Born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela on July 18, 1918 (he was nicknamed “Nelson” by a teacher), Mandela works in his parents’ rural village of Qunu, South Africa, tilling fields and herding cattle with elders from the local Tembu tribe. After his father dies in 1930, the then-12-year-old is chosen as a future leader of the tribe because of his intelligence – life, however, has other plans.
MAN OF ACTION
Mandela’s activism starts early; in 1940 he’s expelled from the University of Fort Hare after organizing a strike to protest limitations placed on the student council. He heads to Johannesburg, where he earns a job at a legal firm, starts working on his law degree and meets and marries his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, with whom he has four children.
A SECOND MARRIAGE
During his time in Johannesburg, Mandela meets 20-year-old social worker Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela. “I cannot say for certain if there is such a thing as love at first sight,” he wrote in his 1994 autobiography. “But I do know that the moment I first glimpsed Winnie Nomzamo, I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.” He divorces Evelyn in 1955 and marries Winnie three years later, welcoming daughters with her in 1958 and 1960.
THE FIGHT BEGINS
In December 1956, Mandela and more than 150 other activists are arrested and charged with treason for staging strikes and protests in opposition to South Africa’s apartheid (enforced racial segregation) laws. The trial lasts five years and ends in an acquittal.
Mandela doesn’t go quietly, however; he disappears underground and forms a military wing of the left-leaning African National Congress, helping to stage bombings on power plants, rail lines and other such targets when civilians aren’t present. Eluding authorities for a while, he’s eventually captured and, in June 1964, is convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life in prison.
In the beginning of his stay at Robben Island (left), a facility for political detainees, Mandela, prisoner 46664, does hard labor, breaking rocks into gravel for roads and completing tasks in the island’s limestone quarry. After 18 years at Robben, Mandela is moved to the suburban Cape Town Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in 1982, then to low-security Victor Verster Prison in the Western Cape in 1988.
FREE AT LAST
On Feb. 11, 1990, 71-year-old Mandela is freed from prison after serving 27 years. South African president F. W. de Klerk was in part responsible for the decision, after taking office and reversing the ban on the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid organizations. Mandela’s release is broadcast live around the world.
A GLOBAL ICON
Three years after his release, Mandela receives a Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with de Klerk, in recognition of their efforts to avoid a South African civil war, joining forces to calm fears and relieve racial tensions. There is, however, tension at home; Mandela and Winnie separate in 1992 and eventually divorce in 1996.
ETCHED IN HISTORY
Mandela becomes South Africa’s first black president and is inaugurated on May 10, 1994. He serves one five-year term, working to transition from apartheid to a multicultural democracy, help social programs flourish and even get citizens to cheer for the country’s rugby team (the inspiration for the 2009 film Invictus).
THE KING & I
Unsurprisingly, Mandela becomes an inspiration and friend to many American celebrities, including King of Pop Michael Jackson, who celebrates the leader’s 78th year in 1996 by singing “Happy Birthday” and presenting him with a cake at his Johannesburg home.
SPICING IT UP
Another friend? Prince Charles, who joins Prince Harry (not pictured), Mandela and the then-exploding Spice Girls at the presidential residence in Johannesburg prior to a 1997 concert. “These are my heroes,” Mandela said of the girl-power pop group. Other famous faces who became pals include Stevie Wonder and Danny Glover, who, along with Jackson, attend Mandela’s 1998 wedding to third wife Graça Machel, widow of Mozambique president and African National Congress ally Samora Machel.
FEELING THE PEACE
Tied by their activism, Bono and Mandela enjoy a longtime friendship, with the U2 frontman even penning a song, “46664,” named after Mandela’s prisoner number. But their time together is a little less heavy at the 2000 Laureus Sports Awards in Monaco, where they spread a simple message backstage.
Inspired by Mandela, Oprah Winfrey decides to build the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls-South Africa. “From the very beginning, I said to Nelson Mandela, ‘I want to create a school for smart girls who will lead this country into glory,'” the media mogul recalled. The leader joins the talk-show host at the school’s 2002 Agenda for Earth Turning Ceremony and is also present at the 2007 opening.
One of Mandela’s great cultural moments comes in 2003, when he is honored in Cape Town at the star-studded AIDS awareness 46664 Concert, featuring performances by Queen, Peter Gabriel, U2, the Eurythmics and Beyoncé, an admirer. Mandela lost a son to AIDS in 2005 and worked to promote understanding about the disease after stepping down from the presidency in 1999.
Mandela’s 90th birthday dinner in Hyde Park, London, on June 25, 2008, is a who’s-who of politicians from around the world. But it also includes some high-wattage Hollywood stars (and close friends), most notably Will Smith and wife Jada Pinkett and Denzel Washington and wife Pauletta.
RESILIENT AS EVER
After stepping down from office, Mandela curtails public appearances and focuses on family and his charity, the Nelson Mandela Foundation. He also battles myriad health problems, including prostate cancer in 2001, an acute respiratory infection in 2011 and a lung infection in 2012 and 2013. But he manages to attend the closing ceremonies of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, earning.
A 'MOVING' MOMENT
During a goodwill trip to South Africa and Botswana in 2011, first lady Michelle Obama and daughters Sasha and Malia spend 20 minutes at home with Mandela, then 92, and his wife, following a visit to his foundation. Obama calls the experience “the most moving part” of her trip abroad. Two years later, on Mandela’s 95th birthday, the Obamas release a statement congratulating the leader on the milestone and asking people to honor him through acts of service.
DAYS GONE BY
Hundreds of people congregate outside of Mandela’s South Africa hospital room on July 18, 2013, to celebrate the critically ill former president’s 95th birthday – and his reportedly improving health. Sadly, it was announced on Dec. 5 that Mandela had passed away. “Let us recall the values for which [he] fought. Let us reaffirm his vision of a society in which none is exploited, oppressed or possessed by another. Let us commit ourselves to strive together sparing neither strength nor courage to build a united, non-racial, non-sexiest, democratic and prosperous South Africa,” the nation’s president Jacob Zuma said when delivering the news.