Why is Nelson Mandela famous?
Nelson Mandela was a tireless campaigner for equality and justice who spent 27 years in prison for his beliefs.
In 1994 he became the first president of South Africa to be elected by all the people, black as well as white. He worked to take apart the old racist system of government and to make South Africa a fair society for all its citizens.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and 250 other awards for his bravery and courage.
Top 10 facts
- Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, the son of a chief of the Thembo people.
- Nelson Mandela was the first member of his family to go to school. He recognised that education was very important and later campaigned for all South African children to have access to schooling.
- Mandela spent most of his life fighting racial prejudice and seeking equal rights for black people. He became a lawyer and fought against injustice.
- The African National Congress was formed in 1912 and aimed to bring together African people to fight for change and equal rights.
- Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942 and became involved with setting up its youth league.
- In 1948 the racist Nationalist Party of South Africa introduced a new policy of apartheid or separateness. This meant that white and black people had to live, learn and spend their leisure time separately. Only white people could vote in elections and they held most of the power and wealth of the country.
- To challenge the new policy of apartheid the African National Congress started a campaign of civil disobedience. This meant disobeying the government by means of strikes and other peaceful means of protest.
- In 1963 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment for political offences. He served 27 years as a prisoner, 18 of them on Robben Island.
- In 1993 Mandela and the white South African president FW de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize.
- In 1994 the first elections where all the people could vote were held in South Africa. Mandela became the first black president of South Africa.
- 1652Dutch people set up a colony in South Africa; they call themselves Boers (meaning farmers) and speak Afrikaans
- 1815South Africa becomes part of the British Empire
- 18 July 1918Nelson Mandela born in Mvezo village South Africa, son of a Thembo chief
- c1925He attends junior school, the first member of his family to do so, and is given the name Nelson by his teacher
- 1930Death of Mandela’s father; he is adopted by the ruling family of the Thembo people
- 1939Mandela joins the University College of Fort Hare
- 1940He is elected to the Student Representative Council but resigns as part of a student protest and is expelled; Mandela runs away to Johannesburg
- 1942Mandela joins the African National Congress
- 1948The South African government introduces policy of apartheid – this means that black and white people are forced to live apart; they cannot get married, they have to live in separate areas, attend separate schools, travel on different buses, eat at different restaurants
- 1949African National Congress starts campaign of civil disobedience
- 1956Mandela and 150 others arrested and charged with treason - a crime against the state; five years later he was acquitted (found not guilty).
- 1960Sharpeville massacre - at a demonstration against Apartheid, 69 protesters were shot by the South African police; the police blamed the African National Congress and banned it
- 1961Mandela becomes convinced that armed struggle is necessary in the fight against apartheid and forms the Spear of the Nation organisation; he organises a three-day national workers strike; 1962 Mandela is arrested for leading the strike and sentenced
- 1963Mandela and ten other African National Congress leaders are sentenced to life imprisonment for political offences; Mandela spends 18 years on Robben Island before being moved to Pollsmoor Prison
- 1980sA major international campaign begins for his release
- 1985Mandela declines President PW Botha’s offer to release him if he gives up armed struggle
- 11 February 1990President FW De Klerk announces Mandela’s release and the African National Congress is unbanned
- 1991Mandela is elected president of the African National Congress with Oliver Tambo as national chair person
- 1993Mandela and the white South African leader FW De Klerk are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
- 27 April 1994First elections where everyone can vote held in South Africa
- 10 May 1994Mandela becomes the first black president of South Africa, aged 77; De Klerk is his deputy; Mandela’s book The Long Road to Freedom is published
- 1996A new set of rules for running the country (a constitution) becomes law in South Africa
- 1999Mandela retires from politics.
- 2004Mandela announces his retirement from public life
- 2007Mandela forms new group of senior world leaders, the Elders, to work for peace and equality
- 5 December 2013Mandela dies in Johannesburg aged 95
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Did you know?
- Mandela’s parents named him Rolihlaha which means ‘pulling the branch of a tree’ or ‘troublemaker’.
- Mandela was the first of his family to attend school. His teacher gave him the name Nelson when he was aged 7.
- Nelson Mandela ran away to Johannesburg when his adoptive father, the ruler of the Thembo people, announced he had arranged a marriage for him. Mandela was married three times and had six children.
- As a young person Mandela enjoyed boxing and running.
- The law firm Mandela and Tambo was the first black law firm in South Africa.
- He spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island.
- Whilst on Robben Island he was only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months.
- Mandela’s book The Long Road to Freedom was written in secret when he was still a prisoner.
- A nuclear particle, a spider and a woodpecker are named after him.
- Mandela drew inspiration from a poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. He was also inspired by the Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.
Look through the gallery and see if you can find the following:
- Nelson Mandela as a young man c.1937
- Nelson Mandela
- A statue of Nelson Mandela in London
Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo village in South Africa. His father, a chief of the Thembo people, died when Mandela was 12 and he was adopted by the acting king of the Thembo people.
He was the first of his family to attend school. He went to a Wesleyan mission school, the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Healdtown Wesleyan College. He then enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare which was the only university open to black people in South Africa. As a young man Mandela learned about the history of his country and about the persecution of black people by the white people who ruled South Africa.
Whilst at Fort Hare Mandela was voted on to the student body. The students were holding a protest and Mandela resigned in support and left the college. His adoptive father was very angry and insisted he return. He also told Mandela that he had arranged marriages for Mandela and his cousin. In 1941 the two young men ran away to the city of Johannesburg to escape this. In Johannesburg Mandela worked as a guard and a clerk. He also continued his studies and started to train as a lawyer.
In 1942 Mandela joined the African National Congress and he became involved with setting up its youth league. A few years later, in 1948, the racist government of South Africa introduced its policy of apartheid. This was an intended to keep black and white peoples separate from each other in order to maintain the privileged position of white people. In 1949 the African National Congress committed itself to peaceful methods of disobedience such as strikes in order to try and change this policy. The Congress hoped to achieve equal rights for black people so that they could become full citizens.
In 1953 he and his close friend Oliver Tambo opened up Mandela and Tambo, the first black law firm in South Africa. They gave free and low-cost legal advice to black people, many of whom had been badly treated by the police.
As a result of his continuing involvement with the Congress Mandela was appointed National Volunteer in chief of the Defiance Campaign. He was also involved in the Congress of the People which led to the drafting of a freedom charter. As a result of this Mandela and 150 other campaigners were arrested and charged with treason, a crime against the state. Five years later he was found not guilty of this offence.
In 1960 a big demonstration against apartheid was held at Sharpeville. The police shot dead 69 protesters and then claimed that the African National Congress was responsible for their deaths. Mandela became convinced that peaceful protest alone would not be sufficient to achieve his aims and that armed struggle was essential to bring about the end of apartheid. He helped form the Spear of the Nation organisation.
In 1964 Mandela and ten other leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In the 1980s a big international campaign was set up to urge his release. The South African government offered to release Mandela if he would give up his struggle but he refused to agree to their conditions. Finally in February 1990 the South African president FW de Klerk announced his release and agreed that the African National Congress could operate freely again. Mandela was elected president of the Congress with his old friend Oliver Tambo as chairperson.
On the 27 April 1994 the first free democratic elections were held in South Africa. It was the first time Mandela had been able to vote. He became the first black president of South Africa. He remained in office until 1999, working to take apart the system of apartheid and to make sure that a new set of rules for running the country was put in place.
Nelson Mandela died in December 2013 at the age of 95.
Oliver Tambo (1917-1993) – an old friend of Mandela’s who attended Fort Hare university and was expelled at the same time as Mandela. Partner in Mandela and Tambo law firm. A founder member of the African National Congress Youth League. He spent thirty years in exile encouraging opposition to apartheid.
FW de Klerk b 1936 – last president of apartheid South Africa. He was leader of the National Party between 1989-97. He helped bring about the end of apartheid and supported the transition of South Africa into a multi racial society. He was a deputy president under Nelson Mandela. In 1993 he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.
Winnie Mandela b 1936 – a South African activist who was married to Nelson Mandela from 1958 unto their divorce in 1996. She headed the African National Congress Women’s League. She was strongly suspected of having been involved in violence and corruption.
Just for fun...
- Colour in a picture of Nelson Mandela
- A video listening comprehension
- Play BBC Bitesize's interactive game Astonishing Activists and take a trip back in time with the people like Nelson Mandela who wanted to change the world
- Learn about Nelson Mandela’s amazing life in The Black Pimpernel, a graphic novel
Find out more
- A children's guide to Nelson Mandela and apartheid
- A selection of Mandela quotes
- The BBC Newsround guide to Nelson Mandela
- Watch videos of Mandela's speeches
- South Africa profile and timeline
- Nelson Mandela's names explained
- Watch a full-length documentary about Nelson Mandela's life (for older children and almost two hours long)
- See a handwritten letter Nelson Mandela sent from prison
Children's books about Nelson Mandela
See for yourself
- There is a statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square in London.
- The 18th July, Mandela’s Birthday, has been designated Nelson Mandela International Day. See a photo gallery of past events and find out if there will be any events near you this year.
- See the Robben Island cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.
- Audio clips, images and videos of Nelson Mandela.