This anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
He was the first black South African to hold the office, and the first elected in a fully representative, multiracial election.
His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation.
Politically an African nationalist and democratic socialist, he served as the President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997.
Internationally, Mandela was the Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.
Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the tiny village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River in Transkei, South Africa.
His father, who was destined to be a chief, served as a counselor to tribal chiefs for several years, but lost both his title and fortune over a dispute with the local colonial magistrate.
Mandela was only an infant at the time, and his father's loss of status forced his mother to move the family to Qunu, an even smaller village north of Mvezo.
The village was nestled in a narrow grassy valley; there were no roads, only foot paths that linked the pastures where livestock grazed.
The family lived in huts and ate a local harvest of maize, sorghum, pumpkin and beans, which was all they could afford.
Water came from springs and streams and cooking was done outdoors. Mandela played the games of young boys, acting out male rights-of-passage scenarios with toys he made from the natural materials available, including tree branches and clay.
At the suggestion of one of his father's friends, Mandela was baptized in the Methodist Church. He went on to become the first in his family to attend school.
As was custom at the time, and probably due to the bias of the British educational system in South Africa, Mandela's teacher told him that his new first name would be Nelson.
When Mandela was 9 years old, his father died of lung disease, causing his life to change dramatically.
He was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu people--a gesture done as a favor to Mandela's father, who, years earlier, had recommended Jongintaba be made chief.
Mandela subsequently left the carefree life he knew in Qunu, fearing that he would never see his village again.
He traveled by motorcar to Mqhekezweni, the provincial capital of Thembuland, to the chief's royal residence. Though he had not forgotten his beloved village of Qunu, he quickly adapted to the new, more sophisticated surroundings of Mqhekezweni.
Mandela was given the same status and responsibilities as the regent's two other children, his son and oldest child, Justice, and daughter Nomafu.
Mandela took classes in a one-room school next to the palace, studying English, Xhosa, history and geography.
It was during this period that Mandela developed his interest in African history from elder chiefs who came to the Great Palace on official business.
He learned how the African people had lived in relative peace until the coming of the white people.
According to the elders, the children of South Africa had lived as brothers, but the white man shattered this fellowship. While the black man shared his land, air and water with the white man, the white man took all of these things for himself.
Mandela's entrance to manhood
When Mandela was 16, it was time for him to partake in the traditional African circumcision ritual to mark his entrance into manhood.
The ceremony of circumcision was not just a surgical procedure, but an elaborate ritual in preparation for manhood. In African tradition, an uncircumcised man cannot inherit his father's wealth, marry or officiate at tribal rituals.
Mandela participated in the ceremony with 25 other boys. He welcomed the opportunity to partake in his people's customs and felt ready to make the transition from boyhood to manhood.
His mood shifted during the proceedings, however, when Chief Meligqili, the main speaker at the ceremony, spoke sadly of the young men, explaining that they were enslaved in their own country.
Because their land was controlled by white men, they would never have the power to govern themselves, the chief said.
He went on to lament that the promise of the young men would be squandered as they struggled to make a living and perform mindless chores for white men.
Mandela would later say that while the chief's words didn't make total sense to him at the time, they would eventually formulate his resolve for an independent South Africa.
From the time Mandela came under the guardianship of Regent Jongintaba, he was groomed to assume high office, not as a chief, but a counselor to one.
As Thembu royalty, Nelson attended a Wesleyan mission school, the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College, where, he would later state, he found interest and achieved academic success through "plain hard work."
He also excelled at track and boxing. Mandela was initially mocked as a "country boy" by his Wesleyan classmates, but eventually became friends with several students, including Mathona, his first female friend.
In 1939, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only residential center of higher learning for blacks in South Africa at the time.
Fort Hare was considered Africa's equivalent of Oxford or Harvard, drawing scholars from all parts of sub-Sahara Africa. In his first year at the university, Mandela took the required courses, but focused on Roman Dutch law to prepare for a career in civil service as an interpreter or clerk--regarded as the best profession a black man could obtain at the time.
In his second year at Fort Hare, Mandela was elected to the Student Representative Council. For some time, students had been dissatisfied with the food and lack of power held by the SRC. During this election, a majority of students voted to boycott unless their demands were met.
Aligning with the student majority, Mandela resigned from his position. Seeing this as an act of insubordination, the university's Dr. Kerr expelled Mandela for the rest of the year, but gave him an ultimatum.
When Mandela returned home, the regent was furious, telling Mandela unequivocally that he would have to recant his decision and go back to school in the fall.
A few weeks after Nelson Mandela's return home, Regent Jongintaba announced that he had arranged a marriage for his adopted son.
The regent wanted to make sure that Mandela's life was properly planned, and the arrangement was within his right, as tribal custom dictated.
Shocked by the news, feeling trapped and believing he had no other option, Mandela ran away from home.
He settled in Johannesburg, where he worked a variety of jobs, including as a guard and a clerk, while completing his bachelor's degree via correspondence courses. He then enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law.
Mandela soon became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, joining the African National Congress in 1942.
Within the ANC, a small group of young Africans banded together, calling themselves the African National Congress Youth League.
Their goal was to transform the ANC into a mass grassroots movement, deriving strength from millions of rural peasants and working people who had no voice under the current regime.
Specifically, the group believed that the ANC's old tactics of polite petitioning were ineffective. In 1949, the ANC officially adopted the Youth League's methods of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation, with policy goals of full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and compulsory education for all children.
For 20 years, Mandela directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He founded the law firm Mandela and Tambo, partnering with Oliver Tambo, a brilliant student he'd met while attending Fort Hare. The law firm provided free and low-cost legal counsel to unrepresented blacks.
In 1956, Mandela and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason for their political advocacy (they were eventually acquitted). Meanwhile, the ANC was being challenged by Africanists, a new breed of black activists who believed that the pacifist method of the ANC was ineffective.
Africanists soon broke away to form the Pan-Africanist Congress, which negatively affected the ANC; by 1959, the movement had lost much of its militant support.
In 1961, Mandela, who was formerly committed to nonviolent protest, began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change and subsequently co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerilla war tactics to end apartheid. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers' strike.
He was arrested for leading the strike the following year and sentenced to five years in prison. Then, in 1963, he was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.
Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers.
However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program.
A 1981 memoir by South African intelligence agent Gordon Winter described a plot by the South African government to arrange for Mandela's escape so as to shoot him during the recapture. The plot was foiled by British intelligence, however.
Mandela continued to be such a potent symbol of black resistance that a coordinated international campaign for his release was launched, and this international groundswell of support exemplified the power and esteem Mandela had in the global political community.
In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, allegedly to enable contact between them and the South African government.
Mandela's release from prison
In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela's release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner flatly rejected the offer.
With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the years, but no deal was made.
It wasn't until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela's release was finally announced, on February 11, 1990.
De Klerk also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.
Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela immediately urged foreign powers not to reduce their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform.
While he stated that he was committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC's armed struggle would continue until the black majority received the right to vote.
Mandela becomes SA president
In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress, with lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo serving as national chairperson.
Mandela continued to negotiate with President F.W. de Klerk toward the country's first multiracial elections. White South Africans were willing to share power, but many black South Africans wanted a complete transfer of power.
The negotiations were often strained and news of violent eruptions, including the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani, continued throughout the country.
Mandela had to keep a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the demonstrations and armed resistance.
Mandela wins Nobel Peace Prize
In 1993, Mandela and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling apartheid.
Due in no small part to their work, negotiations between black and white South Africans prevailed: On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections.
Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the country's first black president on May 10, 1994, at the age of 77, with de Klerk as his first deputy.
Also in 1994, Mandela published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, much of which he had secretly written while in prison. The following year, he was awarded the Order of Merit.
Mandela worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to black majority rule.
He used the nation's enthusiasm for sports as a pivot point to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks, encouraging black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team.
In 1995, South Africa came to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the young republic.
Mandela also worked to protect South Africa's economy from collapse during his presidency. Through his Reconstruction and Development Plan, the South African government funded the creation of jobs, housing and basic health care.
In 1996, Mandela signed into law a new constitution for the nation, establishing a strong central government based on majority rule, and guaranteeing the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.
Retirement and Later Career
By the 1999 general election, Nelson Mandela had retired from active politics. He continued to maintain a busy schedule, however, raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa's rural heartland through his Mandela Foundation, and serving as a mediator in Burundi's civil war.
He also published a number of books on his life and struggles, among them No Easy Walk to Freedom; Nelson Mandela: The Struggle is my Life; and Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales.
Mandela was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 2001. In June 2004, at the age of 85, he announced his formal retirement from public life and returned to his native village of Qunu.
On July 18, 2007, Mandela convened a group of world leaders, including Graca Machel (whom Mandela would wed in 1998), Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus, to address the world's toughest issues. Named "The Elders," the group is committed to working both publicly and privately to find solutions to problems around the globe.
Since its inception, the group has made an impact in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, promoting peace and women's equality, demanding an end to atrocities, and supporting initiatives to address humanitarian crises and promote democracy.
In Recent Years
Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance to date in 2010, at the final match of the World Cup in South Africa. He has largely stepped out of the spotlight, choosing to spend much of his time in his childhood community of Qunu, south of Johannesburg. He did, however, visit with Michelle Obama, U.S. first lady and wife of President Barack Obama, during her trip to South Africa in 2011.
After suffering a lung infection in January 2011, Mandela was briefly hospitalized in Johannesburg to undergo surgery for a stomach ailment in early 2012. He was released after a few days, later returning to Qunu.
In December 2012, Mandela was hospitalized for tests and medical treatment relating to a recurrent lung infection.
In March 2013, he was re-admitted to the hospital after his lung infection returned. Hours later, it was reported that he was responding positively to treatment.
On June 8, 2013, a 94-year-old Mandela was rushed to a hospital in Pretoria, receiving treatment once again for a recurring lung infection.
Later that same day, the South African president's office stated that Mandela was in "serious but stable condition," and that he was breathing on his own.
Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, reportedly canceled a scheduled appearance in London to remain at her husband's his side, and his daughter, Zenani Dlamini, Argentina's South African ambassador, reportedly flew back to South Africa to be with her father.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa's current president, issued a statement in response to public concern over Mandela's March 2013 health scare, asking for support in the form of prayer.
"We appeal to the people of South Africa and the world to pray for our beloved Madiba and his family and to keep them in their thoughts. We have full confidence in the medical team and know that they will do everything possible to ensure recovery.
Mandela's world inspiration
Nelson Mandela continues to be a source of inspiration for civil rights activists worldwide.
In 2009, Mandela's birthday (July 18) was declared Mandela Day, an international day to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader's legacy.
According to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, the annual event is meant to encourage citizens worldwide to give back the way that Mandela has throughout his lifetime.
A statement on the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory's website reads: "Mr. Mandela gave 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity. All we are asking is that everyone gives 67 minutes of their time, whether it's supporting your chosen charity or serving your local community."
Mandela has been married three times. He was married to Evelyn Ntoko Mase from 1944 to 1957.
The couple had four children together: Madiba Thembekile, Makgatho, Makaziwe and Maki. He and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela were married from 1958 to 1996; they had two daughters together, Zenani and Zindziswa.
In 1998, Mandela married Graca Machel.
In addition to advocating for peace and equality on both a national and global scale, Mandela remained committed to the fight against AIDS, a disease that killed his son, Makgatho, in 2005.