1. His real first name is Rolihlahla.

Mandela’s parents named him "Rolihlahla" which, in the Xhosa language, literally means "pulling the branch of a tree," but more commonly translates as "troublemaker." It was at school, that his teacher Miss Mdingane named him “Nelson," in accordance with the custom to give all school children "Christian" names.

2. He initially became interested in African history living with a chief. 

At 9, Mandela’s father died and Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo adopted him. In the chief’s house he begins to develop an interest in African history listening to the story of visiting elders. At 16, he participates in the traditional African circumcision ritual to mark his entrance into manhood. During the proceedings, Chief Meligqili, the main speaker at the ceremony, their land is controlled by White men.

3. His first official act of civil disobedience was in protest of poor food.

Elected to the Student Representative Council, at the University of Fort Hare Mandela resigns shortly after, aligning with students protesting the food quality, among other things. For leaving his post, Mandela is expelled.

4. He was married before Winnie.

On July 15, 1944 he married nurse Evelyn Ntoko Mase. That year he also officially joined the African National Congress. His ANC activities resulted in multiple arrests that ultimately strained his marriage. Additionally, Evelyn’s Jehovah’s Witness faith required political neutrality. In 1955, Evelyn, leaves Mandela while he is in custody for another arrest. They are officially divorced in 1958, and months later he marries Winnie.

5. He wasn’t the best student.

Mandela himself admits he was a poor student and left the University of the Witwatersrand law school without graduating. Still, he completes his “articles”—a period of apprenticeship required to practice law. (He finally earned his law degree in 1988, while in prison,)

6. He started out strictly non-violent

…but after The Sharpeville Massacre that reportedly left nearly 300 blacks injured and 69 dead at the hands of police, he co-founds an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerilla war tactics to end apartheid. It’s called Umkhonto we Sizwe—“Spear of the Nation”.  On this new tip, he sneaks out of the country for military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and to garner support for the ANC in England.

7. He spent 27 years in prison.

Sentenced to life in prison for sabotage, Mandela spends 18 years at Robben Island, a prison five miles off the coast of South Africa, before being moved to Pollsmoor Prison, reportedly to enable easier communication between them and the South African government. During his term, his mother and son die.

8. He refused an early offer of release from prison.

South African President P.W. Botha offers Mandela's release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; he said, no thanks.

9. He was released from prison by new South African President F.W. De Klerk.

Once he succeeded president Botha, de Klerk announced Mandela’s release date February 11, 1990.  

10. He shares a Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk.

In 1993, he and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country's apartheid system.

11. De Klerk Served as Mandela’s Deputy.

After he beat out President de Klerk and 17 other candidates in the nation’s first democratic election, de Klerk, who came in second, served as Mandela’s first deputy.

12. He’s been knighted nine times, in nine different countries.

South Africa. Lesotho. Luxembourg. The Netherlands. Denmark. United Kingdom. Portugal. Norway. Sweden.

13. His current wife is also an activist.

Mandela married former First Lady of Mozambique Graça Machel on his birthday in 1998. Machel was an education activist in the struggle to liberate Mozambique from Portuguese colonial rule; and was formerly married to Samora Machel who became the first president of Mozambique after independence. She continues to lead initiatives, and has racked up awards, for her advocacy and work to improve children’s access to education in Mozambique and other nations.

14. Mandela launched his 46664 HIV/AIDS Awareness Campaign in 2002.

Three years before his son’s death from the disease, Mandela launched the 46664 HIV/AIDS. The number “46664” is derived from his prison number “466” and the year 1964 when he was sentenced to life.

15. Mandela’s birthday is officially “Nelson Mandela Day” in South Africa.

July 18, 2009 was declared "Mandela Day" to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader's legacy.


Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.EBONY.com