Rolihlahla Nelson Dahlibunga “Madiba” Mandela, who dedicated 48 years of his life to toppling South Africa’s racist Apartheid regime, died today. He was 95 years old. In the months preceding his death, he had been receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection.
Almost a century before, Mandela was born into a vastly different world.
The man who would win a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending Apartheid was born to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela on July 18th in Mvezo, a tiny hamlet on the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata in Transkei, South Africa. After centuries’ long encroachment upon their land, native South Africans were treated like second-class citizens in their own country as the Dutch, German, and British sought to colonize them. Apartheid—the system of racial discrimination and enforced segregation that limited and criminalized certain kinds of contact between blacks, whites, “Coloreds” (mixed race people) and Indians—would not officially begin in South Africa till 1950, but the stage had been set.
Perhaps identifying the quality in his newborn son, or prophesying it, Nkosi Mandela named him "Rolihlahla" which in the Xhosa language literally means "pulling the branch of a tree", or, colloquially, "troublemaker." It was upon his enrollment in primary school that Rolihlahla’s teacher, in accordance with the custom to give schoolchildren “Christian” names, named the boy “Nelson” which means “son of the champion” and “conqueror of the people.”
Mandela’s father would not live to see his son make good on either of his names. At nine years old, Mandela lost his father to lung disease, and was soon after adopted by the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, whom his father had served as a principal counselor.
In the royal, Mandela began to learn about South Africa’s history of struggle against white settlers. During the traditional circumcision ceremony that initiated 16-year-old Mandela and about 25 other boys into manhood, one Chief Meligqili told them their adulthood would not bear the characteristics of true freedom due to colonial rule. During the ceremony he was given another prophetic name: “Dahlibunga” which means “creator or founder of the council” or “convener of the dialogue”.
Mandela spent the decade between his manhood initiation and his entry into social activism, developing leadership skills. As a second-year student at the University College of Fort Hare, the only boarding university blacks were allowed to attend, he was elected to the Student Representative Council. He later resigned from the position in solidarity with student protests over the quality of the school’s food. For this, he was expelled.
Royally outraged by the dismissal, Mandela’s adoptive father arranged a marriage for the young man with the goal of securing his future. Then 23, Mandela fled the arrangement for Johannesburg, where he worked as a guard and clerk and took correspondence courses to earn his bachelor’s degree. (He would later return to Fort Hare to graduate in 1943.)
In Jo’burg, Mandela’s interest in activism grew. He became increasingly involved in the African National Congress (ANC), which sought to reverse the injustice South Africans were experiencing at the hands of the white government. In 1944, the same year he married nurse Evelyn Ntoko Mase, he \ co-founded the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) within the organization aimed at transforming the ANC into a mass grassroots movement.
While Mandela’s wife attended to the family the couple had started—a son named Madiba Thembekile born in 1946, a daughter named Makaziwe who died in 1948 at nine months’ old, second son Makgatho Lewanika delivered in 1950, and daughter Pumla Makaziwe born in 1954, named in in honor of her older sister—Mandela rose through the ANC ranks.
In ’48, he was elected National Secretary of the ANCYL; in ’51, ANCYL President; in ’52 Transvaal ANC President. He also opened the nation’s first black law firm with Fort Hare mate Oliver Tambo.
The young attorney led the 1952 Defiance Campaign for which he was arrested. He would go on to be arrested, monitored by the government or jailed multiple times. In 1955, after another arrest, Mandela’s wife moved out of their home. In accordance with her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness, Evelyn practiced political neutrality.
Three years after Evelyn’s exit, and three months after his divorce from her was final, Mandela married Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, better known as “Winnie”, whom he had met via ANC work. The activist couple expanded their family with daughters Zenani Dlamini in 1959 and Zindziswa (called Zindzi) in 1960.
In 1960, Mandela’s life would irreversibly change.
On March 21st, South African police sprayed bullets into a crowd of demonstrators gathered in Sharpeville to protest laws that required blacks to carry passes to move between certain neighborhoods. Known as the Sharpeville Massacre, the shooting claimed the lives of 69 Africans and injured 180 to 300 others. The violence was simultaneous