Madiba has squeezed a great deal into his 90-odd years — even if 27 of them were spent behind bars. Here are 15 things you might not know about him.
1. Mandela’s birth name — Rolihlahla — is an isiXhosa name that means “pulling the branch of the tree”. Colloquially, it also means “troublemaker”. His English name, Nelson, was given to him by a missionary schoolteacher.
2. He was expelled from the University of Fort Hare after joining a student protest. He later completed his degree through Unisa, which he followed up with a law degree from Wits University.
3. He fled the Eastern Cape for Johannesburg after Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the leader of the Tembu people, tried to set up an arranged marriage for him. After arriving in the city, he found work as a night watchman at a mine.
4. He lived in Alexandra township at first, but later moved in with close friend Walter Sisulu and Sisulu’s mother in Orlando, Soweto.
5. Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Mase, was a nurse and Sisulu’s cousin. She was the breadwinner in the family and supported Mandela while he studied law at Wits University and became further involved in politics. They had four children together and divorced in 1958.
6. He was not only the first commander-in-chief of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, but was also, together with Oliver Tambo, co-founder of the country’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, which defended people affected by apartheid laws.
7. In 1962, he left the country to garner support for the armed struggle. During this time he received guerilla training in Morocco and Ethiopia.
8. The circumstances surrounding his arrest at a police roadblock outside of Howick later that year remain unclear, but it is believed that an American CIA agent tipped off the police about his whereabouts. He was convicted of sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government.
9. During his time in prison, Mandela was restricted to a 2m x 2,5m cell, with nothing but a bedroll on the floor and a bucket for sanitation in it. He was consigned to hard labour in a lime quarry for much of that time and was, at first, only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months.
10. The apartheid government offered to release Mandela on no less than six occasions, but he rejected them each time. On one such occasion Mandela released a statement saying: “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom … What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people (the ANC) remains banned?”
11. Mandela wrote a memoir during the 1970s, copies of which were wrapped in plastic containers and buried in a vegetable garden which he kept at prison. It was hoped that fellow prisoner Mac Maharaj, who was due for release, would be able to smuggle it out. But the containers were discovered when prison authorities began building a wall through the garden. As punishment, Mandela’s study privileges were revoked.
12. After he was separated from his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, he asked struggle stalwart Amina Cachalia, with whom he had a long relationship, to marry him, but she turned him down. On his 80th birthday, Mandela married Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambique’s former president Samora Machel.
13. The ANC was labelled a terrorist organisation by the apartheid government and was recognised as such by countries including the US and Britain. It was only in 2008 that the United States finally removed Mandela and other ANC members from its terror list.
14. The United Nations declared his birthday, July 18, Nelson Mandela International Day. This was the first time the UN dedicated a particular day to a person.
15. Hundreds of awards and honours have been bestowed on Mandela.
Among others, he is an honorary citizen of Canada, an honorary member of the British Labour Party, and an honorary member of Manchester United. He also had a nuclear particle (the “Mandela particle”), a pre-historic woodpecker (Australopicus nelsonmandelai) and an orchid (Paravanda Nelson Mandela) named after him.