10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela

Peter Baxter - June 6, 2018

Of all the great social icons of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela probably tops the list. He is right up there with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and probably, for the scope of his influence and achievements, he stands rather higher. He was born in 1918, the year that WWI ended, a moment that marked the beginning of the age of African liberation.

By 1918, almost every scrap of Africa lay under the sovereignty of one or other of the European powers. The War, however, shook the foundation of global empire, and it certainly served notice on those empires that survived – namely the British, the French and the Portuguese – that the end was nigh. At about this time, the first generation of university educated backs were beginning to filter back into their respective colonies, and it was they who commenced the early organization of black political resistance.

It would take another war, however, for the movement to solidify. If WWI weakened the British Empire at the knees, it was WWII that put it on the canvas. Hundreds of thousands of demobilized black troops flooded back to their colonies, disgruntled at the lack of their own freedom, and in combination with the new black intelligentsia, founded the first mass movements of liberation. Prominent in the South African movement at this time, of course, was a young black attorney by the name of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela’s first name was not Nelson

Nelson Mandela was born in a region of South Africa known as the Eastern Cape, and he belonged to a language group known as the Xhosa. This is perhaps best pronounced by a non-Xhosa speaker as core-sa, because there are very few people who are not indigenous South Africans who can bend their tongues around the phonetic clicks that characterize southern African Bantu languages.

The Xhosa are part of a wider language group known as the Nguni, which also includes the Zulu, and traditionally they have tended to be the most politically alert of South Africa’s many tribal subgroups. The Eastern Cape was the birthplace of the African nationalist movement in South Africa, and Mandela was born into a vibrant black political culture, at a time when the worst oppression of apartheid had yet to be felt.

The forename that he was given at birth was Rolihlahla, another name almost impossible for a non-South African to pronounce. Whoever decided on that name, however, certainly sensed something unusual about the child, for it’s idiomatic translation means something along the lines of ‘troublemaker’. In later years, he was probably better known by his clan name, Madiba, but the question is, where did the ‘Nelson’ part come from?

Well, in the early decades of the twentieth century, black South African youth were typically educated by Wesleyan or Methodist missionaries, and the price paid for that education was often an obligation to convert to Christianity, to abandon traditional worship and to adopt western dress, lifestyles and habits. Part of the de-Africanization effort was to give young students western names in place of their traditional names, and Mandela’s teacher chose rather randomly the name ‘Nelson’. This practice was usually accepted, but used only in regards to a person’s interactions outside of the traditional sphere. The name, however, became part of his official identification, and the rest, as they say, is history.

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela in traditional dress. CNN

Nelson Mandela was born into a royal family

In the broader Xhosa language group of South Africa, as is true for every other tribal confederation in the region, social organization tends to be loose, and quite often, individual loyalties are to family and village rather than a paramount king. There tends, therefore, to be ‘houses’ rules by minor kings, and one of these is the Thembu clan. Mandela’s great-grandfather on his father’s side was the king of the Thembu people, and this made Mandela royalty, albeit of modest rank.

One of the greatest complications of royal lineage in traditional African life is polygamy, and oftentimes, the rules of royal succession are governed by the seniority of women within a polygamous family structure, and also, of course the tribe and clan origins of any particular woman, and what rank that implies. Nelson Mandela belong to what is generally regarded as a ‘cadet’ branch of the royal lineage, primarily through the female branch, and although recognized as a member of a royal family, his particular branch is ineligible to inherit the throne.

The Mandela archive, just for the record, makes the following note on the name Mandela: ‘ The Mandela name is one of heritage, strong values and royalty. The Mandelas are the descendants of a royal bloodline that dates back to the 18th century when Thembu Land was part of the royal kingdom of the Eastern Cape. Our legacy can be traced back to King Ngubengcuka, the king of the Thembus; tracing back to a small village in the Eastern Cape, where the great Chief Mphakanyiswa of Mvezo and father to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela ruled.’

It probably goes without saying that royal blood or not, the young Nelson Mandela lived very much as a subject of a monolithic British Empire with scant regard for his capabilities and expectations. Mandela described his own childhood as idyllic, and steeped in traditional values, but when it came to education, for a black man to succeed in South Africa, twice the effort was usually required for half the expectation.

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela as a young student. Pininterest

Nelson Mandela was an Alumni of the only all-black university of South Africa

Mainstream South African Universities, except under the most unique circumstances, did not accept non-white enrolment, and this was certainly the case when a young Nelson Mandela began to consider his higher education. South Africa, however, was home to the only black university in any of the British colonies of Africa, which, bearing in mind South Africa’s troubled race history, is rather a unique fact.

Mandela entered Fort Hare University in 1839, and began his BA course with a view later to studying law. Fort Hare was founded in 1916 as an offshoot of the Lovedale Missionary Institute, an establishment founded in the Eastern Cape by the Glasgow Missionary Society. It began life as an associate native college attached to the University of South Africa, intended to provide world-class tertiary education for young blacks from all across southern Africa. It is probably worth bearing in mind that in 1916, there were not that many educated young blacks to be found in the region, and it was usually only the most gifted who found their way eventually to Fort Hare.

By the time Mandela enrolled, things were rather different. Young blacks, realizing that violent revolution was hopeless, at least in the near term, placed their faith in education as a means of meeting the white man on equal terms on the modern political battlefield. There certainly were numerous young men studying at Fort Hare at that time who would go on to achieve political power in a later generation, Robert Mugabe probably key among them, but also others such as Desmond Tutu, Oliver Tambo and Julius Nyerere.

Interestingly, however, Mandela was not particularly political while at Fort Hare. He did not join the anti-imperial movement, and was a supporter of the British war effort. These were early days, however, and while under the British Empire, South Africa enjoyed a somewhat more open and inclusive system that would be the case after WWII. Mandela concerned himself with Bible classes, ballroom dancing and boxing.

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela (Top Left) at Fort Hare University. nelsonmandela.org

Nelson Mandela was the only black student at the University of Witwatersrand

It was when Mandela moved from the liberal Cape to the far more white nationalist Transvaal, with its economic capital of Johannesburg, that he encountered institutionalized racism for the first time. The University of the Witwatersrand, or ‘Wits’ as it is better known, is today, as it was then, one of South Africa’s premier universities, and it was gifted young black student indeed who was able to rush the barriers of this institution based on nothing but his determination and his ability.

It was at Wits that Mandela began studying law, and it was there that his political consciousness began to mature. The Transvaal in general, and Johannesburg in particular, were highly racist, far more so than anything Mandela had experienced before. He arrived at Wits in 1943, and he left in 1949, a period of six years which encompasses the end of British control of South Africa and the establishment of a South African Republic. That republic was dominated by a corps of white right-wing Afrikaner nationalists determined that the social and political culture of the nation would remain white. The first formal apartheid laws were not far behind, and by the 1950s, South Africa was a society delineated by statutory racism that deeply prejudiced the indigenous black majority.

While at the University of Witwatersrand, Mandela met a great many political activists, both white and black, and he became deeply involved in the emerging antiapartheid movement. The African National Congress was at that time yet to be established as a mass movement, and black political organization was a few steps behind the times. It was Mandela who founded the ANC Youth League as a vehicle for mass mobilization, and historians universally agree that this was the turning point in the South Africa Struggle

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela and his second wife Winnie. Pininterest

The three wives of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was married three times. It was his second wife, however, Winnie Mandela, who traded most heavily on the Mandela name, and who achieved prominence as a political warrior in her own right. His first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a cousin of his political mentor Walter Sisulu. She was a demure and retiring woman, a nurse by profession, and only a lukewarm political activist. She and Nelson Mandela were married for thirteen years. Perhaps her most well-known public comment in regards to her famous husband was: ‘How can a man who has committed adultery and left his wife and children be Christ? The world worships Nelson Mandela too much. He is only a man.’

That certainly suggests that the first Mrs. Mandela knew a different side to the great man. The couple had four children, two of whom survived. The death of her first child pushed Evelyn towards religion, while her husband was growing ever more deeply involved in politics. He soon began an affair with a young social worker by the name of Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, and three years after he and Evelyn separated, in 1958, he married Winnie.

The couple had two daughters, and were both equally committed to the emerging anti-apartheid struggle. Winnie Mandela was a far more robust personality that Evelyn Mandela, but in those days, robust or not, nationalist politics was a risky business. It was inevitable at some point that that one or other of them would be killed or incarcerated. In 1963, after the much storied Rivonia Trial, Mandela was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment for various public order offences. It would be twenty-seven years before he would walk free again.

In the meanwhile, the anti-apartheid movement shifted into high gear, and Winnie Mandela fetched up the baton, and carried the struggle forward in her husband’s name. Behind the scenes, however, their combined political destiny did not always make for a happy union of souls. And while they stayed married during Mandela’ imprisonment, they were divorced within two years of his release.

Mandela’s third wife, Graca Machel, was a storied revolutionary in her own right, widow of the first black president of Mozambique, Samora Machel. Samora Machel was probably the most pedigreed African revolutionary of the age, but his wife, no less committed to the struggle, was more of an intellectual ideologue, and present very much behind the scenes. It was she who accompanied Nelson Mandela through the last great chapter of his life, and she who was present at his deathbed.

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela addressing a crown outside the High Court in Rivonia, Johannesburg. The Guardian

Nelson Mandela’s approach to liberation politics was not always peaceful

The central charge against Nelson Mandela when he stood in the dock facing a sentence of death was sabotage. The year was 1964, and Nelson Mandela was forty-six years old. He did not overtly deny the charges made against him, but rather justified his actions as necessary for the emancipation of his people.

What did he do to land up in court? Well, at that point in South Africa history, any kind of black political agitation was likely to end up on the wrong side of the law, so it was inevitable at some point that Mandela would be tried, and in many ways he was lucky that he did not just simply disappear. Those were violent times, in a violent society, and pacificism in the Gandhiesque sense of the world had no place in this struggle. White South Africa would not give up without a fight, and as Mandela himself put it, ‘it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle.’

Mandela founded the African National Congress Youth League, the organ of mass mobilization in the townships of South Africa, but mass mobilization in the African liberation context has a dark side. The ANC Youth League was also the enforcement arm of the party, and although Mandela probably did not get his own hands dirty, it is very improbable that he was not at least party to some of the day to day violence that was associated with the South African liberation struggle.

He was also a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation, which was the armed wing of the African National Congress. A symmetrical war with the South African security establishment would obviously have been a hopeless quest, and so MK, as it was known, relied on sabotage and hit and run attacks, and it was responsibility for many acts of this nature that Mandela was eventually brought to trial.

It would be naïve to imagine a revolutionary in that time and place adopting tactics of passive resistance, and Mandela certainly was a product of his time and place. By the time he walked out of prison in 1990, he had remodelled his persona into the man that we all know and love, but that was not always the man that he was…

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela reflecting on his days as Prisoner 46664. Pininterest

Nelson Mandela did not serve his entire term on Robben Island

The name ‘Robben Island’ and ‘Nelson Mandela’ are as synonymous as Honest Abe and Gettysburg, but in fact, Mandela spent eighteen years in total on Robben Island, before he was moved back to the mainland and incarcerated at the Pollsmoor Prison in suburban Cape Town.

Eighteen years, however, was a grim sentence, made even more grim by the early animosity with which he and his fellow political prisoners were regarded. Robben Island had, since the founding of the Cape Colony in 1652, been a destination for troublesome natives, and it was the place of exile of a great many black leaders who led rebellions and uprisings against white rule. The island is an austere tract of hard land rising a few feet out of the South Atlantic, with the lights of Cape Town tantalizingly visible to the north. By Mandela’s time, the complex had evolved into a formal prison, and under the bleakest conditions Mandela and his generation of political leaders languished.

For the period of the 1960s and the 1970s, Prisoner 46664 passed his days in these depressing circumstances, but in 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor, which was a great deal more comfortable than Robben island. There were many reasons for this move, but mostly it had to do with the fact that he had become such a high profile figure, and his continued incarceration such a hot political potato, that it became inevitable that he would one day be released. One can suppose that authorities wanted to promote better relations with him before he became a political force, although there was no appetite at that point to immediately release him.

Change came in many forms. The collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s certainly played a part, but besides that, it was dawning on a new generation of white and black South Africans that the current state of things could not endure forever. By the time that Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison to greet the world as a free man, a clear understanding of how the future would look had already been establish.

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela delivering a State of the Nation Address. The Baltimore Sun

Mandela did not willingly accept the presidency of a free South Africa

Having served as the figurehead for the South African anti-apartheid movement for over two decades, it would have been very difficult for Mandela to slip into a comfortable retirement and leave the business of negotiating an end to apartheid to someone else. He was seventy-two, and wise enough to realize that political agitation and political office were two widely separate concepts, and he was aware that practical political power could do nothing but harm his reputation. It was he who once said: ‘Power can be a tool or a weapon, but it can never be neither.

Negotiating the new South African constitution took several years, and it was not until 1994, after a brutal phase of political violence in South Africa, that the nation was ready for its first experience of universal adult suffrage. The name Mandela had by then achieved almost celestial proportions, and there was certainly no question of who would stand as the ANC presidential candidate, and even less of who would emerge as the victor.

Mandela handled his single term as President of the Republic of South Africa very cautiously, stepping onto the stage of a notoriously treacherous and difficult political theatre. One such difficulty that he faced was in his personal friendship with Colonel Gadhafi, who was by then an international pariah. Mandela made the simple point that Gadhafi had aided the South African struggle, so he was a friend of South Africa.

There were many other similar contradictions that challenged Mandela considerably, and at the expiry of his first term, he was more than willing to hand over power and exit stage left into retirement – his legacy intact, but his fingers burned a little bit nonetheless. If one was to comment on his brief administrative career, then it could perhaps be said that he coasted along on his reputation without doing a great deal. He left the political trenchwork to the succeeding generation of South African leadership, and the result has not always been pretty.

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
The commercialization of the Mandela image. Pininterest

By the standard of African leadership, Nelson Mandela died a pauper

Upon his death, Forbes estimated that Nelson Mandela was worth $10 Million. That is probably an exaggeration. That compared to his nearest neighbor, however, King Mswati III of Swaziland, an impoverished kingdom of southern Africa, who is worth an estimated $100 million, is pennies. Jacob Zuma, the most recently ousted president of South Africa, boasts a net worth of $250 million, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya some $500 million, and the granddaddy of them all Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, who sits on a personal fortune of over $20 billion.

Despite all of that, no one quite knows where Mandela’s modest little nest egg came from. In an article published by the UK Guardian in 2013, a correspondent put that question to the curator of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and was surprised by the reply ‘I don’t know.’

And in fact, that might be true, since Mandela himself was notoriously air-headed when came to money and affairs of many, so it is probably that someone behind the scenes simply capitalized on the Mandela name. During the height of the anti-apartheid movement, for example, Winnie Mandela was accused of virtually franchising the Mandela name, which certainly would have spun significant revenue under any circumstances.

The bottom line, however, is that Nelson Mandela was as clean as a whistle. All of the other African presidents listed above are and were corrupt, of that there can be no doubt. Mandela, however, suffers from not one sniff of financial impropriety, which is, of course, central to his legacy.

, Mandela’s longtime friend and lawyer George Bizos remarked once: ‘If anyone suggests he’s a multi-millionaire, they’re wrong. He’s not a rich man. He has a couple of trusts for his children and grandchildren. His earnings are technically nil, other than the goodwill of people inside and outside South Africa who helped with the education of the children. He has always insisted that money donated should be used for building schools and hospitals.’

10 Things You Probably Haven’t Read About Nelson Mandela
Mandela congratulates South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar after the Springbok victory of 1995. ABC

Nelson Mandela was behind the greatest game of rugby ever played

This particular episode of Mandela’s life was made famous by the movie Invictus, starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, and so it is probably not altogether fair to add it to this list. However, it is one of the most poignant chapters of Mandela’s contribution to South Africa, and would be worth remembering.

South Africa, it hardly needs to be said, is a sports-loving country, and across the race divide, rugby attracts a fanatical following. It was a source of great sadness and frustration to the South African public that the republic was banned from international sport for most of the 1970s and 1980s, and upon independence, a source of great joy that the nation was welcomed back into the world sporting fraternity. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was staged in South Africa in celebration of that, although there was no expectation that South Africa would win this first major international competition of the post-apartheid era.

Mandela, however, saw it as a means of uniting the nation after the bruising handover of power, and he put all of his considerable moral weight behind building a viable South African team.

Despite the, a South African victory remained improbable, but against the odds, the Springboks, crept up the rankings, and on 24 June, they entered Ellis Park in Johannesburg to take on the might All Blacks in a momentous final.

The game was a nail-biter, and victory was clinched at the last minute by a drop goal fired by South African fly-half Joel Stransky. Written into the iconography of the South African Rainbow Nation are the images of Nelson Mandela, wearing a Springbok jersey, congratulating South African Captain François Pienaar as he held the cup aloft. This single action established Mandela’s place deep in the affections for white South Africa, something that many predicted could never happen.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Who We Are.” The House of Mandela

“Nelson Mandela death: The women who loved him.” BBC, December 3013

“Nelson Mandela’s Prison Adventures.” NPR, Greg Myre, July 2013

“How rich is Nelson Mandela?” The Guardian. David Smith, April 3013