Nelson Mandela: Life Story, Bio and Facts

For Nelson Mandela, nothing worth fighting for can be achieved without struggle. Mandela is celebrated internationally as the first black president of South Africa who liberated his country from the oppressive system of apartheid, but for much of his life, Mandela was fighting for freedom underground and in prison. He once wrote in determination: “The struggle is my life.”

Nelson Mandela Story

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the river village of Mvezo, South Africa. His birth name Rolihlahla contains the seed of his destiny, in a sense, translating roughly as “trouble-maker.”


Mandela experienced loss at an early age, when his father, who was in line to become chief of their tribal village, got into trouble with the colonial administration and was stripped of all entitlements. The Mandela family was forced to move to another, smaller village, where they lived on whatever they could grow, collecting water from streams and cooking outside. Young Mandela played with toys made out of mud.

Mandela lost his father when he was only 9 years old and was forced to move again, this time to the capital city of Mqhekezweni, where his adoptive family awaited him.

During his school years, Mandela was indoctrinated in the apartheid racial hierarchy. He recalls what it was like as a first-generation schoolboy when even his birth identity was taken away:

"No one in my family had ever attended school [...] On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name I have no idea."

Nelson Mandela grew up hearing stories about how life used to be, before white men came and claimed all of the property as their own. These stories fed his imagination of what could be – an independent South Africa.

Mandela worked hard for his academic success, all the while being mocked as a “country boy.” At the university, he majored in law because the best opportunity available to a black man in his country at that time was a career in civil service.

The Hero’s Journey - Political Activism, Prison, and Presidency

Nelson_3Mandela became engaged in politics through the African National Congress, which he joined in 1942, and quickly banded with a small group of young members who wanted to step up the tactics of the ANC. They rallied the nation’s most underrepresented people to form a robust grassroots movement, and by 1949, Mandela was leading boycotts, strikes, and other nonviolent protests in the name of the ANC’s reform goals, such as equal citizenship and access to education, land redistribution, and labor rights.

Nelson Mandela was arrested on multiple occasions for his political advocacy: in 1956, he was charged with treason (but later acquitted); in 1961, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison for leading a national workers’ strike; and in 1963, he was given life for his crimes against the government. During the 27 years of his incarceration, he endured the worst treatment from prison staff as a black political prisoner; he nearly died from tuberculosis. But he never stopped working toward justice in all that time. He even earned his law degree from jail.

Mandela’s influence grew even more powerful while he was in prison, inspiring many people around the world to organize a campaign for his release. He had become that valuable to his community.

When he was finally released, Mandela won the continued support of global leadership, keeping the pressure on the South African government to reform its racist policies. He negotiated between white and black South Africans amidst eruptions of violence.

For this work, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and went on to win the country’s first democratic elections in the spring of 1994.

During his presidency (1994-1999), Mandela united his country as it made the difficult transition to majority rule. He recognized the importance of national spirit, and he saw an opportunity to bring whites and blacks together through their enthusiasm for sports, which transcends racial differences. He also saved the failing economy by funding job creation, affordable housing, and health care.
Relentless in retirement

Even after he retired from politics in 1999, Mandela worked tirelessly, raising money for schools and clinics, serving as a mediator, and publishing several books.

Nelson_2He only retreated from public life when he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. But even then, he was promoting political causes. He organized a thinktank of global leaders— among them, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Jimmy Carter—to come up with solutions to problems around the world.

Under Mandela’s leadership, this group, “The Elders,” took effective action in the most difficult geopolitical situations, from humanitarian crises to genocide.

The global response to Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95, speaks to his immeasurable impact on the world – his vision of the world that could be if we all gave a little to the struggle.

Lessons from Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela never stopped working for the society he envisioned, even as an outcast of that society, first as a young man, marginalized, with no freedom of choice, then as a political worker, thrown in jail to contain his influence.

Because Mandela never stopped promoting his vision, not even from behind bars, people started to believe in it, and to organize around it; he became even more powerful when his opposition tried to disempower him.

Mandela dared to reach for the possible when the conditions for this did not yet exist, and by doing so, he showed his own people and the world what struggle can do.


Who was Nelson Mandela? - Short Bio

Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the country's first black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. Mandela was also a political prisoner for 27 years under the apartheid regime.

Mandela is considered one of the most important figures in the history of South Africa and he is widely admired for his leadership and commitment to justice and equality. His work in promoting peace and reconciliation in South Africa has also been widely recognized, and he has received numerous awards and honors for his efforts.

Nelson Madela Fast Facts

1. Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
2. He was born on July 18, 1918 in the village of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape, South Africa.
3. He was the first black South African president, and the first to be elected in a fully representative democratic election.
4. Mandela was a member of the African National Congress (ANC) party, which fought against the country's system of racial segregation, known as apartheid.
5. He was arrested and imprisoned for 27 years, mostly on Robben Island, for his political activities.
6. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990.
7. He helped negotiate an end to apartheid and played a key role in the transition to a multi-racial democracy in South Africa.
8. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
9. He served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999 and was widely regarded as the "father of the nation."
10. Mandela was a strong advocate for reconciliation and forgiveness, and worked to promote racial unity in South Africa.
11. He retired from politics in 1999, but continued to be active in philanthropic and humanitarian causes.
12. He passed away on December 5, 2013 at the age of 95.
13. He was given a state funeral and his death was mourned globally.
14. He is widely considered as one of the greatest leaders and statesmen in recent history.
15. He has numerous international honors, such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
16. He has been referred to as "Madiba" a traditional clan name by South Africans, as a mark of affection and respect.
17. Nelson Mandela International Day was established by the United Nations in 2009, to honor his legacy and to promote global peace.
18. He has been honored with numerous schools, streets, and public spaces named after him.
19. His memoir "Long Walk to Freedom" was published in 1994 and has been translated into several languages.
20. He was an advocate for education, as he believed that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Nelson Madela FAQ

When was nelson mandela born? July 18, 1918
When did nelson mandela die? December 5, 2013
When was nelson mandela president? May 10, 1994 – June 14, 1999
When was nelson mandela elected? On 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela, at the age of 77, was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president.

What did Nelson Mandela fight for?

Nelson Mandela fought for the rights of black South Africans and against the system of apartheid, which institutionalized racial segregation and discrimination against the black majority in South Africa. He was a member of the African National Congress (ANC), a political party that fought against apartheid, and was actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement for many years. He led peaceful protests and advocated for non-violent resistance, but after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, where 69 unarmed black South Africans were killed by the police, Mandela advocated for armed struggle against the government.

Mandela was arrested and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government in 1964 and was sentenced to life in prison. He spent 27 years in prison before being released in 1990. After his release, he continued to lead the ANC and negotiate with the South African government to end apartheid and establish a democratic, multiracial government. He eventually became the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

Why was Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment?

Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment because of his activism and leadership in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In the early 1960s, Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) were arrested and charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. The government accused them of planning to use violent means to end the system of apartheid and establish a multiracial government.

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The trial, known as the Rivonia Trial, began in 1963 and lasted for several months. Mandela and several other defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The judge in the trial, Justice Quartus de Wet, stated that the defendants had been "charged with planning, and I use the word advisedly, to launch a revolution which would end in the destruction of human lives, would end in the destruction of property, would end in the destruction of the rule of law."

How long was Nelson Mandela in prison?

Mandela was considered a political prisoner and was held in various maximum security prisons in South Africa, including Robben Island, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. He was released from prison on February 11, 1990, and his release was seen as a pivotal moment in the history of South Africa, setting the stage for the eventual end of the apartheid system and the establishment of a multiracial democracy in the country.

How did nelson Nelson Mandela change South Africa and the world?

Nelson Mandela had a significant impact on the world through his leadership and activism in the fight against apartheid in South Africa and his efforts to promote peace and reconciliation.

Some of the ways he influenced the world are:

Anti-Apartheid Activism: Mandela's leadership and activism in the fight against the system of apartheid in South Africa helped bring international attention to the issue and put pressure on other countries and organizations to take a stand against the racist policy. His 27-year imprisonment also became a symbol of the struggle against apartheid.

Promotion of Peace and Reconciliation: After his release from prison, Mandela played a crucial role in the negotiations that led to the end of apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial democracy in South Africa. He also emphasized the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation, which helped to prevent a civil war and unite the country.

International Statesman: Mandela became an international statesman and a symbol of the struggle for freedom, democracy, and human rights around the world. He was widely admired and respected for his leadership and commitment to justice and equality, and he received numerous awards and honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of his work.

Global Peace Icon: He became an iconic figure for peace and nonviolence, His message of reconciliation and forgiveness, his leadership during the transition from apartheid to multiracial democracy, and his emphasis on the need to address poverty and inequality continue to inspire people around the world.

Legacy: Even after his death in 2013, Mandela's legacy continues to inspire people around the world, and his memory is honored in many ways, such as the annual Nelson Mandela International Day, which is observed on July 18th every year.

How did Nelson Mandela end apartheid?

Nelson Mandela played a crucial role in the process of ending apartheid in South Africa. After his release from prison in 1990, he continued to lead the African National Congress (ANC) and negotiate with the South African government to end the system of racial segregation and discrimination.

1. Negotiations: Mandela and the government, led by President F.W. de Klerk, engaged in negotiations to end apartheid and establish a multiracial democracy in South Africa. These negotiations were difficult and at times tense, but ultimately successful.

2. Release of Political Prisoners: The South African government released several political prisoners, including Mandela, and unbanning of anti-apartheid organizations, including the ANC.

3. Repeal of Apartheid Laws: The government repealed many of the laws that had institutionalized apartheid, including the Group Areas Act, which had segregated different racial groups, and the Population Registration Act, which had classified citizens by race.

4. Multiracial Elections: In 1994, South Africa held its first multiracial elections, in which all citizens were allowed to vote, regardless of their race. Mandela and the ANC emerged victorious, and Mandela became the country's first black president.

5. Truth and Reconciliation Commission: After the end of apartheid, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was a judicial body to investigate human rights violations that occurred during the apartheid era, and to provide amnesty to those who had committed crimes in the name of apartheid.

Nelson Mandela Top Quotes

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

“It always seems impossible until it's done.”

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

“Money won't create success, the freedom to make it will.”

"Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.”

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others"

“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

Nelson Mandela Quotes


* Photos by Emanuele Bertuccelli and BK


Chief Editor

Tal Gur is an author, founder, and impact-driven entrepreneur at heart. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey and most recent book, The Art of Fully Living, has led him to found Elevate Society.

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