to life in prison.

At the time, Mandela made a brief statement that quickly established him as an icon in the global fight for equality. In it he said: “[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle…I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

His government felt he should live up to his word and sent him to Robben Island where his charge of high treason merited punishment to manual labor until he died.

Fact # 8 During his time on Robben Island, Mandela harvested seaweed, cut limestone from the island’s quarry, and public mention of him was actually illegal. He rarely saw any visitors. It had been a leper colony, and Mandela was not given a bed or any sort of plumbing in his tiny jail cell. The food was scant and of poor quality, and punishments for even the tiniest offences were often harsh and inhumane. Guards were often accused of punishing prisoners with tactics that were more in line with torture, such as burying them up to their necks and urinating on them.

Did Nelson Mandela die in prison? One would think it might not take long to perish in light of harsh conditions, isolation, hard physical labor and worse. Yet, he did not die on Robben Island. In fact, he used his time to obtain a bachelor’s degree in law from the University of London, support other inmates, teach nonviolent resistance, and even create political statements as well as composing a draft of his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom”, smuggling it out via covert means.

His good friend Oliver Tambo, still in exile in England, kept a spotlight on Mandela, creating the world-wide Free Nelson Mandela campaign in 1980, turning him into a familiar face around the globe. In doing so, he also helped to educate the public about the racist government in charge of South Africa.

Mandela lived on, getting transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, where he was relocated from Robben Island in 1982. This is a maximum security facility close to Cape Town and his transfer was done because authorities feared that even in the confines of his prison, Mandela was influencing his fellow inmates.

In Pollsmoor Prison, he did not have to do the rigorous physical labor. However, most of his life was spent in total isolation, i.e. solitary confinement. He was allowed a half of an hour’s visit with his wife once each week. He turned down “conditional freedom” in 1984 because it would have meant giving up his allegiance to the ANC and its principles.

By 1988, he had come down with tuberculosis and required hospital care to survive. Returned to prison, he was not given the same harsh treatment he had been enduring the previous years and was instead sent to a minimum security facility that offered conditions more akin to house arrest than actual prison.

And though his physical condition had been harmed by the many years in prison, he still remained dedicated to the cause of social justice for black South Africans. Ironically, even with his imprisonment, the horrible policies of the South African government had started to crumble.

The nation was rife with civil unrest, and international attention (which had started with Mandela’s trial on the Rivonia issue) remained fixed on the country. International boycotts had grown over time, diplomatic missions were consistently applying pressure, and even artists like singer Paul Simon tried to shine the spotlight on the horrible conditions for millions of people in South Africa.

Described as a state in which racism was codified as law, many understood that it was a matter of time before it all collapsed. Into this tumult stepped F.W. de Klerk, the President of South Africa and leader of the white-dominated National party. Though he was a part of the problem and not the solution, de Klerk recognized that his nation was in peril and decided that a first, smart step would be to free the long imprisoned Mandela.

So, in 1988, de Klerk ended the ban on the ANC, advocated the creation of a non-racist South Africa (alienating himself from the conservative leadership), and creating an order for Mandela’s official prison release.

Fact # 9 He was freed on February 11, 1990, walking on his own from Verster Prison and recognized around the globe as the face of resistance.

How long was Nelson Mandela in prison? Arrested on November 7, 1962 and not released until February 11, 1990, he spent almost 28 years of his life behind bars.

Fact # 10 Upon release, Mandela did not sink quickly into obscurity, but instead rolled up his sleeves and helped to make his life-long goals a reality

Often, when learning about Mandela, many ask a very simple question: why was Nelson Mandela important? Was it for opening the first black law firm in racist South Africa? Was it because he had been to a royal line and opted to strive for equal rights for all South Africans? Was it because he survived harsh years in prison, never giving up his goals?

Those are certainly reasons his story is important, but what he did after his years of imprisonment are quite amazing. Upon release, he dedicated himself to ensuring his cause came to fruition. He used the celebrity status he had attained, traveling to the United States several months after leaving prison in order to do fundraising for the ANC.

By 1991, he was president of the organization, now entirely legal. He then began discussions with president de Klerk about open negotiations between the National Party and the different South African groups seeking an end to apartheid. The goal had now expanded some and would also include a multiracial government instead of the all-white, racist government it had become over the past decades.

Clearly, this would be a series of negotiations that required delicate handling and maneuvering around major tensions. A single mistake could toss the country into chaos. Because Mandela and de Klerk handled this so remarkably well, they were able to re-organize their political structure and even hold the country’s first multiracial parliamentary elections in April of 1994. More than 22 million South Africans voted in the election.

Because of their dedication and skill, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Mandela and de Klerk in 1993.

Fact # 11 In the first multiracial election in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was chosen to lead the country, and place the ANC as the top political party, with de Klerk his first deputy.

When did Nelson Mandela become president of South Africa? On May 10, 1994, and only four years out of prison, Nelson Mandela was sworn into office as his country’s new leader.

Fact # 12 Nelson Mandela did not repeat the mistakes of South Africa’s previous leadership and instead created a coalition cabinet, stronger economy and safely transitioned his country into a more peaceful and successful one.

Do the things he accomplished make him heroic? After all, millions describe him as a personal hero? If so, why is Nelson Mandela a hero to so many people outside of South Africa. It doesn’t take much to see how he made all of the best choices in even the worst circumstances. He could have given up on his goals of equality for all South Africans many times, but he persisted.

However, keep in mind that he admitted freely to changes in ideology. He began his work dedicated to non-violence and saw that no changes could be effected without it. He was prepared to die in the cause, and yet also indicated that he wanted non-violence whenever possible. He used this during his many decades in prison, even teaching fellow inmates the benefits and tactics to use.

Once free, he did not revel in celebrity but instead used it to underwrite and strengthen his cause, living a very humble existence afterward. His focus as President was to focus on improving race relations and discouraging black South Africans from seeking retaliation against the now-minority whites. He created the Truth and Reconciliation Committee that had the unpleasant but essential task of investigating any and all documented human rights and/or political abuses that may have occurred between 1960 and 1994. However, the investigations were not one sided and involved proponents as well as opponents of apartheid alike.

He was able to reform without overrunning any group. He was able to maintain peace in a time of tremendous tension, and because of his non-stop commitment, he was able to create a new and flourishing South Africa, even at tremendous personal cost.

Fact # 13 The South Africa to emerge in the years following Mandela’s release from prison and election to President emerged as one of the most economically thriving and politically balanced in the world.

If you ask, “how did Nelson Mandela change South Africa?” you know that the question can have many answers. He first changed its global reputation by showing it to be a racist nation. He then showed it to be a failing system that faced collapse. He showed black South Africans that there was value in their resistance, even if it put them behind bars, and then he changed South Africa into an almost entirely new country within just a few years of his release from prison.

As an example, two years into his presidency he saw the creation of the brand new South African Constitution. This created a centralized government in which majority rule was the strongest authority. The constitution made discrimination against minorities (white or black) illegal and punishable.

Mandela went on record proclaiming South Africa a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world” and described his multiracial government one of “National Unity.” One of the first ways he tried to nurture this sense of national unity and reconciliation was during the 1995 World Cup for rugby when he asked all South Africa to support the mostly-Afrikaner team.

Fact # 14 The formal definition of civil rights is “the basic rights afforded, by laws of the government, to every person, regardless of race, nationality, color, gender, age, religion or disability” and usually means rights to equal citizenship, protection under law, due process, and so on.

Was Nelson Mandela a civil rights leader? The answer is no. He was a human rights leader and fighter.

His country provided no civil rights to those with black skin. It was civil rights he and other political fighters were striving to obtain for the millions of black South Africans. Until racism was no longer encoded into South Africa’s laws, he was fighting for basic human rights. Once he was president, he ensured that equality and civil rights were established for all.

Fact # 15 Nelson Mandela indicated that he wanted a classless society, a democracy and a land of equal opportunity

Was Nelson Mandela a socialist? We have already mentioned that Mandela was open about the evolution of his personal ideologies. Though he had been opposed to private land ownership and capitalism, while also stating a dislike of “big money” at certain points in his life, he openly denied affiliation with communist and socialist ideas.

He was sympathetic to some elements within socialism (and did have membership in the South African Communist Party in the 1950s), and even called for the nationalization of gold mines and banks in the famous Freedom Charter of 1955. However, as president, his views had evolved to the point of his calling for privatization of certain industries and businesses. There has been great debate about his desire for an economy for South Africa that was a social democratic model, most experts on Mandela agree that the fall of the Soviet Union and failure of such models led him to change his mind entirely.

Fact # 16 Once freed, Mandela lived with his then-wife Winnie in the Soweto area of South Africa, called one of the most famous streets in the world because it is also where Archbishop Desmond Tutu once lived.

After his release from prison, where did Nelson Mandela live? He returned home with his wife Winnie to Soweto and then began to travel widely. Upon election he resided in the presidential quarters of MahlambaNdlopfu, frequently returned home to the Qunu area, and remained in the Johannesburg region throughout his remaining years.

Fact # 17 Winnie Mandela had to leave Mandela’s cabinet after it was discovered that she was guilty of civil violence and the pair divorced in 1996.

Did Mandela have any other wives after Winner? How many times did Nelson Mandela get married? He was actually married before Winnie, to Evelyn Ntoko from 1944 to 1958. The pair had four children during their marriage. He wed Winnie in 1958 and they divorced in 1996, having two children together. He then married Graca Machel in 1998 – on his 80th birthday, and the pair remained married until his death.

Fact # 18 His son Makagatho Mandela died of AIDS in 2005

How many kids did Nelson Mandela have? He had six children altogether and, sadly, three pre-deceased their father. Madiba Mandela died in an auto crash in 1969 and Makaziwe Mandela who died within a year of her birth and whose sister was named for her.

Fact # 19 Raised a Methodist, Mandela said he retained allegiance to his faith throughout his life

Many want to know “was Nelson Mandela a Christian?” and the simple answer is yes. Though he was born into a tribal culture, his family chose a series of religious-based schooling and he upheld Christian beliefs throughout his lifetime.

Fact # 20 Like many other great men of the day, Mandela was also relatively tall in stature.

How tall was Nelson Mandela? He stood 6’ 1”, an inch higher than JFK and two inches less than Barack Obama!

Fact # 21 Retirement did not slow Mandela’s pace

From his retirement after a single term in office, Mandela never ceased his efforts for social justice and peace around the world. He began the Nelson Mandela Foundation to forward his goals, and also created a group known as The Elders which dedicated itself to finding solutions for all forms of human suffering. In 2000, he addressed the United Nations over the issue of violent civil war in Burundi, signed the Geneva Accords in 2003, and continued meeting with world leaders for many years.

The death of his son due to AIDS made him a champion of the cause, especially because South Africa has one of the highest death rates due to the disease.

Yet, the years in prison and their horrific conditions took their toll. He suffered many health issues and would eventually succumb to them. When did Nelson Mandela die? He died on December 5, 2013.

Fact # 22 He developed tuberculosis while in prison and suffered many lung issues afterward.

How did Nelson Mandela die? In 2001 he beat prostate cancer, in 2011 he suffered respiratory infections, and in 2012 he had surgery for a hernia. In late 2012 he developed a serious lung infection and had to also undergo treatment for gall stones. In March of 2013, the world is informed that he was struggling with lung infection, and he would repeatedly return to the hospital in the coming months in his efforts to overcome it. However, it was the lung infection that led to his death from pneumonia.

Fact # 23 Throughout his life he would repeatedly “go home” to Qunu, the village of his childhood.

Where did Nelson Mandela die? In order to remain closer to medical care for his changing medical status, he was at his home in Johannesburg at the time of his death. The president ordered that the nation’s fans be flown at half-staff and that a formal state funeral organized. People around the world mourned the loss of this humanitarian leader, looking beyond the political significance and paying tribute to his dedication to equality and human rights. Years earlier, the United Nations had declared July 18th an annual Nelson Mandela International Day. People around the world are challenged to dedicate 67 minutes of that day towards effecting positive change. As the official message says, “Nelson Mandela fought for social justice for 67 years. We’re asking you to start with 67 minutes… to bring together people around the world to fight poverty and promote peace, reconciliation and cultural diversity.”

Gone, but never forgotten is something said of many, but with Nelson Mandela this is truer than it might ever be for anyone else.