Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in Umtata, then part of South Africa's Cape Province. Given the forename Rolihlahla, a Xhosa term colloquially meaning "troublemaker", in later years he became known by his clan name, Madiba. His patrilineal great-grandfather, Ngubengcuka, was king of the Thembu people in the Transkeian Territories of South Africa's modern Eastern Cape province. One of Ngubengcuka's sons, named Mandela, was Nelson's grandfather and the source of his surname. Because Mandela was the king's child by a wife of the Ixhiba clan, a so-called "Left-Hand House", the descendants of his cadet branch of the royal family were morganatic, ineligible to inherit the throne but recognised as hereditary royal councillors.
Nelson Mandela's father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa Mandela (1880–1928), was a local chief and councillor to the monarch; he was appointed to the position in 1915, after his predecessor was accused of corruption by a governing white magistrate. In 1926, Gadla was also sacked for corruption, but Nelson was told that his father had lost his job for standing up to the magistrate's unreasonable demands. A devotee of the god Qamata, Gadla was a polygamist with four wives, four sons and nine daughters, who lived in different villages. Nelson's mother was Gadla's third wife, Nosekeni Fanny, daughter of Nkedama of the Right Hand House and a member of the amaMpemvu clan of the Xhosa.
No one in my family had ever attended school ... On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name I have no idea.
Mandela later stated that his early life was dominated by traditional Thembu custom and taboo. He grew up with two sisters in his mother's kraal in the village of Qunu, where he tended herds as a cattle-boy and spent much time outside with other boys. Both his parents were illiterate, but being a devout Christian, his mother sent him to a local Methodist school when he was about seven. Baptised a Methodist, Mandela was given the English forename of "Nelson" by his teacher. When Mandela was about nine, his father came to stay at Qunu, where he died of an undiagnosed ailment which Mandela believed to be lung disease. Feeling "cut adrift", he later said that he inherited his father's "proud rebelliousness" and "stubborn sense of fairness".
Mandela's mother took him to the "Great Place" palace at Mqhekezweni, where he was entrusted to the guardianship of the Thembu regent, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Although he did not see his mother again for many years, Mandela felt that Jongintaba and his wife Noengland treated him as their own child, raising him alongside their son, Justice, and daughter, Nomafu. As Mandela attended church services every Sunday with his guardians, Christianity became a significant part of his life. He attended a Methodist mission school located next to the palace, where he studied English, Xhosa, history and geography. He developed a love of African history, listening to the tales told by elderly visitors to the palace, and was influenced by the anti-imperialist rhetoric of a visiting chief, Joyi. At the time he nevertheless considered the European colonialists not as oppressors but as benefactors who had brought education and other benefits to southern Africa. Aged 16, he, Justice and several other boys travelled to Tyhalarha to undergo the ulwaluko circumcision ritual that symbolically marked their transition from boys to men; afterwards he was given the name Dalibunga.
Clarkebury, Healdtown, and Fort Hare: 1934–1940
Photograph of Mandela, taken in Umtata in 1937
Intending to gain skills needed to become a privy councillor for the Thembu royal house, in 1933 Mandela began his secondary education at Clarkebury Methodist High School in Engcobo, a Western-style institution that was the largest school for black Africans in Thembuland. Made to socialise with other students on an equal basis, he claimed that he lost his "stuck up" attitude, becoming best friends with a girl for the first time; he began playing sports and developed his lifelong love of gardening. He completed his Junior Certificate in two years, and in 1937 moved to Healdtown, the Methodist college in Fort Beaufort attended by most Thembu royalty, including Justice. The headmaster emphasised the superiority of English culture and government, but Mandela became increasingly interested in native African culture, making his first non-Xhosa friend, a speaker of Sotho, and coming under the influence of one of his favourite teachers, a Xhosa who broke taboo by marrying a Sotho. Mandela spent much of his spare time at Healdtown as a long-distance runner and boxer, and in his second year he became a prefect.
With Jongintaba's backing, in 1939 Mandela began work on a BA degree at the University of Fort Hare, an elite black institution in Alice, Eastern Cape, with around 150 students. There he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law in his first year, desiring to become an interpreter or clerk in the Native Affairs Department. Mandela stayed in the Wesley House dormitory, befriending his own kinsman, K. D. Matanzima, as well as Oliver Tambo, who became a close friend and comrade for decades to come. He took up ballroom dancing, performed in a drama society play about Abraham Lincoln, and gave Bible classes in the local community as part of the Student Christian Association. Although he had friends connected to the African National Congress (ANC) who wanted South Africa to be independent of the British Empire, Mandela avoided any involvement with the anti-imperialist movement, and became a vocal supporter of the British war effort when the Second World War broke out. He helped to found a first-year students' house committee which challenged the dominance of the second-years, and at the end of his first year became involved in a Students' Representative Council (SRC) boycott against the quality of food, for which he was suspended from the university; he never returned to complete his degree.
Arriving in Johannesburg: 1941–1943
Returning to Mqhekezweni in December 1940, Mandela found that Jongintaba had arranged marriages for him and Justice; dismayed, they fled to Johannesburg via Queenstown, arriving in April 1941. Mandela found work as a night watchman at Crown Mines, his "first sight of South African capitalism in action", but was fired when the induna (headman) discovered that he was a runaway. He stayed with a cousin in George Goch Township, who introduced Mandela to realtor and ANC activist Walter Sisulu. The latter secured Mandela a job as an articled clerk at the law firm of Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, a company run by Lazar Sidelsky, a liberal Jew sympathetic to the ANC's cause. At the firm, Mandela befriended Gaur Radebe—a Xhosa member of the ANC and Communist Party—and Nat Bregman, a Jewish communist who became his first white friend. Mandela attended Communist Party gatherings, where he was impressed that Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Coloureds mixed as equals. He later stated that he did not join the Party because its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith, and because he saw the South African struggle as being racially based rather than as class warfare. To continue his higher education, Mandela signed up to a University of South Africa correspondence course, working on his bachelor's degree at night.
Earning a small wage, Mandela rented a room in the house of the Xhoma family in the Alexandra township; despite being rife with poverty, crime and pollution, Alexandra always remained a special place for him. Although embarrassed by his poverty, he briefly dated a Swazi woman before unsuccessfully courting his landlord's daughter. To save money and be closer to downtown Johannesburg, Mandela moved into the compound of the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, living among miners of various tribes; as the compound was visited by various chiefs, he once met the Queen Regent of Basutoland. In late 1941, Jongintaba visited Johannesburg—there forgiving Mandela for running away—before returning to Thembuland, where he died in the winter of 1942. Mandela and Justice arrived a day late for the funeral. After he passed his BA exams in early 1943, Mandela returned to Johannesburg to follow a political path as a lawyer rather than become a privy councillor in Thembuland. He later stated that he experienced no epiphany, but that he "simply found [himself] doing so, and could not do otherwise."