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.

Mike Hutchings/REUTERS/File
Former South African President Nelson Mandela greets photographers in Johannesburg in this 2005 file photo.

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.

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