Editor’s Note: This story originally published in 2013.
He was loved and admired the world over, profiled in books and movies, and showered with awards and accolades. But even the most public of personalities have little-known facts buried in their biographies.
Here are 10 surprising facts you probably didn’t know about Nelson Mandela:
1. He lived up to his name
Mandela’s birth name was Rolihlahla. In his Xhosa tribe, the name means pulling the branch of a tree or troublemaker. The name “Nelson” was given to him by his teacher on his first day of elementary school. It’s not clear why she chose that particular name. It was the 1920s, and African children were given English names so colonial masters could pronounce them easily.
2. He had a cameo in a Spike Lee film
He had a part in Spike Lee’s 1992 biopic “Malcolm X.” At the very end of the movie, he plays a teacher reciting Malcolm X’s famous speech to a room full of Soweto school kids. But the pacifist Mandela wouldn’t say “by any means necessary.” So Lee cut back to footage of Malcolm X to close out the film.
3. There’s a woodpecker named after him
From Cape Town to California, streets named after Mandela abound. But he’s also been the subject of some rather unusual tributes. Scientists have named a prehistoric woodpecker after him: Australopicus nelsonmandelai. In 1973, the physics institute at Leeds University named a nuclear particle the ‘Mandela particle.’
4. He married a first lady
Before tying the knot with Mandela on his 80th birthday, Graça Machel was married to Mozambique President Samora Machel. Her marriage to Mandela after her husband’s death means she has been the first lady of two nations.
5. He was a master of disguise
When Mandela was eluding authorities during his fight against apartheid, he disguised himself in various ways, including as a chauffeur. The press nicknamed him “the Black Pimpernel” because of his police evasion tactics. “I became a creature of the night. I would keep to my hideout during the day, and would emerge to do my work when it became dark,” he says in his biography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
6. A bloody sport intrigued him
Besides politics, Mandela’s other passion was boxing. “I did not like the violence of boxing. I was more interested in the science of it - how you move your body to protect yourself, how you use a plan to attack and retreat, and how you pace yourself through a fight,” he says in his biography.
7. His favorite dish is probably not yours
He’s been wined and dined by world leaders. But Mandela loved the simple pleasures of a traditional meal. One of his favorite meals was tripe, which is served in many African cultures.
8. He quit his day job
He studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and opened the nation’s first Black law firm in the city in 1952.
9. He was on the US terror watch list
Mandela wasn’t removed from the US terror watch list until 2008 – at age 89. He and other members of the African National Congress were placed on it because of their militant fight against apartheid.
10. He drew his inspiration from a poem
While he was in prison, Mandela would read William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” to fellow prisoners. The poem, about never giving up, resonated with Mandela for its lines “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” You may know it from the movie by the same name starring Morgan Freeman as Mandela.