The Who2 Blog

Nelson Mandela’s Real Name: Revealed

Barack Obama hugs his daughter Sasha as they visited the prison at Robben Island in South Africa. Official White House photo.

This week in South Africa, President Barack Obama spoke of Nelson Mandela with these words:

“I expressed my hope that Madiba draws peace and comfort from the time that he is spending with loved ones, and also expressed my heartfelt support for the entire family as they work through this difficult time. I also reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world – including me.”

Why did he call him Madiba? For details, read on as we revisit a classic Who2 research report from 2007: The Long Name of Nelson Mandela.

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What is the true birth name of Nelson Mandela?

Hint: It’s not Nelson Mandela.

Photo of Nelson Mandela with gray hair and a wool button-up sweater

His name can be found written many ways online. His biography from the African National Congress calls him Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. His official biography from the the South African government calls him “Doctor Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.” (He has honorary doctorates from the University of Lesotho, City College of New York and Karl Marx University, among others.) 

The BBC and both say he was “born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga.” A German edition of Vanity Fair [link now dead] goes all the way and gives his voller name as “Nelson Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela.”

Which is right?

Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, begins this way: “Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla. In Xhosa, Rolihlahla literally means ‘pulling the branch of a tree,’ but its colloquial meaning more accurately would be ‘troublemaker.'”

A few pages later, Mandela describes how he was given his more famous first name on his first day of school: “Africans of my generation — and even today — generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.”

(That would be Horatio Nelson, the naval hero who was killed in 1805 while defeating Napoleon‘s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.)

So that gives us Nelson and Rolihlahla. Where does Dalibhunga come in? The name isn’t mentioned at all in Long Walk to Freedom. Was it a middle name? A family name?

A 1990 article from the Daily Mail and Guardian sheds some light on the mystery. Describing Mandela’s home village of Qunu, it says: “People greet each other by their clan names here and everyone in the area knows who Rholihlahla Mandela is. He is likely to be greeted with cries of ‘Ah, Dalibhunga,’ the name given to him on achieving manhood after the circumcision.”

An interview from the PBS series Frontline supports this. The website for their show The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela features this exchange with three chiefs from Mandela’s home village:

Interviewer: “When you speak in your language, you refer to Nelson Mandela by a different name. Can you explain that to me?”

Chief N. Mtirara: “His name is Dalibhunga. Chief Dalibhunga. That name was given to him after circumcision. So each and every chief or prince in accordance with our custom, after circumcision, he is given a praise name, so that his original first name, like that one of Rolihlahla is no longer used. Instead of it, he is being called Chief Dalibhunga.”

(For a little more on the concept of praise names, see this Encyclopedia Britannica article.)

Photo of Nelson Mandela in coat and gloves, smiling and waving

And there is still one more name you may hear: Madiba. This is the name of Nelson Mandela’s clan among the Xhosa people. (“Much like the clan system of Scotland,” says Wikipedia.) The Nelson Mandela Foundation explains more about Madiba:

This is the name of the clan of which Mr Mandela is a member. A clan name is much more important than a surname as it refers to the ancestor from which a person is descended. Madiba was the name of a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the 18th century. It is considered very polite to use someone’s clan name.

They also note that he is fondly called Tata (meaning “father”) and Khulu (meaning “great, paramount, grand”). Because he didn’t have enough titles already.

So summing up: his original birth name was Rolihlahla Mandela. He was given the name Nelson as a schoolboy, and the name stuck. Madiba is a respectful clan name. And Dalibhunga is the tribal honorific or praise name. And you may also call him Tata, Khulu, or just plain Doctor.

Not enough names for you? There’s always the 2002 book Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela: An Ecological Study. The book was written in Zulu by Jabulani Buthelezi, a professor who takes a proudly African point of view. Professor Buthelezi introduces his subject as Baba Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela kaMphakanyiswa Gadla kaMadiba.

We’ll let someone else explain that version.

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