Key Mandela moments: A biographical timeline

A look back at the extraordinary life of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa.

1.In the beginning

July 18, 1918: Mandela is born in the village of Mvezo, in rural Eastern Cape. His father is a chief of the Madiba clan of the Thembu people; Mandela’s mother is third among four wives. Mandela is named Rolihlahla, which is Xhosa for “troublemaker.” 

1925: Becomes the first person in his family to go to school. On his first day, he is given the name Nelson, after Lord Horatio Nelson, a British vice admiral in the Napoleonic Wars.

1927: Mr. Mandela's father dies and he is brought up by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu. Living in the Thembu royal court, Mandela later said the move awoke his ambition and taught him the value of consensual politics.

1939: After finishing secondary school, Mandela enrolls in the University of Fort Hare, an elite public university for black Africans. He is suspended for organizing a boycott and leaves the university without a degree.

1941-43: Fleeing home to escape an arranged marriage, Mandela goes to Johannesburg where he met Walter Sisulu, later to become African National Congress (ANC) secretary general. Mandela completes his BA and earns a law degree.

1944: Mandela joins the ANC, and along with Mr. Sisulu and Oliver Tambo creates its youth league, transforming the organization into an activist party. That year he  marries Evelyn Ntoko Mase. They have four children before divorcing 14 years later.

2.Organizational start

Crowds cheer as a police van brings prisoners to the Drill Hall, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Dec. 31, 1956, for the start of the 'Treason Trial.' Nelson Mandela was among the people arrested and standing trial. (AP)

1948: Afrikaner National Party wins general election on apartheid platform and begins implementing discriminatory policies. 

1951: Nelson Mandela becomes ANC Youth League President.

1952: Start of the “Defiance Campaign.” Blacks, coloreds and Indians use "white-only" facilities and break nighttime curfews. Also that year, Mandela and Mr. Tambo found South Africa’s first black law firm; they focus on apartheid cases related to persecution of black Africans.

1955: Mandela helps develop the Freedom Charter, the precursor to South Africa's democratic constitution; it is launched in Kliptown, Soweto.

1956: Mandela and 155 others are arrested and tried for treason. After a four-year trial, they are acquitted.

A change in tactics and prison time

Nelson and Winnie Mandela in their wedding photo from 1958. (REUTERS)

1958: He meets and marries Winnie Madikizela, a social worker and ANC activist.

1960: In Sharpeville township, 69 people are killed while protesting apartheid “pass laws” that restrict the movement of black Africans. A state of emergency is declared; the ANC is banned. The Sharpeville massacre convinces Mandela to abandon his position of non-violence. 

1961: Mandela forms the ANC’s underground military wing, "Spear of the Nation," and goes underground. He becomes known as “the Black Pimpernel.”

1962: He seeks training in guerrilla warfare abroad, spending time in Algeria. Upon his return he is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison.

1963: While serving his sentence, Mandela and nine others are tried for sabotage and terrorism, in what is known as the Rivonia trial. The following year, they are jailed for life and sent to Robben Island.

Beginning of apartheid's end

Former South African president P.W. Botha, left, addresses a press conference with former President Nelson Mandela, in this 1995 file photo, six years after they first met to discuss Mandela's release from prison. (AP/File)

1976: In the Soweto uprising, police fire upon high school students who are protesting over being taught in Afrikaans language. Some 176 people are killed, including Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy who became a symbol of resistance to apartheid brutality. 

1977: Steve Biko, founder of the “black consciousness movement,” dies after torture in police custody.

1982: Nelson Mandela and other members of the ANC leadership are transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on South Africa's mainland.

1988: Mandela is moved to Victor Verster open prison in Paarl, near Cape Town, for negotiations with the apartheid government.

1989: Meets President P.W. Botha to discuss his release. Botha soon resigns office.

Feb. 9, 1990: President F.W. de Klerk announces the dismantling of apartheid and the unbanning of the ANC.

Freedom & the presidency

South African Deputy President F.W. de Klerk, right, and South African President Nelson Mandela, left, pose with their Nobel Peace Prize Gold Medals and Diplomas, in Oslo, in this December 1993 file photo. Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of apartheid in the country. (NTB/AP/File)

Feb. 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from prison at age 72. 

1991: ANC holds its first national conference in South Africa; Mandela is elected president of the party.

1993: Mr. de Klerk and Mandela are jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

April 27, 1994: South Africa’s first democratic election, open to all races.

May 10, 1994: Nelson Mandela inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa. He pledges that "all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity."

1996: Amid claims of her infidelity, Mandela divorces Winnie Madikizela.

Man & country move into 21st century

Former South African president Nelson Mandela waves as he leaves after casting his vote at a polling station in Houghton in this 2009 file photo. (Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS/File)

1998: On his 80th birthday, Mandela marries Graca Machel, former wife of assassinated Mozambican President Samora Machel. 

1999: Mandela steps down after one term in office, handing leadership over to deputy president Thabo Mbeki.

2004: Announces his retirement from public life, telling journalists: "Don't call me, I will call you."

July 11, 2010: Greets fans at soccer’s World Cup, hosted by South Africa.

July 2011: Mandela's family announces he has moved from his home in Houghton, Johannesburg, to Qunu, near his birthplace in the Eastern Cape.

Dec. 5, 2013: President Jacob Zuma announces the death of Mandela. "He's now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son," Mr. Zuma said. Mandela "endured much so our people could be free."