How did a boy named Rolihlahla, raised in a village with footpaths rather than roads, embark on a path to become first a master of disguise, then eventually one of the most recognizable, influential, and beloved political figures of the twentieth century?
Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was born in a village called Mvezo, Transkei, in South Africa, on July 18, 1918. His birth name, Rolihlahla, means "troublemaker" or "pulling the branch of a tree."
He was born into a royal family - his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a counselor to the royal house of the Thembu tribe. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was Mphakanyiswa's third wife. Four wives together gave him nine daughters and four sons, including Rolihlahla.
The family lived in Qunu, a village with no roads. Rolihlahla attended a school run by local missionaries. He later wrote, "The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture." Teachers commonly gave their African students English names - easier for them to remember and pronounce - and thus the boy would forever be known as Nelson Mandela.
In secondary school, he participated in boxing and track. Mandela didn't like the violence of boxing, but he appreciated the science of the strategies involved.
Young Mandela was adopted by a high-ranking Thembu regent after his father died, in 1927. Everyone assumed he would eventually be a part of his tribe's leadership. He later remarked, "By ancestry, I was born to rule."
Mandela enrolled at the University of Fort Hare in Alice, Eastern Cape, South Africa, in 1939. At the time it was the only institution with western teaching methods that admitted black South Africans. Before long, however, Mandela and a friend, Oliver Tambo, were sent home for boycotting against university regulations.
In 1941 Mandela left home for Johannesburg with his cousin, Justice, to avoid an arranged marriage. He found work as a night watchman and law clerk.
Despite his personal upheaval, Mandela earned a law degree by correspondence course from the University of South Africa. In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress, or ANC, to work for the rights of all South Africans. He and Tambo, along with others, established a youth branch known as the ANCYL.
Only four years later, in 1948, the Afrikaner-dominated National Party instituted a new policy called apartheid, which supported white minority rule in South Africa and restricted the rights of nonwhites. In Afrikaans, apartheid means "apart-hood."
Mandela and Tambo opened the first black law firm in South Africa, and they provided legal counsel to people who were oppressed by apartheid. Mandela said, "I realized quickly what Mandela and Tambo meant to ordinary Africans. It was a place where they could come and find a sympathetic ear and a competent ally, a place where they would not be either turned away or cheated, a place where they might actually feel proud to be represented by men of their own skin color."
In 1956 Mandela and 155 others were arrested for treason, simply because they were fighting for equal rights. He continued to support nonviolent protests until 1960, when police fired on peaceful protesters in Sharpeville, South Africa. Sixty-nine people were killed; nearly two hundred were wounded. Mandela concluded that passive resistance was no longer the best path to follow.
Mandela became the leader of a new armed wing of the ANC, called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, in 1961. He learned to move about in disguise, earning the nickname "Black Pimpernel" in the press. His assumed identities included fieldworker, chauffeur, and chef. He later wrote, "I would wear the blue overalls of the fieldworker and often wore round, rimless glasses known as Mazzawati teaglasses. I had a car and I wore a chauffeur's cap with my overalls. The pose of chauffeur was convenient because I could travel under the pretext of driving my master's car."
Early in 1962 Mandela illegally left his country to attend a conference in Ethiopia, visit Tambo in London, and obtain guerrilla training in Algeria. He traveled under the alias David Motsamayi.
Although Mandela had been acquitted in 1961 on the charge of treason, he was arrested again in August of 1962 for leaving the country and for inciting a workers' strike. At the time of his arrest, he was disguised as a chauffeur. On these new charges he was sentenced to five years, then, in 1963, he was sentenced to life in prison on charges of sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy, following a raid on an ANC hideout in Rivonia.
Mandela became internationally famous during the Rivonia trial, due to his eloquent "I Am Prepared to Die" speech. He said, "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." Many believe that this speech prevented him from receiving a death sentence.
Mandela spent eighteen years, from 1964 to 1982, at Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony near the coast of Cape Town. His cell had no bed and no plumbing. He was forced to work in a lime quarry. Under the restrictions imposed by apartheid, he received less food than white inmates and was only allowed to see his second wife, Winnie, once every six months. Prisoners were sometimes buried in the ground up to their necks for punishment. Nevertheless, Mandela found the strength to work on a draft of his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom." He and other inmates left notes for each other in old matchboxes, under dirty dishes, and even in toilet tanks, to organize a hunger strike to improve prison conditions.
In 1982 Mandela was moved to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town. President P.W. Botha offered to pardon Mandela if he would agree to renounce violence, but Mandela refused, explaining, "Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts." Negotiations continued, secretly, and Mandela was even allowed occasional excursions away from the prison.
In 1989, South Africans elected F.W. de Klerk as their new president. He lifted the country's ban on the ANC and began dismantling apartheid. In 1990 he ordered Mandela to be released, at last.
Mandela and de Klerk had rocky negotiations during the dismantling of apartheid, but they continued to work for a brighter future for South Africa. They were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Mandela once commented, "In my country we go to prison first and then become President." On April 26, 1994, Mandela became the first black man elected to be president of South Africa, in the first multiracial election in the country's history. He formed a Government of National Unity. De Klerk served as his first deputy.
The world watched in 1995 when South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup. Mandela encouraged all of his countrymen to rally around the Afrikaner national team, the Springboks, who were all white. Blacks had never supported the team in the past. Mandela appeared at the final game wearing a Springboks jersey and most of the crowd cheered.
In 1996 Mandela oversaw the enactment of a new South African constitution, establishing majority rule and prohibiting discrimination against minorities, including whites. He officially retired in 1999, at the age of 89, at the end of his first presidential term.
In 1944, having escaped an arranged marriage a few years prior, Mandela married Evelyn Ntoko Mase. They had four children, then divorced in 1958. That same year, he married Winnie Madikizela. They had two daughters, separated in 1992, then divorced in 1996. Winnie Mandela maintained a high public profile, both during and after their marriage, in support of Mandela's work.
On his 80th birthday, President Mandela married Graca Machel. She was a humanitarian and also the widow of a former president of Mozambique, Samora Machel. She had the unusual distinction of serving as first lady for two nations.
Mandela wore a three-piece suit during his inauguration, but thereafter he preferred to be seen in so-called Madeba shirts - long and casual, with vibrant prints.
Well-traveled, Mandela had simple habits and tastes. He always made his own bed. Favorite foods included chicken, tripe, and amasi, or fermented milk.
After retiring from politics, Mandela advocated for AIDS awareness. He established a nonprofit organization, 46664, to promote HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness. His prison number was 46664 - he had been the 466th prisoner in 1964. A number of 46664 concerts followed, with performances by Beyonce, Peter Gabriel, Bono, Bob Geldof, and other musician activists.
Sadly, in 2005 Mandela lost his son, Makgatho, to illness related to AIDS. Mandela once said, "Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS, and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary."
On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela died from a lung infection. He was buried in Qunu, his childhood village with no roads.
July 18 is observed by the United Nations and people the world over as Nelson Mandela International Day. Many South Africans refer to him as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.
Mandela was inspired by William Ernest Henley's poem, "Invictus," and he sometimes read it to his fellow prisoners. "Invictus" is the title of a movie about Mandela's life, starring Morgan Freeman.
Nelson Mandela changed the world by standing against apartheid and fighting for justice. He once said, "If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness."
He traveled his personal road from Rolihlahla to Nelson, from prisoner to president, with extraordinary grace. Of himself, he once said, "I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."