When Nelson Mandela was born on July 18th, 1918 in a Xhosa village located in South Africa’s Cape Province, he was given the formal name of Rolihlahla.
His name when translated from the Xhosa language spoken in Mvezo, Umtatu meant “troublemaker”. At the time, no one knew just how prophetic his name would be. Nor could they have foreseen just how influential and inspirational the man that the world knows as Nelson Mandela would become.
Mandela was born the son of a chieftain within the Madiba clan. He would later come to be known as ‘Madiba’ throughout South Africa. Having grown up in tribal culture, he had a unique understanding of the lives of tribal people and through exposure to his father having been a government figure, he became interested in the law. Mandela would study law at Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1941. During his time in the city, it became clear that South Africa was becoming increasingly racially divided.
Apartheid and the ANC
In 1948, the National Party, made up of Afrikaner nationalists, swept into power. It was at this time that an apartheid policy was implemented by the new government and when Mandela decided to protest against the practice. He became involved in anti-colonial politics and joined the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela would later lead the ANC’s Youth Defiance Campaign. It was this kind of political activism that ended up getting Mandela expelled from law school. It would not be until 50 years later that he would finally receive his law degree.
Mandela was a natural speaker and he quickly rose in the ranks of the ANC and was elected the ANC president for his region in 1955. By now the South African government considered Mandela to be a trouble maker and restricted his movements. He was repeatedly arrested under charges of sedition but was not found guilty until 1962. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela’s Years in Prison
Mandela spent 27 years in prison. It was during that time that he began keeping a journal of his experiences within the South African prison system. He would write out his entries, place them in plastic bags and would then bury them in the prison vegetable garden. These would later be discovered during a remodelling of the landscape. Prison officials punished him by revoking all of Mandela’s studying privileges and allowing him to write only one letter for every six months he spent in jail. You can find a compilation of these entries in Mandela’s book, “A Prisoner in the Garden”.
Years later, when this restriction was relaxed, Mandela would continue his journal writing by keeping a series of desk calendars and appointment diaries. During the 27 years that Mandela spent in prison, he became internationally known. Other world leaders called for his release and he continued to be a symbol for South Africa’s struggle for freedom.
“We must all strive to be inspired by a deep-seated love of our country, without regard to race, color, gender or station in life.” – Nelson Mandela
From Prisoner to President
In 1989, the South African nationalists fell from power and their president was replaced by F.W. de Klerk. It was in November that de Klerk called his cabinet together, legalized the ANC and freed Nelson Mandela.
Mandela’s last diary entry was on January 13, 1990; a bit of symbolic poetry he wrote about ducks. Nelson Mandela was officially released from prison the following month at the age of 71. Upon his release, Mandela was declared the head of the ANC and apartheid was officially ended. In 1993, Nelson Mandela would win the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1995 he would be elected as South Africa’s President in a landslide. Mandela continued as President of South Africa until 1999.
Though he had retired from office, Mandela continued to use his influence toward furthering human rights and for those afflicted with AIDS. Like Malala Yousafzai, who would also win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, Nelson Mandela would be called to make numerous speeches before the United Nations.