• Why is Nelson Mandela famous?

    A leader of his people
    Nelson Mandela was the first black President of South Africa. He spent 27 years in prison for trying to overthrow the pro-apartheid government. After he left prison, he worked to achieve human rights and a better future for everyone in South Africa.

    When did he live?
    Nelson Mandela was born in 1918. He was in prison from 1962 to 1990. He became President of South Africa in 1994, and retired in 1999. Nelson Mandela died on 5 December 2013 following a lung illness.

    Why is he famous?
    Nelson Mandela became famous for his long fight against bad government and racial prejudice. He became a hero to people all over the world. As South Africa's President, he was respected for his courage and wisdom in bringing people together to live in peace.

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  • The young Mandela

    Where was he born?
    Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918. He was later given the name Nelson by a teacher at school.

    He was born in the Transkei, part of South Africa. The Transkei has mountains, valleys and grasslands called savannas. On a map, you can find it in the southeast (bottom right) corner of South Africa.

    Growing up
    Mandela's father Henry was a chief of the Tembu people. His mother was Nosekeni Fanny. The Mandelas were related to the Tembu royal family.

    When Nelson was 9, his father died. He was looked after by Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who was regent (acting chief) of the Tembu.

    School and college
    Nelson went to a mission school, and then to college. He was good at school work. He also enjoyed boxing and running. At Fort Hare University, he studied law. One of his friends there was Oliver Tambo. Nelson left the university in 1939, after student protests about the way it was run.

    What job did he choose?
    Mandela's family had chosen a wife for him. But he did not want an arranged marriage. So he left for the city of Johannesburg. He went on with his studies, and became a lawyer in 1942.

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  • Problems in South Africa

    South Africa's history
    Most South Africans are black. There are also people of European and Asian backgrounds, and people of mixed race.

    Dutch people set up the first white colony in South Africa in 1652. Later British settlers came. Dutch farmers called themselves 'Boers', from a Dutch word meaning 'farmers'. They spoke a language called Afrikaans. Most other white settlers spoke English. Black people spoke Bantu languages such as isiNdebele and isiZulu.

    Britain and South Africa
    Britain took over the Dutch colony in 1815. South Africa became part of the British Empire. Gold was found in 1886. With gold and good farmland, the country was rich.

    But it was not peaceful. Whites and blacks fought over the land. There were wars between the Boers and the British. The Boers wanted their own country.

    How South Africa was ruled
    When Mandela was growing up, black people had little say in how South Africa was run. The government was whites-only. Most black people were poor. They worked as servants. They worked on farms, and in factories and gold mines.

    What was the ANC?
    In 1944, Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress or ANC. The ANC wanted black South Africans to have the same human rights as whites.

    In 1948, the South African government made new laws to keep white people and black people apart. The new system was called 'apartheid'.

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  • Struggle for Freedom

    What was apartheid?
    Apartheid (say A-PART-HITE) forced white and non-white people to live in separate areas. Non-white people meant black people, people from Asia and people of mixed race.

    A white person and a black person could not marry. Black people and white people could not share a table in a restaurant, or sit together on a bus. Black children and white children went to different schools. Sports teams were all-white or all-black, never mixed.

    Mandela makes a stand
    Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up South Africa's first black law firm. Poor people came to them for help.

    Mandela led young people in the ANC. Many white people, as well as black people, spoke out against apartheid. Mandela admired Gandhi, who had used peaceful protest in India. Perhaps peaceful protest could get rid of apartheid, without fighting?

    But to speak out was dangerous. In 1956, Mandela and 155 other people were arrested for treason. After a trial lasting five years, he was set free in 1961.

    What happened at Sharpeville?
    In 1960, people held a demonstration against apartheid at Sharpeville, near Johannesburg. The police shot dead 69 black people. The government blamed the ANC, and banned it.

    Mandela became leader of a secret army, known as Umkhonto we Sizwe or 'Spear of the Nation'. He was hunted by the police, and had to hide and use disguises. He travelled to other countries to ask for help.

    Mandela goes to jail
    In 1961 South Africa left the Commonwealth. Millions of people in other countries supported the anti-apartheid movement. Many nations stopped trade with South Africa. Sports teams and entertainers refused to go there.

    Still the government refused to change. In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested again. He was accused of sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government. In 1964, aged 46, he was given a life sentence.

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  • President Mandela

    Robben Island
    Mandela was sent to the prison on Robben Island. Other ANC leaders in prison there included Walter Sisulu. Oliver Tambo had left South Africa to live abroad.

    Mandela spent 18 years on Robben Island. He had to do hard labour. He was allowed one visitor every 6 months. He was later moved to another prison.

    Free Nelson Mandela!
    Mandela became the most famous prisoner in the world. He did not give up. Even the prison guards admired him.

    At last, in 1988, the South African government began to make changes. One change was to let black students into 'white' universities. From around the world, the calls got louder. Free Nelson Mandela!

    Mandela leaves prison
    In 1990, South Africa's new President FW de Klerk set Nelson Mandela free. Mandela and de Klerk agreed: no more fighting. Mandela called on all South Africans to work together in peace.

    Mandela becomes President
    In 1991, Mandela became leader of the ANC. In the 1994 elections, all black people in South Africa were able to vote for the first time. The ANC won the election. A new government took over. In May 1994, Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president.

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  • World Statesman

    The rainbow nation
    Another famous South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, called South Africa a 'rainbow nation'. Nelson Mandela also spoke of it this way. Its people were of all races and colours, working together.

    In 1995, South Africa was host for the rugby World Cup. President Mandela wore a Springbok rugby shirt. The springbok antelope is South Africa's national animal. South Africa's rugby team, the Springboks, had been all-white. Mandela wore the shirt to help bring white and black together. Sport helped to do this.

    Honours and a book
    Mandela was welcomed around the world as a great statesman (world leader). He was given many honours. In 1993, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize.

    Mandela wrote a book about his struggle called 'Long Walk to Freedom'.

    Family life
    Mandela married three times. His first marriage ended in 1957. He and his second wife, Winnie, divorced in 1996. At the age of 81, he married Grace Machel.

    An inspiration to others
    Nelson Mandela retired as President in 1999. From 2004, he gave up politics, to enjoy a quiet life with his family.

    Nelson Mandela: an inspiration for people all over the world.

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Nelson Mandela Game

Nelson Mandela

Play An Audience with Mandela.

Fun Facts
  • Mandela has a species of spider named after him.

  • A statue of Nelson Mandela stands in Parliament Square, London.

  • Nelson Mandela became an honorary citizen of Canada.

  • Mandela's bright coloured shirts were called 'Madiba' shirts, because Madiba was Mandela's nickname.

  • In prison and afterwards Mandela got up early, at 4.30. He began each day with exercises.

Other famous politicians and reformers

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Jump to: A-D | E-G | H-L | M-O | P-S | T-Z

A to D

arranged marriage
When a person marries someone chosen for them by their family.
This is when something is made against the law.
White South African people who speak a language called Afrikaans.
British Empire
In history, countries that were ruled by Britain.
A settlement by people from one country in another country.
A group of 54 friendly nations; almost all were once ruled by Britain.
A protest against something people think is wrong.

E to G

H to L

hard labour
Outdoor work done by a prisoner, such as breaking rocks or digging.
Someone who does brave things and is admired by others.
human rights
Freedoms that every person should have.
life sentence
This is being kept in prison until a person dies.

M to O

mission school
A school run by Christian teachers.
Nobel Peace Prize
A prize given every year to people who have worked for world peace.

P to S

racial prejudice
Treating people unfairly because of their race or skin colour.
Doing damage, such as blowing up a bridge or railway, on purpose.
People paid to work for rich people, usually in their homes.

T to Z

Buying and selling things.
A region of South Africa.
The crime of plotting or fighting against your own country.