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Nelson Mandela The Dean of Freedom

By Rouquia Alami 


“Your story could be only told by the walls of your prison cell”  


When I decided to pile up this outline about Mandela I made up my mind not to write about his political struggle, years of imprisonment, era of justice and governance. It is the focus on him as a human being.  


Mandela the recipient of over 250 awards and Noble prize winner in 1993:  

When he was arrested he was walking tall in front of his wife and two daughters he turned and said to them “never cry be strong as branch of tree”. 


As Mandela lead a unique and remarkable life in a journey that had great influence on many nations; his life style was different: several names, written letters to his family on cell walls, great love to his wife and the letters he wrote to her from his jail. Sadness he expressed in his speech when divorcing her, to the deprivation from his jailers prohibiting him from attending his mother’s funeral. Why all that happened to him? In his autobiography Mandela “Long Walk to Freedom” focuses not only on his 27 years of imprisonment but his life as a whole.  

“Mandela letters on walls’ cell and lavatory bucket witnesses that no matter what they do his aim was justice and freedom”. 



Usually people have one name to be called with in their lifetime, but for Mandela he is known for having had five names besides Nelson. According to Nelson Mandela Foundation “Madiba” given names were: 

  • Rolihlahla

His birth name: means “pulling the branch of a tree”, but colloquially it means “troublemaker”. His father gave him this name. 

  • Nelson: 

A name was given to him on his first day at school by his teacher; Mdingane. Giving African children English names was a custom among Africans in those days and was influenced by British colonials who could not easily pronounce African names.  

  • Madiba:

This is the name of the clan of which Mandela was a member. A clan name is much more important than a surname as it refers to the ancestor from which a person is descended.  

  • Tata: 

“Father” and is a term of endearment that many South Africans use for Mandela; since he is a father figure to many.  

  • Khulu

Means: “Great One” and “grandfather”. 

  • Dalibhunga

This name was given to him at the age of 16 once he had undergone initiation, the traditional Xhosa rite of passage into manhood. It means “creator or founder of the council” or “convener of the dialogue”.  


Nelson Mandela the writer: 

Nelson surprised researchers and critiques that he was not only a remarkable political figure he was also a writer. Among his written works: 

  • Long Walk to Freedom:

According to Christian Science Monitor Mandela has written many books. But the most widely read is “Long Walk to Freedom” an autobiography of Nelson Mandela which was turned into a movie on 2013. “Long Walk to Freedom” Mandela reveals much about the history of South Africa, African National Council, and his 27 years of imprisonment. From young boy to political activist to president, and then peace maker. 

  • Conversations with Myself:

Is a personal archive that draws on letters, notebooks, taped conversations, and prison diaries to take a thorough look at all aspects of Mandela’s life.   

  • Favorite African Folktales: 

In an effort to share traditional African folklore with s wide audience, Mandela picked out 32 folk tales, old and new, drawn from various African cultures, all rich in what Mandela calls “the gritty essence of Africa.” In terms of a contemporary African map, these stories are drawn from countries as distant as Morocco, Nigeria, Kenya, and Swaziland. They include various creation myths and tales containing morals for children and adults alike. Mandela writes in the foreword, “It is my wish that the voice of the storyteller will never die in Africa.” 

  • Nelson Mandela: In His Own Words

This collection of speeches Mandela made throughout his life is organized by topic. Subjects include the struggle for freedom, the hard work of reconciliation and nation-building, religion, education, and culture (“Music, Dance, and Poetry”).  

These speeches cover some of the most important moments in Mandela’s life and in South African history.  

  • Long Walk to Freedom (adapted for children)

Mandela once wrote that, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He was right – and that’s just one reason that teachers and parents will enjoy sharing his story with children. This edited version of Mandela’s inspiring 1994 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” was abridged by author Chris Van Wyck. The writing here is clear (enhanced by color-and-sepia illustrations by Paddy Bouma) and the history behind it is highly informative. The book is aimed at children ages 8 and up. 

What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.


Nelson Mandela Childhood-from Pride to Orphan:  

Nelson Mandela born in 1918 in the small village of Mvezo to a chief named Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa. Colonial authorities deprived Mandela’s father of his chief status and moved his family to Qunu. Mphakanyiswa this played a principal role in Dalindyebo’s ascension to the Thembu throne. From the time of Nelson Mandela birth he was exposed to a family of pride. He was the first in his family to attend a school.  


Nelson Mandela’s father died when Mandela was nine years old. He was then put under the guardianship of the regent Jongintaba. As was usual for Thembu royalty he attended a Wesleyan School and College. The bright young Nelson Mandela completed his Junior Certificate in only 2 years rather than 3 before moving onto the College in Fort Beaufort. While he was at college he took an interest in running and boxing.  


Mandela did not complete his BA degree at that time. After a year he became involved with the Student Representative Council and their boycott against university policies. This is perhaps the first outward representation on record of Nelson Mandela’s political activism. He was ordered to leave the college.  


Not long after this Mandela refused an arranged marriage proposal and ‘ran away’ to Johannesburg. He found work there as a guard at a mine, but was dismissed when it was found he was a royal runaway. He then worked as a clerk and completed his degree, with the University of South Africa.  

From there he moved on to study law at the University of Witwatersrand. While studying there Mandela was to meet three influential people in his life who also became anti-apartheid activists.  

“Difficulties break some men but make others”.


 Mandela Marriages Love Divorce & Political Influence on Private Life: 

Mandela remarked on several occasions that the struggle and imprisonment affected his role as a father. He said while announcing his separation from Winnie Madikizela.: 

“We watched our children growing without our guidance and when we did come out of prison, my children said, ‘We thought we had a father and one day he’d come back. But to our dismay, our father came back and he left us alone because he has now become the father of the nation.’ 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 was a joy I had far too little of”.  


According to author/writer and Editor Janette Bennett who lived in the Eastern Cape in South Africa: 

“Nelson Father of six. Grandfather of 18, great-grandfather of eight, and husband to 3 women.”  


The first marriage of Nelson Mandela was in 1944 he married Evelyn Mase. They divorced in 1958. Remarking on this he said: 

“I could not give up my life in the struggle,” Mandela explained in his autobiography, “and she (Evelyn) could not live with my devotion to something other than herself and her family… I never lost my admiration for her, but in the end we could not make our marriage work.” 


Mandela married Wini Madikizela in 1958. They had two daughters, Zenani (1959) and Zindzi (1960). Winnie bore the harshness of life as a Mandela, enduring banishment, detention, unrelenting harassment and her husband’s 27-year imprisonment. 

From prison, Mandela wrote some of the greatest love letters of all time to Winnie. “I dust it (your photo) carefully every morning – I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so” he wrote in April 1976. 

And this, in October 1976: “Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable.” 

A June 1977 letter expressed some of the regret: “I had hoped to build you a refuge, no matter how small, so that we would have a place for rest and sustenance before the arrival of the sad, dry days. I fell down and couldn’t do these things.” 


For many South Africans, it was the end of a fairytale love story when their separation was made public in 1992. Amid reports of adultery and violence, Winnie was condemned. Some of those close to her talk of how she was “scarred” during her lonely years of oppression and how her sacrifices were largely ignored.  “I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her – from the moment I first met her,” he said when the separation was announced. 


The hurt in his words was clear: “Perhaps I was blinded to certain things because of the pain I felt for not being able to fulfill my role as a husband to my wife and a father to my children. But just as I am convinced that my wife’s life while I was in prison was more difficult than mine, my own return was also more difficult for her than it was for me. She married a man who soon left her; that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.” 


Unstable personal lives seemed freedom fighters’ destiny, he said. “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.” 

The couple divorced in 1996. 


On his 80th birthday in 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel.  


Apart from the break-up of two marriages, Mandela endured other private sorrows: not just the death in infancy of his first daughter but also, perhaps more painfully, the loss of his first-born son, Thembekile, who died in a car accident in 1969. Mandela, who was in prison, was denied permission to attend his son’s funeral. Instead of being able to comfort and draw comfort from his family, he sat alone in his Robben Island cell. “They gave him a telegram, and he went back to his cell, and he sat there by himself.”  


“We find our father the father of nation and not our father” Quote by his daughter Zindzi 

Then there was the pain of being taken to prison, leaving behind Winnie and their little girls. Zindzi was barely two years old. “I grew up always wanting my father to come back home.” She was 15 when she met “this person who was very mythical to me” and saw her Tata, behind prison glass, again. 


In his autobiography, Mandela described her shyness during her first visit: “I am sure it was not easy for her finally to see a father she had never really known, a father who could love her only from a distance, who seemed to belong not to her but to the people.” 

When he finally walked out of prison in February 1990, thousands waited to greet him, and Zindzi realized “that as much as I wanted my father to come back home to me, he was coming back to the nation”. 


Mandela retirement made it up for his family: 

The family did spend many more moments with Mandela after he retired. Indeed, announcing his retirement in 2004, he pleaded for the space to “spend time, while I am still in good health, with my family, my friends and also with myself”. 

Those retirement years were filled with the presence of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  


Mandela’s Death

On December 5, 2013 at the age of 95 Nelson Mandela died in his home in Johannesburg with his family present.

His daughter Makaziwe said “Even, for a lack of a better word, on his deathbed, he is teaching us lessons; in patience, love, and of tolerance.”

Mandela laid to rest in Qunu; 95 candles glowed each marking a year of his life. His coffin draped in his country’s flag.

Surrounded with his family members, grandchildren and children; thousands of political leaders, remarkable figures, celebrities, and many of the African population attended his funeral while Millions of people from round the World watched the funeral on TVs.

South African president Jacob Zuma said at the funeral: “We shall not say goodbye, for you are not gone, “You’ll live forever in our hearts and minds.”

I chose to write about Nelson Mandela to Arab Woman Mag because although he no longer lives, yet he will forever remain an icon and his words and fight for freedom will always live on.



References php Jannette Bennett  
Nelson Mandela Foundation 

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  1. Thank you Rouquia for your choice of Mandela the human being. What a great man and great testimonies and commentaries that you were able to put together although some are sad. Never the less Mandela will always be remembered as a great world leader, and for us Palestinians he was an inspiration for hope, justice and freedom.

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