47 Interesting Facts About Nelson Mandela

Last updated on February 9th, 2018

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who served as the President of South Africa between 1994 and 1999, was the country’s first black chief executive. He is known as “the worlds most famous political prisoner” and “South Africa’s Great Black Hope.” With these 47 interesting facts about Nelson Mandela, let’s learn more about his career, politics, early life, mission and struggle for the rights of black men and women.

Facts about Nelson Mandela’s: childhood, education, marriage, and imprisonment

1. Mandela’s middle name, “Rolihlahla,” literally means ‘pulling the branch of a tree,’ or colloquially, ‘troublemaker.’

2. In his family, Nelson Mandela was the first to receive formal education. At that time, very few black kids attained high school education in South Africa.

3. Nelson Mandela, when he became aware that his guardians arranged his marriage, fled to Johannesburg. He stole cattle and sold it to collect money for his travels.

4. During his initial days in Johannesburg, he took the job of a night watchman and then that of a law clerk to support his finances.

5. Nelson Mandela, after studying at both the University of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand, started practicing law in Johannesburg.

6. In 1940, he was expelled from the University of Fort Hare for his involvement in a student strike.

7. In 1943, Nelson Mandela received his B.A. from Fort Hare.

8. In 1952, Nelson Mandela was convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act, and was banned from leaving Johannesburg and participating in public gatherings. The same year, he formed the first black partnership in South Africa.

9. Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1944, and formed the ANC Youth League along with some others during the same year. The group was displeased by the policies and principles of the Congress, and wanted to erect their own party.

10. Mandela got married to nurse Evelyn Mase on July 15, 1944.

11. After the marriage, the couple settled in a three-room house, which had neither electricity nor an inside toilet. Mandela had four children with Evelyn Mase before their divorce in 1957.

The Nelson Mandela House
The Mandela House, located in the township of Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa, is the former home of the former South African president and his wife, Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela (m. 1958 – 1996). This was the home of Nelson Mandela before his 27-year imprisonment, and his home immediately after being released from prison. The home is now a museum. Image credit – A. Bailey via Wikimedia Commons

12. Did you know that in 1962, Mandela also received guerrilla training in Morocco and Ethiopia?

Facts about Nelson Mandela’s: struggle, ANC, presidency, last marriage and anti-apartheid movement

13. Another cool fact about Mandela is that he was a master of disguise. He disguised himself as a fieldworker, a chauffeur or a chef. He used his talent to evade policemen who tried to arrest him. And finally when he was arrested, he was in a chauffeur’s outfit!

14. In his honor, his birth date of July 18 has been declared “Nelson Mandela International Day.” This is the first time that the UN has declared an International Day in honor of a person. See the full list here.

15. Nelson Mandela served as President of the African National Congress (ANC) party from 1991 to 1997.

16. During the 1994 election for the presidency, the majority of voters from the more than 22 million who turned out to cast ballots chose the ANC to lead the country, and Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President.

17. Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president on May 10, 1994. He was the first South African president to be elected democratically, and also the oldest president to assume office.

Read: Interesting facts about South Africa

18. Nelson Mandela spent nearly 70 years of his life advocating for the rights of minorities in South Africa. He wanted to establish a free and non-racist society in the country, and inspire people all over the world. He was against discrimination, injustice and inequality; and he fought with stubborn resolve.

19. Did you know that there are hundreds of streets throughout the world that are named after Nelson Mandela (including – City of Cardiff, Wales, named a street after Nelson Mandela; Nelson Mandela Marg interchange, New Delhi, India; Nelson Mandela Street, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Nelson Mandela Street, Terre Rouge, Mauritius).

20. Nelson Mandela also spread awareness about AIDS and treatment programs for the deadly disease, which also cost him the life of his only son Makgatho (1950-2005). The disease affects more people in South Africa than any other country of the world.

21. Nelson Mandela married three times. His last marriage was at the age of 81 to Grace Michel. He had been married to Mozambique President Samora, who was a widow at the time of her marriage to Mandela.

22. Mandela also received support for the anti-apartheid movement from Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean president. Zimbabwe sheltered the anti-apartheid fighters in their territory during the struggle. Mandela also had close ties with Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator.

23. Interestingly, Nelson Mandela co-authored a book with Fidel Castro.

Read: Interesting facts about Zimbabwe

Noble Prize for Mandela

24. Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993, “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”

Nelson Mandela with George W. Bush
Nelson Mandela and President George W. Bush in the Oval Office, May 2005. Image credit – Whitehouse

Nelson Mandela and his time in Jail

25. Nelson Mandela spent nearly 27 years of his lifetime in jail.

26. He spent 18 years of his imprisonment on Robben Island. During these years, he was allowed to meet his wife once every six months.

27. When Nelson arrived on the island with other political prisoners, their warden’s first words were: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.” The conditions on the island were difficult for the estranged prisoners.

28. Nelson, however, spent the remaining years of imprisonment in a jail near Cape Town. Here, he had access to radio, TV, newspapers and any visitors he wanted.

29. Each prisoner on Robben Island had a seven-foot cell, and they had to perform hard labor at limestone quarries.

Inside of Mandela's prison's cell
The inside of Mandela’s prison cell as it was when he was imprisoned in 1964 and his open cell window facing the prison yard on Robben Island, now a national and World Heritage Site. Mandela’s cell later contained more furniture, including a bed from around 1973. Image credit – Witstinkhout

30. During the time he was behind the bars, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of London, and educated his fellow prisoners to adopt a nonviolent approach to getting better treatment in the prison.

31. During the 27 years he was in jail, he was offered freedom from the prison on six different occasions by the apartheid government on certain terms, which he denied.

32. Nelson Mandela was diagnosed with Tuberculosis on August 12, 1988, after which he was shifted to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl.

33. Mandela was released from prison, on the orders of F. W. de Klerk, the then South African state President, on February 11, 1990.

Nelson Mandela facts for kids

34. Nelson Mandela is known for the anti-apartheid movement both in South Africa and internationally.

35. Apartheid was a government policy that segregated whites from non-whites. It meant that white and non-white people could not marry each other, could not share a table in restaurant, could not form sports teams and could not live in the same area. The policy was to discriminate between people based on their color and not allow them to have equal rights.

36. Nelson Mandela retired from politics in 1999, and advocated peace and social justice in his home country and around the world until his death in 2013.

37. His original name was “Rolihlahla” Mandela. One of his teachers named him “Nelson” out of a common practice of giving African students English names.

38. As a sign of respect, many South Africans referred to Nelson Mandela as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name.

39. During his time in school, he excelled at sports such as boxing and track, as well as in academics.

40. Nelson Mandela was arrested along with other 155 activists for the first time on December 5, 1956.

41. Nelson Mandela rose to international fame when he made a statement during the “Rivonia trial” that if the situation demands, he is ready to die for his ideal of a democratic and free society that promotes equal opportunities and harmony for the public.

42. Kids, did you know that Nelson Mandela has a species of spider and a prehistoric woodpecker (Australopicus nelsonmandelai) named after him?

43. South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup under the government of Nelson Mandela.

44. Mandela was a fan of Mahatma Gandhi, and he admired him a lot for his peaceful nonviolence in India during that time.

45. He was also the recipient of more than 250 awards, including honorary degrees from more than 50 universities worldwide.

46. Mandela was on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008, when the then-President George W. Bush signed a bill removing Mandela from it.

47. In 1990, Nelson Mandela became the Second non-citizen and first non-Indian recipient of Bharat Ratna, which is the highest civilian award of the Republic of India. Other famous people that have been conferred upon with the award include A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Mother Teresa.

You can find the list of Mandela’s fellow prisoners, friends and political adversaries here.

Mandela’s famous speeches

During his life, Mandela addressed thousands of people with his speeches. Some of the titles of his famous speeches are:

‘Black Man In A White Man’s Court’

This was Mandela’s first court statement, in Pretoria, October, 1962.

‘An ideal I am prepared to die for’

This is considered as Mandela’s best speech after he had already been sentenced for two years.

‘Address in Capetown’

Delivered in February, 1990; this was Mandela’s speech after he was freed from prison. He used the same words to close the speech as he had used in his famous 1964 speech.

‘The 100-days speech’

Delivered in August, 1994 after completing his first hundred days in office as the President of South Africa.

‘Don’t call me, I’ll call You’

Delivered in June, 2004, Mandela spoke to the public during his years of retirement from the government; but his retirement was not from social activism meant to help people all over the world fight against oppression and injustice.

Famous & inspirational quotes by Nelson Mandela

  • “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
  • Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
  • “We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”
  • “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.”
  • “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
  • “People respond in accordance to how you relate to them. If you approach them on the basis of violence, that’s how they’ll react. But if you say, ‘We want peace, we want stability,’ we can then do a lot of things that will contribute towards the progress of our society.”
  • “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
  • “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
  • “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
  • “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”
  • “There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
  • “Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.”
  • “Does anybody really think that they didn’t get what they had because they didn’t have the talent or the strength or the endurance or the commitment?”
  • “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
  • “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”
  • “When the water starts boiling it is foolish to turn off the heat.”

Nelson Mandela – Quick facts

Born18 July 1918
Mvezo, Cape Province, Union of South Africa
Died5 December 2013 (aged 95)
Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa
NationalitySouth African
Languages KnownXhosa (first language)
Age At the time of death95 years
Field of WorkActivist
Books1. Long Walk to Freedom
2. Conversations With Myself
3. The Struggle is My Life
4. The Essential Nelson Mandela
AwardsSakharov Prize (1988)
Bharat Ratna (1990)
Nobel Peace Prize (1993)
Order of Lenin
Presidential Medal of Freedom
ContributionsAnti-Apartheid Movement
EducationUniversity of Fort Hare
UoL External Programme
University of South Africa
University of the Witwatersrand
ParentsGadla Henry Mphakanyiswa (c. 1880-1928)
Nosekeni Fanny