10 Inspiring Facts About Nelson Mandela

Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images
Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images / Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images

Most of us are familiar with Nelson Mandela's imprisonment and anti-Apartheid work, but here are a few things you might not know about this inspiring world leader, who was born on July 18, 1918.

1. Nelson Mandela's prison number was 46664.

The number indicates that he was the 466th prisoner of 1964. He embraced the number, making it the name of his HIV/AIDS awareness campaign and the name of a series of charity concerts.

2. Nelson Mandela ran away from home.

Mandela and his cousin Justice ran away from home in 1941 to avoid arranged marriages.

3. Nelson Mandela overcame many personal tragedies.

He finally did get to marry for love in 1944, to Evelyn Mase, but their relationship was soon marred by tragedy. Their second child, Makaziwe, died at just nine months old. They had two other children: Madiba Thembekile (Thembi), who died in a car crash while Mandela was in prison in 1969, and Makgatho Lewanika, who died of AIDS in 2005. Mandela had two other children with his second wife Winnie, 20 grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren.

4. Nelson Mandela had his own holiday.

In November 2009, the United Nations General Assembly declared July 18, his birthday, "Mandela Day." It's a national celebration and recognition of Mandela's contributions to freedom.

5. Nelson Mandela's election as South Africa's president broke new ground.

Mandela's inauguration as president in 1994 was historic for at least four reasons (and probably many more). He was South Africa’s first democratically elected president. He was also the country’s first black president, and the oldest person elected to the office. His inauguration united the largest number of heads of state since U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in 1963.

6. Nelson Mandela's first name wasn't actually Nelson.

Mandela's given name was Rolihlahla, which his schoolteachers were unable to pronounce. One of them started calling him Nelson after British admiral Horatio Nelson, and the name obviously stuck. Rolihlahla, by the way, means "pulling the branch of a tree."

7. Nelson Mandela's fellow citizens gave him an affectionate nickname.

South Africans commonly called Mandela "mkhulu" (grandfather), or Madiba, the Mandela family name for a respected elder.

8. Nelson Mandela has been misquoted.

One of Mandela's most famous quotations isn't really his. You may have heard it—it's often cited as coming from his 1994 inaugural speech:

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure ... As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This is actually a quote by author and spiritual activist Marianne Williamson in her book A Return to Love. Not only did Mandela not coin the phrase himself, he probably never even said it. "As far as I know, he has never used the quote in any of his speeches,” said Razia Saleh, an archivist at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, "and we have catalogued about 1000 thus far."

9. Nelson Mandela's work has been recognized far and wide.

During his lifetime, Mandela received more than 695 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

10. Nelson Mandela's name lives on.

People loved to honor Mandela’s work for freedom and human rights. As if those 695 awards weren’t enough, more than 25 schools, universities, and educational institutions have been named after him. At least 19 scholarships and foundations bear the name Nelson Mandela, and more than 95 sculptures, statues, or pieces of art have been made of him or dedicated to him.

This article has been updated for 2020.