Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in the Transkei, South Africa. The son of one of its leading dignitaries, he spent his childhood in the Tembu chiefdom before embarking on a career in law.
As a law student Mandela became involved in political opposition to the white minority regime's denial of political, social and economic rights to South Africa's black majority. Joining the African National Congress in 1942, he founded its more dynamic Youth League two years later together with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others.
After the 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party with its Apartheid policy of racial segregation, Mandela was prominent in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People, whose adoption of the Freedom Charter provided the fundamental programme of the anti-apartheid cause.
Initially committed to non-violent mass struggle and acquitted in the marathon Treason Trial of 1956-61, Mandela and his colleagues accepted the case for armed action after the shooting of unarmed protesters at Sharpeville in March 1960 and the subsequent banning of the ANC and other anti-apartheid groups.
In 1961 he became the commander of the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation", or MK). In August 1962 he was arrested and jailed for five years for illegal travel abroad and incitement to strike. In June 1964 he was sentenced again, this time to life imprisonment, for his involvement in planning armed action.
Refusing an offer of conditional release in return for renouncing armed struggle (February 1985), Mandela remained in prison until February 1990, when sustained ANC campaigning and international pressure led to his release on the orders of state president F.W. de Klerk and the ending of the ban on the ANC.
As president of the ANC (July 1991-December 1997) and first black president of South Africa (May 1994-June 1999), Mandela presided over the transition from minority rule and apartheid, winning international respect for his advocacy of national and international reconciliation, though the social achievements of his term of office disappointed some radicals, and there was criticism of the government's alleged ineffectiveness in stemming the AIDS crisis.
Mandela has been married three times. His first marriage to Evelyn Ntoko Mase ended in divorce in 1957 after 13 years, and his 38-year marriage to Winnie Madikizela in separation (April 1992) and divorce (March 1996) fuelled by political estrangement. On his 80th birthday he married Graca Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the former Mozambican president and ANC ally killed in an air crash 15 years earlier.
See also Mandela: the authorized biography by Anthony Sampson, ISBN: 0-6797-8178-1