Mandela: The Life of a Great Leader

There were many sad passings of inspirational figures in 2013 from diverse walks of life, Margaret Thatcher, Lou Reed, Seamus Heaney to name just a few.  The man who left us the most legacy was probably the recently deceased South African revolutionary Rolihlahla Mandela better known as Nelson Mandela who was born in Transkei, South Africa on 18 July, 1918. Who was this great man who touched the lives of so many people in Africa and around the world?

Mandela’s childhood:

Rolihlahla Mandela was given the name Nelson by one of his teachers at school. He was born in a small village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa where he was often called “Madiba”. As a boy, he herdedsheep and cows and played barefoot with other boys. He was educated by British missionaries.

A new life in Johannesburg:

Mandela attended the University of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand and got a law degree in 1942. Ten years later he qualified as a lawyer and opened a law practice with Oliver Tambo. It was the first black law firm in Johannesburg. But, his life wasn’t all work. Mandela also found love, and married Evelyn Mase, in 1944. Together they had four children, but sadly their marriage did not last. After 14 years they divorced in 1958, and Mandela married Winnie Madikizela–Mandela. Winnie and Mandela had two children together and were married for 38 years.


The political system of apartheid governed every aspect of life in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. In practice, apartheid enforced a racial hierarchy privileging white South Africans. For example, only white people had the right to vote. Nelson Mandela was born in a country that viewed him as a second-class citizen under apartheid.

Fighting for Equality:

In the 1940s, Mandela got involved with the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC was a multi-racialmovement trying to bring change to in South Africa. In 1952, Mandela became one of the ANC’s deputy presidents. At first the ANC tried to bring change through non-violent or passive protest, but they soon saw that being passive would get them nowhere. This was especially obvious after the tragic events that occurred at Sharpeville. In March 1960, 69 black anti-apartheid demonstrators were killed by police. The government declared a state of emergency and banned the ANC. So, Mandela and others involved in the ANC set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed sector of the ANC. As a result of Umkhonto we Sizwe’s tactics, Mandela others went on trial for sabotage in 1963.

He was faced with the death penalty, but did not receive it. Though he was not killed, Mandela was sentenced to a life-long prison term. He was held in Robben Island prison, off the coast of Cape Town, and later in Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. In prison he became a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.


The South African government responded to internal and international pressure and released Mandela in 1990. Mandela was freed, but he had spent 27 years locked up.

A Leader:

In 1994 South Africa held its first multi-racial election. Mandela was elected as the first black president.

It was in the early 90s that Mandela spoke these inspirational words to a nation trying to rebuild itself: “We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all. This is the challenge that faces all South Africans today, and it is one to which I am certain we will all rise.”

The Last Years:

Mandela said in his autobiography that: “To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it is a joy I had far too little of.” Mandela’s nearly 30 years in prison cost him a happy home life. He divorced his second wife, and lost several of his children. But at the age of 80 he was married once more to Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel.

Mandela lived happily with his wife until he died on 5 December 2013 at the old age of 95.

Remembering the Man:

People lined up by the thousands to see Mandela’s coffin and say good bye. At his memorial service, dignitaries from around the globe came to speak and pay their respects. President Obama delivered a well-received that compared Mandela to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, and America’s founding fathers. Obama said, was the “last great liberator of the 20th century.” He was not only a man of politics, but a pragmatist and a flawed human being who managed to discipline his anger to turn centuries of oppression into what Mandela liked to call a “Rainbow Nation.”

Mandela was buried at his ancestral home in Qunu. R.I.P.


herded (v):  to care for sheep, cows, goats, livestock.

barefoot (adj): to go without shoes.

degree (n): a certificate given when a college student finishes their studies.

death penalty (n): punishment for a crime; death as a result of being convicted of a crime.

locked up (phrasal verb/adj): to be in jail or prison.

rebuild (v): to build again; to construct something again.

wounds (n): injuries both physical and emotional/psychological.

lined up (phrasal verb): to wait in line; to make a line and wait for something.

coffin (n): the wooden box used for a body when someone dies.

founding fathers (n): the men who founded America and had revolutionary ideas.

R.I.P. (acronym): means Rest In Peace.

Prepara las siguientes preguntas sobre este articulo para tu proxima clase con tu profesor de ingles de Love Speaking. 

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Let’s Talk!

  1. Before reading this article, did you know much about Mandela and his life? How much of the information you read in this article was new for you?
  2. What part of Mandela’s life do you find most impressive?
  3. Can you think of men or women from your country who were also revolutionaries for the people? Name them.
  4. Mandela changed South Africa and the world. What other men and women changed the world like Mandela?
  5. Would you like to visit South Africa? Why or why not?


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