Nelson Mandela's Early Life

Explore his transformative years

Childhood (2010/2010)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Mvezo rondavels v2 (2007-04-16)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

“ experiences in the veld where we worked and played together in groups, introduced me at an early age to the ideas of collective effort.”

From his birth in 1918 until 1941, Nelson Mandela lived in the rural Eastern Cape. The son of a Thembu chief (traditional leader), his primary influences as a young person were the customs of the Thembu people and the education he received at Christian mission schools. Between 1939 and 1941 he studied at the University of Fort Hare, a tertiary institution for black South Africans (and black students from other African countries), where he was first exposed to the politics of African nationalism. In 1941 he left the Eastern Cape for the city of Johannesburg, where he was to be exposed more directly to the realities of state racism and where he was to find a political home in the African National Congress.

Personal papers: church membership cards (#4) (1931/1931)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Church membership cards

These are the oldest items in the archive of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory.

For most of his adult life, Mandela had been a diligent maker of records and an obsessive record-keeper. How else to explain his collection of Methodist Church membership cards recording his annual membership between 1929 and 1934.

The small, yellowed cards are written in his home language of isiXhosa and display the date, that they are for members of the Sunday School – the forum for child congregants of the Methodist Church. On the cards are printed verses from the bible.

His attendance of Sunday School as a child must have made an impression on Mr Mandela as when he attended university for the first time, at Fort Hare, he became a Sunday School teacher too.

In a letter to his eldest daughter Maki Mandela, written on Robben Island on 27 March 1977 he said:

“As you know, I was baptised in the Methodist Church and was educated in Wesleyan schools – Clarkebury, Healdtown and at Fort Hare. I stayed at Wesley House. At Fort Hare I even became a Sunday School teacher.”

Gilbert Nzimeni Collection Gilbert Nzimeni Collection (1938) by Nelson Mandela FoundationThe Nelson Mandela Foundation

Healdtown photograph

A photograph, which is regarded as the earliest known taken of Nelson Mandela, is housed in the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and features him in a class photograph of Healdtown, the Wesleyan College he attended in 1937 and 1938.

At the centre of the photograph sits Ms Myrtle Workman, head of the girls’ hostel, and Rev Arthur Wellington, then head of Healdtown. In all his recollections of Healdtown, Mr Mandela highlighted the character of Rev Wellington who would proclaim “I am a descendant of the Duke of Wellington”. Mr Mandela would often break out laughing when he regaled people with tales of his schooldays.

To the right of Rev Wellington is Rev SM Mokitimi (head of the boys’ hostel, among other positions) and to his right is Ms Jane Methola, a pupil. Behind Rev Mokitimi is another pupil, Mr Gilbert Nzimeni.

Of Rev SM Mokitimi Mr Mandela wrote: “Reverend Mokitimi impressed us for another reason: He stood up to Rev Wellington.” He said witnessing this made him realise that “a black man did not have to defer automatically to a white, however senior he was.”

“... at an early age I drifted away from my parents and moved about, played and ate together with other boys. In fact I hardly remember any occasion when I was ever alone at home.”

To Duggie Lukhele To Duggie Lukhele (1970-08-01/1970-08-01)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Country childhood

In this letter to Senator Douglas Lukhele in Swaziland , dated 1 August 1970, he reminded himself of his country childhood.

When Nelson Mandela began serving his life sentence on Robben Island from 13 June 1964 he was only allowed to write and receive one letter of 500 words every six months. Letters were precious – a way of communicating with the outside world and receiving any news about one’s family.

It was also a way of recalling one’s life up to that moment and recording one’s thoughts. A kind of meditation – when one never knew whether the letter would safely reach the intended recipient.

Childhood Days Childhood Days (1976)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Tradition and modernity

Nelson Mandela wrote and spoke extensively about his background and childhood: whether about his experiences listening to adults solving problems or the two worlds he inhabited.

What the archive shows is Mr Mandela’s keen awareness of the tension between tradition and modernity, and his view that while he has learned from his rural background, he became a modern man.

He also wrote disparagingly about those who used their cultural mores to degrade others. He always urged that one respects tradition but that one should not allow it to determine one’s interaction with others.

NRM and Bikitsha (1941/1941)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Hidden gun

When Nelson Mandela and his cousin Justice left their home at the Great Place in 1941 to escape arranged marriages they ended up at Crown Mines in Johannesburg. At the gate he asked a man he knew from home called Bikitsha to carry his suitcase.

A search by mine security guards revealed that wrapped inside some of his clothes in the suitcase was a loaded revolver which Mr Mandela’s father had left to him.

Around 30 to 40 years later South African historian Professor Charles van Onselen was browsing for “left of centre” second-hand books in a Johannesburg bookshop. There, he came across a copy of Eddie Roux’s book Time Longer Than Rope: The Black Man’s Struggle for Freedom in South Africa. The book was banned in South Africa at the time. Prof Van Onselen bought the book and took it home.

To his amazement, out dropped a picture of two young men – one of whom he immediately recognised as Robben Islander Nelson Mandela.

Mr Mandela then confirmed that the other person in the photo is the Bikitsha of the hidden gun saga.

Mandela with his law class at the University of the Witwatersrand (1944) by WITS University archiveThe Nelson Mandela Foundation


Nelson Mandela began studying at university in 1939 at the University of Fort Hare where he graduated in 1942 with a BA.

In Johannesburg he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand and then when he was imprisoned in 1962 he started studying with London University. It was only in 1989, months before he was released from prison that he finally graduated – albeit in absentia – with an LLB degree.

But his time at Fort Hare was for him the most memorable. Here he was, a young man from the countryside getting the opportunity to study at what was then the most prestigious educational institutions for black people in Southern Africa.

He knew that studying there would help him to carve out a successful life despite the discrimination and hardships of being black in a race obsessed country. He was disappointed to find, as he writes in his original autobiographical manuscript, that what he learned was not directly relevant to the South African situation.

End of Round One (1957-09)Original Source: Baileys African History Archive

Leaving home

Perhaps one of the most defining moments of the life of Nelson Mandela was the death of his father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa because it meant that he had to be separated from his beloved mother and move in with the Regent who took him as his own son.

His life at the Royal residence, the Great Place at Mqhekezweni with Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his son Justice meant a life of privilege and opportunity. It meant that he would be educated at the best schools and enter university. It also meant that he was able to sit on the sidelines and watch as the Regent would meet with the community and listen to their problems before offering his own views.

These experiences made an enormous impact on the kind of man Nelson Mandela was to come. He opened his unpublished autobiographical manuscript with the death of his father.

Raised by the king

Nelson Mandela underwent the traditional Xhosa rite of passage to manhood when he was 16 years of age. He was joined by 25 other youths for the process known as ‘initiation school’ on the banks of the river close to which he was born.

Initiation involved going away from home and living in the bush with the other youths. They received counselling and advice on becoming men and underwent circumcision to complete their transition.

During his Presidential years and beyond Mr Mandela would take delight in shocking some of his overseas male visitors by describing his circumcision in wincing detail.

A similar description he wrote in his unpublished autobiographical manuscript written on Robben Island in the 1970s.

Nelson Rolihlahla was raised by a king. After the death of his father Nkosi (Chief) Mphakanyiswa Mandela who acted as counsellor to the Thembu King, the child was sent to the royal palace or Great Place at Mqhekezweni. There he was guided and cared for by Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Regent for the infant King Sabata. Under his watchful eye the young Mandela received a privileged upbringing and received the best education at that time. Hovering around when the Regent held court and dealt with disputes, the future leader learned about dialogue as well as hearing all sides of an argument before venturing his own opinion. These skills stood him in great stead in the years ahead.

Remembering Qunu

While he was born in the Eastern Cape village of Mvezo, the only son of his father’s third wife, Nelson Mandela spend most of his early childhood in Qunu and later moved to Mqhekezweni after his father died. He has always enjoyed returning to Qunu where he built a house after his release from prison in 1990. Uppermost in his mind as a free man was to visit Qunu where his parents were laid to rest. His mother Nosekeni had died in her Seventies in 1968 when her son was imprisoned on Robben Island. As soon as he could, he visited her grave and that of his father Nkosi (Chief) Mphakanyiswa who had died when he was a boy.

Visiting poet

Nelson Mandela always enjoyed telling the story of how dramatically the Xhosa poet Mqhayi had burst into his young world, shattering myths and inspiring him to see beyond the barriers he had taken for granted. His telling and retelling of this story was based on Mqhayi’s visit to his Methodist boarding school Healdtown where he was sent to finish his high school education. His account draws the listener into the late 1930s institution ruled over by the colonial figure of Dr Arthur Wellington, whom virtually no one would question – until onto the stage strode Mqhayi who showed his rapt audience how they were the most important of all people. Mr Mandela ends by explaining that he later did, however, learn that it was backward to be tribalistic.

Arranged marriage

Once Nelson Mandela had angered his guardian, the King, by getting himself expelled from the University College of Fort Hare, it was decided that the problem would be solved by an arranged marriage. He and Justice, his cousin and the king’s son, were presented with the plan: The King had found them both wives. It was this action on the King’s part that directly led to Mr Mandela’s exodus from the countryside and journey into the rapidly industrialising arms of the city of Johannesburg. It was there that he became interested in politics and set himself on the path to his destiny – overthrowing apartheid.

Credits: Story

Discover more about Nelson Mandela here

Photographer — Ardon Bar Hama
Photographer — Matthew Willman
Research & Curation — Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory Staff

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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