Nelson Mandela’s Early Life

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) is one of history’s most celebrated and respected figures. A man who dedicated his life to fighting for equality and justice, his story is one that everyone should know. But before Nelson Mandela was the great leader he is known today, he was a young boy named Rolihlahla Mandela, born in the village of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa on July 18, 1918.

Family History

Nelson’s father, Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Henry, was a local chief and councilor to the monarch of the Thembu people. Gadla Henry had four wives. Nelson was his son from his third wife, Nonqaphi Nosekeni Fanny, the daughter of Nkedama from the Right-Hand House and a member of the amaMpemvu clan of the Xhosa tribe.

When Nelson was born, he was given the name Rolihlahla which means “pulling the branch from a tree,” but also colloquially means “troublemaker” in isiXhosa. His surname Mandela came from his grandfather’s name. Mandela, his grandfather, was the son of Ngubengcuka, the monarch of the Thembu Kingdom. Because Mandela was Ngubengcuka’s son with his wife from the Ixhiba clan, he was a direct descendant of the Thembu royal line but ineligible to inherit the throne. This means Nelson had royal blood but also could not be the ruler one day.


Nelson Mandela spent his early childhood in Qunu, a small rural village in the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Nelson’s early life was shaped by his family’s strong commitment to tribal traditions and values. His father taught him the importance of self-reliance and respect for elders. Even though his parents were illiterate, Nelson learned how to read and write when his mother sent him to a local Methodist school when he was seven. It was there that his teacher, Ms. Mdingane, gave him the name Nelson.

In his autobiography, Nelson is not sure why his teacher chose that name for him. In those days, giving African children English names was common because British colonials had difficulty pronouncing African names. She may have named him after the English naval hero Horatio Nelson, or she may have simply liked the sound of it. Whatever the reason, Nelson Mandela would come to embody the meaning of his name–“champion”–as someone who fought against all odds and never gave up.

Wardship to Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo

When Nelson was nine years old, his father suddenly died. Nelson suspected it may have been lung disease, but he would never know for sure. His mother decided to bring Nelson to the Great Palace place at Mqhekezweni, where his paternal uncle, local chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, resided. Jongintaba and his wife, Noengland, took Nelson in and raised him as their own son alongside their two children, Justice and Nomafu.

Together with his guardians, Nelson attended Sunday church weekly and often went on hunting expeditions in the nearby forests. Jongintaba instilled in Nelson the importance of being disciplined and working hard. He also arranged for Nelson to attend a Western-style boarding school in Ngcobo called Clarkebury Methodist High School, where he received a firm grounding in Christianity and basic English grammar.

Higher Learning

He completed his Junior Certificate in two years, and when he was 19 years old, he went to Healdtown Comprehensive School, the college attended by most Thembu royalty during that time. The irony was that the headmaster of Healdtown taught how European colonists were bringing civilization to the “dark continent” of Africa and reminded the students how European culture was superior to African cultures. Still, Nelson became more and more interested in African history and culture.

At 21 years old, he attended the University of Fort Hare, one of the few institutions of higher learning available to black Africans at that time. At Fort Hare, he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman-Dutch law. Nelson was one of the top students in his class, and he excelled in track and boxing. It was at Fort Hare where he met and befriended fellow student Oliver Tambo, with whom he would later form the law firm of Mandela and Tambo. Nelson Mandela’s time at Fort Hare was cut short when he was caught up in a student protest against the quality of food served in the school. He got suspended and never returned to complete his BA degree.

His early life experiences would shape the future Nelson Mandela into the man he would become–a passionate advocate for social justice and equality, a leader of his people, and an icon of hope for oppressed people all over the world.