Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, into the royal house of Thembu of the Madiba clan, in the village of Mvezo, which sits on a bare, rocky hill above a bend in the Mbashe River, a day's walk from the town of Umtata in South Africa's Eastern Cape province. Though he didn't believe names were destiny, Mandela acknowledged that "friends and relatives would ascribe to my birth name the many storms I have both caused and weathered." In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he relates how his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, called him Rolihlahla, which translates from Xhosa literally as "pulling a branch off a tree" but more colloquially as "troublemaker."
Mandela would go on to make enough trouble for apartheid South Africa that he was able to defeat it even from inside a prison cell. His lifetime of unyielding struggle and, later, his forgiveness of his enemies came to be regarded all but universally as one of the finest articulations ever of the human spirit. Not only did the awe he inspired help him overturn racism and make peace between black and white in South Africa, but by the time he stepped down as the country's first black President in 1999 at age 80, he was, almost without rival, the most admired person on earth--seen as a secular saint, an embodiment of human greatness and an icon of peace and wisdom.
His father was a counselor to the Thembu King, and Rolihlahla was the eldest child of his father's third wife Nosekeni Fanny--one of 13 children in all. The boy would later be given the English name Nelson by his schoolteacher; Mandela was the name of his grandfather.
Rebellion was in Mandela's blood. When his father was summoned by the local white magistrate, Mphakanyiswa refused on principle and was promptly deposed. Mandela was sent to school so that he might one day succeed his father as a royal counselor, and it was here that his path to revolution began. He attended University College of Fort Hare, a private institution on the Eastern Cape that was a hotbed of antiestablishment thinking. When he moved to Johannesburg to pursue his interest in law, he had his first experience of street lighting, ham and white friends.
The more he explored this new world, the more he left behind the old. On the Eastern Cape, his royal lineage guaranteed respect. In Johannesburg, Mandela would have to make his own way--and while it was tough, he also enjoyed the fresh beginning. In the 1940s, Mandela married, started a family and became a lawyer, and in 1952 he founded South Africa's first black law firm, with Oliver Tambo. But as he learned more about how limited his freedom was, he began to read Marx and Engels, Lenin and Mao. Mandela wrote that he found himself "being drawn into the world of politics because I was not content with my old beliefs." Still, his graduation to freedom fighter was slow. He worried about spending time away from his children and whether politics was "merely pretext for shirking one's responsibilities." He also had "no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities and a thousand unremembered moments [which] produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people."