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The Long Name of Nelson Mandela

What is the true birth name of Nelson Mandela?

Hint: It’s not Nelson.


His name can be found written many ways online. His biography from the African National Congress calls him Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. So does his biography from the official site of the South African government. The BBC and both say he was “born Rolihlahla Dalibhunga.” A German edition of Vanity Fair 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.)


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.

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.

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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