African Biography, 1999:
“You had no doubt when you were with [Nelson Mandela] that he had what we call in our language 'shadow'—substance, presence. He was regal.”—Desmond Tutu
A herd boy from an isolated mountainous area who did not wear shoes until age 16, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela rose against overwhelming odds to be president of the richest, most culturally diverse country in Africa. He endured more than 27 years in jail for trying to overthrow a white police state, becoming the world's most famous political prisoner. He led voteless black South Africans from the racist apartheid period into a democratic era in 1994. (Apartheid is an ...view middle of the document...
Mandela was born in Mvezo, a small, isolated Thembu village on the Mbashe River near Umtata, the Transkei capital. The Transkei is a land of sparkling streams and rounded green mountains in today's eastern South Africa. An area as large as Switzerland, the Transkei was home to the Xhosa people before whites arrived in the seventeenth century. The Thembu form one of seven groups that make up the Xhosa nation.
Mandela's father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, gave him the first name Rolihlahla, and he got his last name from his grandfather Mandela. As a show of respect, he is often called Madiba, his clan name. The name Rolihlahla means literally in Xhosa "pulling the branch of a tree." But Mandela said its informal meaning is more accurate: "troublemaker." On his first day in school, his British-trained African teacher gave each student an English name. Mandela was named Nelson. "Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea," Mandela wrote later. "Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson [1758-1805], but that would be only a guess."
Mandela's father was a gifted orator, custodian of Xhosa history, and a tribal priest. He could not read or write, but he placed great emphasis on education for young Mandela. Mandela's father had four wives who lived at homesteads spaced miles apart. His wives had 13 children--nine girls and four boys--among them. Mandela was the youngest of the four boys.His mother was his father's third wife, Nosekeni Fanny. In Thembu lineage, Mandela was in line to become counselor to the tribal rulers, but never a ruler. Ironically, social and political upheavals would not only make him ruler of his Transkei people, but also of the more than 40 million people living in South Africa when he was elected president in 1994.
A "stubborn sense of fairness"
Shortly after Mandela's birth, his father became embroiled in a dispute with a British magistrate that would have a lifelong effect on Mandela. The magistrate summoned Mandela's father in a complaint involving an ox. Mandela's father refused to appear before the magistrate, sending him a message informing him that, as a chief, he was governed by Thembu customs and not by the laws of the king of England. Without an inquiry or hearing, the offended magistrate deposed (removed from power) Mandela's father as a chief.
"My father, who was a wealthy nobleman by the standards of his time, lost both his fortune and his title," Mandela recalled. "He was deprived of most of his herd and land, and the revenue that came with them." Mandela credits the incident with instilling in him his father's "stubbornsense of fairness."
With the family impoverished, Mandela's mother moved a short distance to a larger village and Methodist mission station, Qunu, where she had relatives and could count on support. Mandela's memories of Qunu were fond enough to prompt him to build his retirement home there many years later.
At Qunu, his mother became a...