Nelson Mandela was born on 18th July 1918 in a small village called Mvezo, near Umtata the capital of the Transkei. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a member of the Thembu royal family and chief of Mvezo until the colonial authorities removed him following an argument with a European. The family moved to Qunu where Mphakanyiswa died when Nelson was only nine years old.
The regent of the Thembu, Jongintaba, became Mandela's guardian, sending him to a Wesleyan mission school where he was a gifted pupil. Mandela attended a Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort before enrolling at Fort Hare University, where he became involved in student politics. His involvement in agitation against university policy resulted in him being expelled.
To escape from an arranged marriage, Mandela moved to Johannesburg with Jongintaba, the regent's son. He eventually found employment with a legal firm and completed a BA by correspondence with the University of South Africa. He then began to law at the University of Witwatersand where he first met many people who would later be part of the anti-apartheid movement.
Following the 1948 election victory of the National Party cemented the apartheid policy, Mandela became a political activist. In December 1956 the South African authorities arrested Mandela along with 150 others on charges of treason. A five year trial followed, during which all defendants received acquittals.
To begin with Mandela was committed to the principles of non-violent resistance made famous by Mahatma Gandhi, but in response to an increase in state repression, he co-founded and became leader of the ANC's armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"). The group engaged in bombing campaigns against government and military buildings, while not harming any people. Mandela coordinated these campaigns and travelled abroad to raise funds for the group.
On 5th August 1962, the security police followed a CIA tip-off and arrested Mandela. He faced charges of inciting workers to strike and travelling abroad illegally for which he was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Following the arrest of many leaders of the ANC in 1963, Mandela faced trial again on charges of sabotage and other treasonous activities. Found guilty he escaped the death penalty, but received a sentence of life imprisonment.
Robben Island became Mandela's home for eighteen of his twenty-seven years in prison. While there he engaged in hard labour in a lime quarry and also received a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of London after studying by correspondence. Meanwhile he became a cause célèbre as international opinion turned against the South African government and their segregationist policies.
In 1982, the authorities relocated Mandela and the other ANC leaders to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town. Three years later Mandela met with a representative of the National Party government at the Volks Hospital in Cape Town where he was undergoing treatment on his prostate. Nevertheless, no progress was made until Frederik Willem de Klerk became president in August 1989.
The following February de Clerk lifted the ban on the ANC and the other anti-apartheid organisations and announced the imminent release of Nelson Mandela. On 11th February 1990, millions of television viewers watched Nelson Mandela leave Victor Verster Prison in Paarl as a free man. He resumed his role as a leader of the ANC taking part in the four years of negotiations with the government.
In recognition of the attempts at peace and reconciliation the Nobel prize committee awarded Mandela and de Clerk with the Peace Prize in 1993. A year later the first South African multi-racial elections took place. The ANC received 62% of the vote and Mandela became the first black president of South Africa. He remained in office for five years becoming a world statesman, a position he still holds.
BBC News footage of Mandela's release
Foundation of the African National Congress: 8th January 1912
Southern Rhodesians chose not to join the Union of South Africa: 27th October 1922
Swaziland became independent: 6th September 1968