Five things you might not know about Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela passed away at the age of 95 after a prolonged battle against a respiratory infection.

Today, on the four-year anniversary of his death, this website has collected five facts about his life that you may not know.

He was born in the Eastern Cape

According to his autobiography, Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July, 1918 at Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in Umtata, which was the capital of the then Transkei. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was the chief of Mvezo, but although Mandela was a member of the royal household he was never expected to rule – instead he was groomed with the expectation that he would counsel the rulers of the tribe.

“Mveszo … was a place apart, a tiny precint removed from the world of great events, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years,” Madiba wrote on the first page of his memoirs.

ALSO READ: Remembering Madiba four years on …

As a young man, he ran away to Johannesburg
In December 1940, Mandela (aged 22) returned home from his studies to find that the regent chief Jongintaba (who had cared for him since the death of his father when Mandela was about nine) had decided that it was time for Mandela to marry. By custom and right, Jongintaba had already selected a bride for both Mandela, and the regent’s own son and heir Justice. The two young men believed that the only course of action to avoid their arranged marriages was to run away to Johannesburg, which they did in April 1941.

“I felt as though he [the regent] had left me no choice. I could not go through with this marriage, which I considered unfair and ill-advised … Justice agreed, and the two of us decided that the only choice remaining was to run away, and the only place to run to was Johannesburg.”

He joined the ANC in 1944
Once in Johannesburg, Mandela began studying law at the University of the Witwaterstrand in 1943. Although he had not been involved in politics in his earlier life, at university he came into contact with people who were such as Joe Slovo, Ruth First and Anton Lembede. When Lembede, with permission from the African National Congress, founded the ANC Youth League on Easter Sunday 1944, Mandela became a member of its executive committee.

“I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicised, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment of one’s birth, whether one acknowledges it or not … I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisioned my people.”

He could have been hanged as a result of the Rivonia Trial

After the raid on Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, on 11 July 1963, 10 prominent leaders from the ANC including Mandela were arrested and tried for 221 acts of sabotage designed to overthrow the apartheid system.

The trial lasted from October 1963 until June 1964, and the accused face the very real possibility of being sentenced to death by the apartheid government. At the trial’s conclusion, eight of the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment, and Mandela was thus placed in Robben Island for 27 years.

It was during this trial that Madiba gave perhaps his most famous public address – at the beginning of the trial, he addressed the court for three hours with his ‘I am prepared to die’ speech.

This speech read in part: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 legacy lives on

During his lifetime, it is estimated that Mandela received over 250 awards, accolades, prizes, honorary degrees and citizenships for his life and work including the Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and honourary Canadian citizenship to name a few. In 2009, the United Nations declared his birthday, 18 July, annual Mandela Day, where people are encouraged to volunteer or conduct community service in honour of his life and humane values for 67 minutes (one minute for every year was part of the struggle).
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other – not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”
Share your best memories of Madiba in the comments section
Robyn Kirk

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