Sample History Research Paper on Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela


History of mankind is filled with various names of heroes and heroines who are the masterminds of the current state of the world. Throughout world history and specifically African, generations are riddled with men and women of valor and character: heroes, philanthropists, politicians, mediators, revolutionaries, and leaders who befit every sense of definition of leadership. Despite the challenges he faced, Nelson Mandela was a firm believer in the protection of human rights, a selfless democrat who was willing to put his life on the line for the freedom of the South African people and Africa as a whole. During his time, he wore many caps: philanthropist, politician, African hero, mediator, African leader and an anti apartheid revolutionary.

Born on 18th July 1918, Nelson Mandela’s life began in Mvezo, a small village in Qunu District, Transkei region. He was named Rolihlahla Madiba Dalibhunga Mandela. Growing, up he fully mastered the Xhosa culture, its language, initiation customs, leadership ideologies and the aspect of humanity commonly referred to as ‘ubuntu’. His name Rolihlahla is directly translated to mean ‘one who pulls branches from a tree’ or ‘a trouble maker’ whereas his clan name ‘Madiba’ means ‘a reconciler’ which coincidentally relates to Mandela’s true persona (Limb 1).

Mandela’s father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa then the chief councillor to the paramount chief of the Thembu people belonged to the Right Hand House of the Xhosa nobility and the chief advisor to the king. Moreover, he was the headman of Mvezo village, presided over community ceremonies, served in the Bhunga and was the custodian of the Thembu and Xhosa history. Mandela therefore belonged to the Xhosa Royal Family, was the youngest of four sons and his father’s noble societal position played a major role in shaping his destiny especially in the royal succession dispute in 1924.

 His mother, Nonqapi Nosekeni Fanny was a third wife among the father’s four wives and had a formative influence on her son.  Limb explains that Mandela himself once recalled his mother as his real friend through her constant narration of the Xhosa moral tales, legends and ensuring that he was baptised in the Methodist church after her conversion to Christianity (2). In addition to his three sisters and six half sisters, Mandela also had three half brothers. His childhood was characterised by traditional games and sports such as kick fighting, riding animals and making toys.

By the time Mandela was born, land dispossession, colonialism and racism were the norm. Africans had lost their land to the Europeans at that time, African women worked tirelessly on the lands, whereas men were forced to weather long and dangerous shifts of immigrant labour on the distant gold mines of Johannesburg so as to pay taxes to the white government. Mandela’s birth from a royal family quarantined him from the harsh economic and social times. However, the abrupt decline of his father’s material possessions and the early warning from the elders signalled that his life would not necessarily be an easy ride.

Despite the fact that the African people had inhabited South Africa several decades before the Dutch settlement, the Dutch introduced slavery and speedily conquered Africans. Dispossession accelerated after the Napoleonic wars as the Dutch vehemently struggled to push to the East. This move was particularly against the Xhosa people who had developed strong military and social structures thus a major obstacle to the colonisers. The Xhosa were confronted by over a hundred years of warfare, which they desperately lost during Mandela’s father’s reign. By this time, the Xhosa lands became the centre of African Nationalism as the indigenous people abandoned their direct rebellion and adopted Christian missionary, education and new forms of political organisation (Limb 3). In 1920, his father was deposed on insubordination claims thus resulting to him losing lots of land and cattle prompting their move to Qunu. His father’s rebellion was stirred by the plight of Africans as well as the European disregard for African culture thereby setting the stage for Mandela’s ideologies.

Mandela lost his father at the age of 9 due to lung disease in 1927 and moved to the ‘Great Place’ of Mqhekezweni, the home of the Paramount Chief of Thembuland who then became Mandela’s guardian (Limb 5). According to Finlayson, his stay at the king’s house had a major impact on Mandela’s leadership as he enjoyed the company of many of the visiting chiefs (22). He was circumcised at sixteen years, a ritual that would see him graduate to adulthood according to the eyes of the tribesmen. In addition, the speech made during his initiation ceremony by Chief Meligqili highlighting the plight of Africans was embalmed in his mind (25).


Mandela joined school at the age of seven and was notably the first in his family to attend school. It is here that his elementary school teacher Ms. Mdigane gave him the British name ‘Nelson’ (Finlayson 16). In 1934, Mandela joined Clarkebury Boarding Institute, one of the best African schools in Southern Africa for his secondary education.

According to O’Neil, Mandela later joined University of Fort Harte where his university life was characterised by his interest in politics and even became a member of the Student Representative Council. He planned a boycott on some of the school rules and was expelled. On returning home, he learned that the regent had planned a marriage for him thus forcing him to flee to Johannesburg. O’Neil explains that he landed a job as a guard in a mine and was later fired after his boss learnt that he had fled his regent’s household (n.p). He later found employment as a clerk in a law firm and took courses at the University of South Africa to finish his degree through correspondence. After his graduation, he began to study law at the University of Witwatersrand and also participated in movements opposing racial segregation. Mandela also studied while in prison through a correspondence course with the University of London and earned a British Law Degree (O’Neil n.p). Moreover, despite belonging to the Christian faith and attending the mass in prison, he also studied Islam.


In Johannesburg he observed the plight of Africans and joined the African National Congress, a small group that was dedicated to ending racial injustice. With his friends, Mandela formed the African National Youth League (ANYL) a group that believed that black Africans were entitled to the same rights as the white Africans (O’Neil). The Afrikaner National Party, which strongly believed in black segregation triumphed over its rivals in the 1948 election. They ordered stricter legal and economic discrimination against blacks. Education, medical care and social services for non-whites were either meagre or unavailable. It is then that Mandela rejoined the ANC and was arrested while participating in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign in 1952. He was given a suspension sentence and banned from leaving Johannesburg. He joined hands with another lawyer, Oliver Tambo and opened a law firm that gave free or low legal help to blacks. In his leadership, Mandela attended the ANCs congress of the People which resulted to the blacks accepting the Freedom Charter (O’Neil).

            Having noticed that his diplomatic ways to free his people was not of any help, he decided to accept the leadership role of the armed division of the ANC in 1961 (Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation). According to O’Neil government officials then focused on arresting Mandela who evaded authorities till 5th August 1962 when he was charged for planning a strike and leaving South Africa without permission (n.p). He was arrested for over a year before his detention for five years. The police raid on ANC at Rivona exposed a lot of evidence that implicated Mandela among other activists thus bringing charges against them for sabotage, sedition and violent conspiracy. During his Trial at Rivona, Mandela stirred the whole world when he admitted to a few of the charges levelled against him and protecting ANC’s actions    


Mandela faced a number of challenges but this did not deter him from achieving his goals. Green explains that while in prison at Robben Island, he was assigned to work in the lime quarry and the wardens forbade him from wearing sunglasses thus damaging his eyesight permanently. Moreover, together with other inmates, they were subjected to atrocious punishments. Times without number, he would be locked up in solitary confinement with no bed after the guards found his smuggled newspaper clippings. On Robben Island, he was labelled a class ‘D’ detainee, the lowest rank of prisoners. This meant that he would only have one visitor and a letter in six months, which were much censored. These restrictions were the reason why he last saw his mother in 1968 before she died. He was also forbidden from attending his firstborn son’s burial and was unable to see his wife Winnie due to her regular imprisonment for political reasons. Moreover, his daughter first saw him when they visited him in prison.

While in prison, the people outside were banned from mentioning his name, using his quotes reading his speeches or showing his pictures. This move by the apartheid system was determined to make him nonexistent. In 1975, Nelson became a class ‘A’ prison and would be allowed to have visitors more regularly. Green explains that during this time, he communicated regularly with his antiapartheid activists Buthelezi and Tutu and would at times smuggle his auto biography, which he started writing the same year (n.p). When the prison authorities discovered this, they took away his study privileges but this did not deter him. He spent a lot of his time gardening and reading as many books as possible.

In 1980 by a journalist initiated the slogan ‘Free Mandela!’ that spark international attention. Despite the intervention by the UN Security to liberate him, the apartheid government refused. He was later moved to Pollsmoor Prison (1982-1988) in Tokai Cape Town due to his influence on Black Consciousness Movement Prisoners. At this time, the country was facing an eminent civil war due to the rift between antiapartheid and the government. Botha approached Mandela in 1985 and negotiated a release if he unconditionally agreed to reject violence as apolitical weapon, which he refused (Green n.p).

From here, Mandela was moved to Vester Prison in 1988 where he stayed until his release in 1990. He also recovered from tuberculosis the same year a disease he contracted in Pollsmoor. Here he lived in a wardens house and had a personal cook. He used this opportunity to finish his LLB degree, was allowed to have various visitors including antiapartheid officers and his friend Harry Schwartz. A year later, Botha fell sick and F.W de Klerk replaced him and negotiated with Mandela after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. De Klerk organised a meeting with his cabinet to discuss Mandela’s fate and the legalisation of ANC. On February 2 1990, De Klerk unbanned ANC and released Mandela an event that was witnessed live on TV across the world.

Changes, Influence and Impact of Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s exit from Vester on February 11 1990 also marked Mandela’s historic speech in Cape Town city hall where he affirmed his dedication to harmonious reconciliation with white minority. He also clarified that ANC’s armed fight had not come to an end but would be used as self defence against a violent apartheid system (Green n.p). He led negotiations between ANC and the government to end apartheid and establish a multiracial government, which later earned both him and De Klerk the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela was the first black president of South Africa following the April 27 election marking the beginning of South Africa’s democratic government. He then set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to probe into previous human and political injustices.  He also ensured the establishment of adequate social and economic programs intended to perk up the living standards of the South African blacks. In 1996, Mandela oversaw the enactment of a new constitution that emphasised on the importance of a strong central government that was dependant on majority rule while at the same time forbade discrimination of all minorities. He also discouraged the blacks from revenging on the whites and spent most of his time building South Africa’s international image by uniting them. Moreover, Mandela established a multiracial government thus declaring the state a rainbow nation.

He constructed a house in Qunu and frequently visited to help with tribal problems and meet with the local people. He made many rich business friends and bequeathed a third of his $552,000 to his Children Fund. Later on, he published his memoirs, A Long Walk to Freedom. When South Africa hosted the 1995 rugby world cup, Mandela’s enthusiastic support for the predominantly Afrikaner South African Rugby Team encouraged blacks to support them as well. For this reason, it gave all South Africans a common interest. When it won, South Africa celebrated as one a symbol of how far South Africa had come.

Mandela is also remembered to have initiated the University of Robben Island where the convicts gave lectures on their specific areas of expertise. Despite his national and international acclamation especially through the laws he made and changed, Nelson Mandela was never willing to vie for a second term. On the 29th of March 1999 he officially retired from politics and was replaced by Thabo Mbeki as South Africa’s President. Nevertheless, Mandela still championed for human rights, peace and justice both nationally and internationally. He founded several organisations such as The Nelson Mandela Foundation and The Elders, which were committed to attend to global problems and simplify human misery. He then campaigned for HIV awareness in 2002 a time when it was clogged with societal stigma and ignorance


In conclusion, Mandela’s deteriorating health in later years slowed him down and minimised his public appearances. He later died on 5th of December 2013 from lung infection having hit international headlines for both good and bad reasons. His philosophy and strong belief in equality, justice and democracy made him a fierce critic of apartheid, racial segregation and discrimination. A legend right form birth, through his challenges, as first president of a democratic and multiracial South Africa and even after retirement. He mastered the dynamics of leadership and respected the fact that man only lives once.

Works Cited

Finlayson, Reggie. Nelson Mandela. Minneapolis, Minn: Lerner Publications Co, 2006. Print.

This is a secondary sources since is written by a second party different from Nelson Mandela himself. It gives a captivating insight into the history and background of Nelson Mandela’s life to the point of his rise into leadership.

Green, Matt. Celebrity Biographies- the Amazing Life of Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. Biography Series. Print.

This is an equally interesting secondary source written from another person’s point of view, this book offers a rich history of the life of Nelson Mandela as a non-compromising African leader. This resource also gives the reader useful information about the challenges that Nelson Mandela went through as an individual including a 27-year jail term.

Limb, Peter. Nelson Mandela: A Biography. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2008. Print. This is a secondary resource since it has been written by someone who did not necessarily have close contact with Nelson Mandela. However, his perspective into the life of Nelson Mandela gives vital information that will be important for this research.

Shone, Rob, and Neil Reed. Nelson Mandela: The Life of an African Statesman. New York: Rosen Central/Rosen Publishing Group, 2007. Print.

This secondary source offers the reader insight into Nelson Mandela’s life as a statesman. Written by someone else other than himself, this resource stands out as one of the best in terms of giving a perspective into statesmanship.