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EARLY LIFE Nelson Mandela was born in a tiny village in the Transkei region of South Africa on 18 July 1918. He was called Rolihlahla, which means ‘troublemaker’ in the Xhosa language. Later in life Mandela was often called Madiba, the clan name he inherited at birth.

Mandela was no more than five when he became a herd-boy looking after sheep and calves in the fields.

Mandela aged 16 when he went to boarding school. In 1939, he attended Fort Hare, one of the few universities educating black students in Southern Africa.

The house where Mandela lived from 1920–1939.

The Transkei: home of the Thembu people, who are part of the Xhosa nation.

Then the country was ours, in our own name and right. We occupied the land, the forests, the rivers: we extracted the mineral wealth below the soil and all the riches of this beautiful country. Mandela writing about South Africa before European conquest

Quiet revolution: Black South African sitting on a ‘Whites Only’ bench.

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RIVONIA TRIAL In 1948 the all-white government introduced the policy of apartheid – meaning ‘separateness’. It separated African, Indian and European peoples and prohibited inter-racial marriage. Africans had to carry a passbook, restricting where they could live and work. Failure to produce it could lead to imprisonment. Simmering revolt against apartheid led to the Sharpville massacre, the burning of the hated passbooks and many other protests. Facing the death sentence at the Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela decided to defend himself with a passionate expose of the injustices of apartheid. He and seven other ANC leaders were sentenced to life-long prison.

Women demonstrating outside Central Pass Office in downtown Johannesburg.

Nelson Mandela burns his passbook in March 1960.

The eight men sentenced to life imprisonment at the Rivonia trial.

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African People. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. The conclusion of Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia Trial, 12 June 1964

Reaction to the Sharpville massacre in the Daily Mirror.

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ROBBEN ISLAND At the age of 46, Mandela became a prisoner in one of the harshest prisons in the country, Robben Island, located 29 kilometres off the coast of Cape Town. Even in prison, laws discriminated against Africans. They were given the worst food and made to wear short trousers. Mandela was forced to do hard labour, at first crushing stones to make gravel and later digging in a lime quarry.

The main gate of the prison.

Prison yard at Robben Island where inmates were made to crush stones.

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Mandela sewing prison clothes before being sent to Robben Island.

Stoney road to Robben Island prison.

We would fight inside as we had fought outside. The racism and repression were the same; I would simply have to fight on different terms. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

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I do not recall a time when he showed any despondence, not even when Winnie was in jail, detained or when news came of her torture has Nelson flagged. Mac Maharaj, fellow prisoner on Robben Island, talking about Nelson Mandela

Mandela and Walter Sisulu photographed on Robben Island in 1964.

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TRANSITION Nelson Mandela was finally released on 11 February 1990, having refused numerous deals for leniency for himself. He plunged wholeheartedly into his life’s work. In 1991 Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organisation’s National Chairperson. His refusal to accept racism and unjust laws and the heroism of millions forced the South African government to end apartheid and, for the first time, allow all South Africans to vote in the elections of April 1994.

Mandela’s daughter Zindzi campaigning for the release of her father and other political prisoners in 1985.

Campaigning for Mandela and a better life.

Nelson Mandela addressing a huge crowd in Soweto the day after his release.

We were able to make an aerial tour of Soweto, the teeming metropolis of matchbox houses, tin shanties and dirt roads, the mother city of black urban South Africa, the only home I ever knew as a man before I went to prison. While Soweto had grown, and in some places prospered, the overwhelming majority of the people remained dreadfully, poor, without electricity or running water, eking out an existence that was shameful in a nation as wealthy as South Africa. In many places, the poverty was far worse than when I went to prison.

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I cherish my freedom. But I care even more for your freedom. I will not give any undertaking when you and I, the people, are not free.

Mandela’s response to an offer of freedom from the South African government, read by his daughter Zindzi in a speech in 1985

Queuing to vote in the country’s first democratic election, 1994.

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PRESIDENT The year before the elections, Mandela travelled to Oslo in Norway with the then South African President F W De Klerk. Both men had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to bring about an end to apartheid and create a new democratic South Africa. On 27th April 1994, the first free, democratic elections in South African history made Nelson Mandela the first black president of his country. His long struggle for freedom had ended in triumph. The man who spent twenty-eight years in apartheid jails became the president of the new South Africa. Mandela with F W De Klerk receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1993.

Mandela shows US President Bill Clinton his prison cell on Robben Island.

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Mandela takes the oath to be his country’s President, April 1994.

We shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world. from Nelson Manela’s first speech as President

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South Africa’s future foreign relations will be based on our belief that human rights should be the core of international relations, and we are ready to play a role in fostering peace and prosperity in the world. Nelson Mandela interviewed in 1993

Mandela and his new wife Graca Machel, the widow of the former leader of Mozambique, on his 80th birthday.

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WALKING INTO THE FUTURE In 1999, after five years as president, Nelson Mandela retired and returned to his birthplace, Qunu, in the Transkei to make his home. He still travels and promotes his 46664 (his prison number) campaign to highlight AIDS as a human rights issue, but spends most of his time with his new wife and family. He can finally do all the things, he had no time or opportunity to do as a freedom fighter, a prisoner or a president.

Nelson Mandela celebrated his 90th Birthday on 18 July 2008 with many people throughout the world wishing him: Happy Birthday, Madiba! Reading people want to celebrate his life and struggle with him. Many groups were involved in the anti-apartheid struggle and the boycott of South African goods. We want to commemorate this giant of a leader, whose strength of character and moral compass has been an inspiration to us all.


Nelson Manela in traditional clothes.

I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk has not ended. Nelson Mandela


We support the peoples of South Africa in their struggles to create quality of life for all her peoples. Nelson Mandela has become a symbol of freedom for South Africans and millions of people throughout the world. w w w. r i s c . o r g . u k

Happy Birthday, Madiba!  

6 panel exhibition that celebrates the 90th birthday of Nelson Mandela. Describes his early life and the background to his struggle against...