I spent a couple of months this summer researching and writing a children's biography, Nelson Mandela: Freedom For All. Growing up in the 1980s, I knew about Mandela more as a symbol and a legend: the tireless champion in the struggle against injustice who went from prisoner to president. But working on the book, I was pleased to learn about Mandela the person, who didn't set out to be a hero. But his surroundings certainly helped form his career path -- and his future.
In the small village of Mvezo, Mandela -- then known as Rolihlahla -- was the son of an advisor to a tribal chief. His father, Nkosi Mandela, was on track to be a chief himself. However, Nkosi argued with a local leader and lost his job. When Rolihlahla was still a baby, the family was forced to relocate to an even smaller village, Qunu.
In Qunu, Rolihlahla first got a glimpse of what his future might be. The men weren't around much: They went off to work on farms and in gold mines. Rolihlahla had his first job at age 5 as a herd boy, keeping an eye on cattle and sheep.
Rolihlahla rarely saw a white person. There was the nearby white shopkeeper, and a local judge, and the occasional police officer. He was told to respect, but also to fear them.
In another two years, Nelson's life took a major turn when his father passed away. He was adopted by his father's friend, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, and moved to a much fancier home in Mqhekezweni. There, he'd eat with a knife and fork for the first time. Most of the boys Nelson knew during this time would end up working in the mines. Nelson was learning about inequality: That any skills and knowledge he gained could go to waste; the common fate was to do simple work for the white ruling class. But the chief made sure Nelson continued his education, with the goal of advising a tribal leader, as Mandela's father had. He went to the Clarkebury Boarding Institute, then Healdtown, and finally Fort Hare University.
In college Mandela studied law, preparing to be a tribal advisor. But he began to think that might not be the job he wanted. He thought perhaps he could be a clerk or interpreter for South Africa's Native Affairs Department. Such a government position was the best job a black man could hope for at the time.
At school, Mandela was elected to the Student Representative Council. But his support of a protest led to him leaving college. He wouldn't apologize, and wouldn't accept the arranged marriage the chief had planned, so Nelson ran off to Alexandra, near Johannesburg. Money was tight, so he worked as a night watchman at a gold mine. But he again refused this seeming destiny.
First professional job
A young businessman named Walter Sisulu helped Mandela land a job as a clerk in a white law firm. Meanwhile, he continued his law studies through the University of Witwatersrand. Through Sisulu, Mandela became involved in the African National Congress; it would be a lifelong association. He and his old Fort Hare friend Oliver Tambo soon became leaders in the newly formed ANC Youth League.
The ANC and its Youth League stepped up their presence after the National Party won South Africa's general election in 1948, and apartheid became the law of the land. The ANC pushed for boycotts, strikes, and peaceful protests. They urged blacks to ignore new rules such as curfews and regulations to carry passbooks. Mandela was one of 8,500 protesters to be arrested.
He and Tambo soon opened Africa's first black law firm in downtown Johannesburg. For little or no fee, they helped anyone who purposely violated the apartheid laws. (Mandela still had not completed his law degree, but had enough real-life experience to be a great help.) As Mandela became more and more politically active, his then-wife Evelyn supported the family as a nurse.
Struggle became his life
The anti-apartheid struggle became Mandela's life, and any other sort of career was forgotten. (He would, however, dress as both a farm worker and milkman to escape police raids.) During 27 years of imprisonment, the fight never ended, and learning never ceased. In 1989, Mandela fulfilled a longstanding goal: He finally completed his law degree.
After Mandela's release from prison on February 11, 1990, there would be other jobs: president of the ANC, and then, of course president of South Africa in 1994. It seemed a completely improbable destiny for young Rolihlahla from Qunu.
But Nelson Mandela never accepted a prewritten fate. He knew the transcending power of education, and determination, and following your heart. Most of us won't change the world, but we can certainly learn from Mandela, and become our best possible selves, staying true to what's within.