Forgotten History: Early Life Of Nelson Mandela

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Most citizens of the world are familiar with the Nelson Mandela who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and the revered statesman of Africa who was jailed for 27 years fighting against apartheid. However, we don’t often hear about his early life. Over the next few weeks we will profile the little known aspects of Nelson Mandela’s early life.


Nelson Rolihlahla was born in 1918 in Mvezo, a tiny village in the district of Mtata, capital of the Transkei. He was part of the Thembu who also form the Xhosa nation. His father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa was a chief of the Mvezo people. His original name Rolihlahla meant ‘troublemaker’. His father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa was a chief. He spent most of this childhood Qunu, a village near Umtata. The name Madiba is a clan name and term of respect. Mandela’s father lost his chieftancy after failing to follow the orders of a magistrate. With it he lost his fortune which were his cattle and land and his title. So his mother moved to Qunu. Most of the land in Qunu was owned by the state because by law Africans could not enjoy private title to land and had to become paying tenants who leased the land. 

One of his father’s friends George Mbaleka who was a christian insisted to his mother that he be enrolled in school because he was intelligent. Mandela was baptized into the Methodist Wesleyan Church. No one in his family had ever been to school but at 7 years he enrolled in formal school. It was his first teacher, Miss Mdingane who gave him the name Nelson. At the age of 9 more changes were to come, his father died and they moved from Qunu to Mqhekezweni, the provisional capital of  Thembuland, the royal residence of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, acting regent of the Thembu people. He became his guardian and benefactor for the next decade of his life. 


By his own confession Mandela says, “Until then I had had no thoughts of anything but my own pleasures, no higher ambition than to eat well and become a champion stick fighter. Under the guardianship of Mqhekezweni he continued his formal education and also became a plowboy, wagon guide and shepherd. At the age of 16, he went through his circumcision; the traditional ceremony compromised of 26 boys now becoming men. 

When he was enrolled in Clarkebury he was introduced to a more western standard of living.  In this school he learned that he was not special and the only way to distinguish himself as special was to perform well in school. It was at Clarkebury that he learned for the first time the meaning of a B.A or A.B.A degree in his first encounters with African teachers who had matriculated at the Universities. 


At the age of 19, Nelson joined Justice at Healdtown, the Wesleyan College of Fort Beaufort which was about 175 southwest of Umtata. Healdtown was probably the largest African school with more than a thousand students both male and female. Healdtown was a Mission School of the Methodist Church. When he left Healdtown, Fort Hare was the only institution for Higher learning for blacks in South Africa and was the Harvard, Yale and Oxford for black students coming from Southern, Central and Eastern Africa. In his first year of college, he was set on building a career as a civil servant but was influenced to study law. 


next…….Part 2: Early Adult Life