Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on 18 July 1918, to parents Gadla Mphakanyiswa Mandela and Nosekeni Fanny in the village of Mvezo, South Africa. He had twelve siblings in total, but only two sisters were from his mother.
His paternal grandfather was the source of his name Mandela, while Nelson was a name given to him by an early childhood teacher, because of the British educational system’s bias towards traditional names, at the time.
Mandela’s lineage was a mixture of South African royalty and distinguished families that closely served that royalty. His patrilineal great-grandfather, Ngubengcuka, was king of the Thembu people in the Transkeian Territories of South Africa’s modern Eastern Cape province. His patrilineal grandmother was of the Ixhiba clan, a so-called “Left-Hand House”, the descendants of which were recognised as hereditary royal councillors. As a result, Mandela’s father was a local chief and councillor to the monarch. Lastly, his mother was daughter of Nkedama of the “Right-Hand House” and a member of the amaMpemvu clan of the Xhosa.
Mandela and his sisters grew up in a village called Qunu, where his mother moved them after his father was stripped of his title and fortune following a dispute with a colonial magistrate. In Qunu, Mandela tended herds as a cattle-boy, and lived a life dominated by traditional Thembu customs. At age seven, he was baptised as a Methodist and became the first member of his family to attend school when he was sent to a local Methodist school.
At age nine, his father died of lung disease and his mother entrusted his care to the guardianship of the Thembu regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo at the palace at Mqhekezweni. Here, Jongintaba and his wife Noengland treated and raised him as their own child, alongside their son, 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 an interest in African history, from elder chiefs who came to the ‘Great Palace’ on official business. Of these visiting chiefs, Mandela was especially influenced by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of Chief Joyi.
Under Jongintaba’s guardianship, Mandela was groomed to become a privy councillor for the Thembu royal house. At fifteen, he attended Clarkebury Methodist High School in Engcobo, a Western-style institution that was the largest school for black Africans in Thembuland.
Aged 16, he and Justice travelled to Tyhalarha to undergo the ‘ulwaluko’ circumcision ritual that would mark their transition from boys to men; afterwards he was given the name Dalibunga.
Mandela completed his Junior Certificate in two years, and moved to Healdtown, the Methodist college in Fort Beaufort attended by most Thembu royalty, including Justice, at nineteen. Here, the superiority of English culture and government was emphasised to him but Mandela became increasingly interested in native African culture.
At twenty-one, Mandela attended the elite University of Fort Hare where he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law with a desire to work in South Africa’s Native Affairs Department.
He met and married his first wife, Evelyn Mase, a trainee nurse and ANC activist from Engcobo, Transkei, in 1944, aged twenty-six.