Childhood and education (1918-1930s)

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo on the banks of the Bashe River. He is the son of Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a chief and chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu and a member of the Madiba clan. Mandela’s middle name is Rolihlahla, which literally means ‘pulling the branch of a tree’, or colloquially, ‘troublemaker’. He was given the name Nelson by his White missionary school teacher.

Mandela in Umtata, in his first suit,presented to him by the regent. Source: Mayibuye Centre

After the death of his father in 1927 , Mandela was placed under the care of his father’s cousin, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Regent of the Thembu people. He enrolled at Clarkebury which was the oldest Wesleyan mission and education centre in area of the Thembu people.

Upon completing his studies at Clarkebury, he attended high school at Healdtown Methodist Boarding School. Amongst other subjects he studied history which was an entirely Eurocentric curriculum focused on British history. However, his history teacher, Weaver Newana, adds his own oral history to the narratives about the previous century's frontier wars between the Xhosa and the British colonists. Mandela was the first member of his family to attend high school and when he matriculated at Healdtown in 1938 he formed part of a very small number of Black pupils who had attained a high school education in the country.

The patronage of the paramount chief resulted in Mandela joining the chief’s son, Justice, when they were sent to the only university for Blacks (African, Coloured and Indian) at Fort Hare near Alice in the Eastern Cape. At Fort Hare, Mandela studied English, Anthropology, Politics, Native Administration and Roman Dutch Law. He also took up sports excelling in long distance running and boxing. During this period, Mandela befriended African, Indian and Coloured students, many of whom went on to play leading roles in the South African liberation struggle and in the anti-colonial struggle in other African countries. One of Mandela’s fellow students was Oliver Tambo. They would become business partners, close comrades and lifelong friends.

Mandela did not complete his degree at Fort Hare. He was involved in a dispute related to the election process of the Student Representative Council. Mandela refused to take his seat on the council because he disagreed with the way the elections were run. After he rejected the university’s ultimatum either to take the seat to which he was elected or face expulsion, the university gave him until the end of the student holidays to think the matter through, but he felt there were principles at stake that could not be compromised. He informed his guardian that he would not be returning to Fort Hare and stubbornly stood his ground when the Regent pleaded with him.

The Regent Jongintaba Dalindyebo had coincidently also made arrangements for his son Justice and Mandela to marry two young women he had chosen for them. Both young men decided to defy the Regent, stole two of his cattle and sold them to raise funds to secretly leave for Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, they contacted a "homeboy” who was employed at a gold mine as an Induna. He gave them shelter and jobs in the mine compound, but within days both were dismissed when the Induna learnt they had defied the Regent by leaving the 'Great Place' without the chief’s permission.

Mandela found temporary lodging in Alexandra township and communicated to the Regent his regret at defying and disrespecting him. Mandela convinced the Regent that he wanted to further his studies in Johannesburg and received the Regent’s consent to remain in Johannesburg as well as financial support. A few months into his stay in Johannesburg, Mandela was introduced to a young estate agent named Walter Sisulu who immediately took him under his wing. Mandela moved in with Sisulu and his mother at their home in Orlando, Soweto. Sisulu became Mandela’s lifelong friend, political mentor and closest political confidant.

Sisulu found a White firm of attorneys who were prepared to give Mandela a job and register him as an articled clerk, an exceedingly rare offer in segregated South Africa. While working at the firm Mandela enrolled for a BA degree in law at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).  At Wits he befriended fellow students Ismael Chota Meer, J. Singh, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, all of whom were members of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA, renamed later as the South African Communist Party).

Mandela became very close to I.C. Meer and J.N. Singh, both of whom played leading roles under the leadership of Dr. Yusuf Dadoo in turning the Transvaal and Natal Indian Congresses into mass-based and militant organisations. Both Meer and Singh served prison terms during the 1946 Indian Passive Resistance campaign.

The exact date of Mandela’s fathers death date is unclear, however, most sources state 1927.

Last updated : 17-Jul-2012

This article was produced for South African History Online on 08-Jul-2011