The life and death of Nelson Mandela

Compiled by Ellen Whyte

He was a prisoner for 27 years but Nelson Mandela ended up as South Africa’s first black president

Compiled by Ellen Whyte |

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“I detest racism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.”

– Nelson Mandela

Who was he?

Name: Rolihlahla Mandela

Nickname: Nelson

Famous for: his fight against apartheid

Born: July 18, 1918, near Umtata, Transkei, South Africa

Death: December 5, 2013, in Johannesburg, South Africa

Married: Evelyn Ntoko Mase (1945-1957), Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (1958-1996), Graca Machel (1998-today)

Children: Makaziwe Mandela, Zenani Mandela, Makgatho Mandela, Madiba Thembekile Mandela, Zindziswa Mandela, Malengani Machel, Josina Z. Machel

Profession: revolutionary, politician

From prisoner to president

Nelson Mandela was a member of the royal family of the Tembu, a Xhosa-speaking tribe in South Africa.

He was given the name Rolihlahla by his people. When he went to school, he was given the English name Nelson.

Mandela could have become chief of the Tembu. But he gave up his right to the throne and went to university to study law instead.

Mandela was also very interested in politics. At that time in South Africa, the sort of education, health care and other opportunities you had depended on your race. This system was called apartheid.

Mandela and many others objected to apartheid. They thought people should have equal opportunities, no matter what their race.

Mandela joined a political party called the African National Congress (ANC). He organised protests against apartheid laws. At first these were peaceful. But then he started to use force. He was caught and sentenced to life in prison.

Although many people didn’t approve of his using violence, they disliked apartheid more. After many local and international protests Mandela was set free on February 11, 1990. He had been in prison for 27 years.

Mandela returned to his peaceful ways and was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994.

Playing rugby for peace

When Mandela became president, his biggest job was to bring all the country’s races together/apart. But reconciliation wasn’t easy.

Because of apartheid laws, South Africa had been banned from taking part in international sports matches for many years. Mandela arranged for the 1995 Rugby World Cup to come to South Africa.

Because of apartheid, South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, were all white - even though there were many great black players.

But Mandela supported/opposed them anyway. And when the Springboks won, he presented the white captain of the team with the cup. This private/public gesture of friendship was the first big step to reconciliation.


Apartheid is a Dutch word that means “apartness”. In 1950, new laws were made to keep South Africans apart.

South Africans were divided into three groups: whites, natives or blacks, and coloureds (people of mixed race). A few years later, an Asian category was added.

Apartheid laws said people from different races could not go to the same schools, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, or other public places. All the best jobs, schools, hospitals and houses were kept for whites.

White South African president F.W. de Klerk freed Mandela in 1990 and ended apartheid in 1991. For this, de Klerk and Mandela shared the Nobel Peace prize.