Mandela was born to a Thembu family in the small village of Qunu in the Mthatha district, capital of the Transkeian Territories of the Cape Province of the Union of South Africa. Mandela's father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a member for the royal council of the Thembu people, a position for which he was groomed from birth and which Mandela was also destined to inherit. Mandela's father was instrumental in the ascension to the Thembu throne of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who would later return this favour by informally adopting Mandela upon Gadla's death. In total, Mandela's father had four wives, with whom he fathered a total of thirteen children (four boys and nine girls). Mandela was born to Gadla's third wife ('third' by a complex royal ranking system), Nosekeni Fanny in whose umzi or homestead Mandela spent much of his childhood. His name Rolihlahla means one who brings trouble to himself.
At seven years of age, Rolihlahla Mandela became the first member of his family to attend a school, where he was given the name "Nelson", after the British admiral Horatio Nelson, by a Methodist teacher. His father died of tuberculosis when Rolihlahla was nine, and the Regent, Jongintaba, became his guardian. Mandela attended a Wesleyan mission school next door to the palace of the regent. Following Thembu custom, he was initiated at age sixteen, and attended Clarkebury Boarding Institute, learning about Western culture. He completed his Junior Certificate in two years, instead of the usual three.
At age nineteen, in 1937, Mandela moved to Healdtown, the Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort, which most Thembu royalty attended, and took an interest in boxing and running. After matriculating, he started to study for a B.A. at the Fort Hare University, where he met Oliver Tambo, and the two became lifelong friends and colleagues.
At the end of his first year, he became involved in a boycott of the Students' Representative Council against the university policies, and was asked to leave Fort Hare. Shortly after this, Jongintaba announced to Mandela and Justice (the Regent's own son and heir to the throne) that he had arranged marriages for both of them. Both young men were displeased by this and rather than marry, they elected to flee the comforts of the Regent's estate to the only place they could: Johannesburg. Upon his arrival in Johannesburg, Mandela initially found employment as a guard at a mine. However, this was quickly terminated after the employer learned that Mandela was the Regent's runaway adopted son. He then managed to find work as an articled clerk at a law firm thanks to connections with his friend and fellow lawyer Walter Sisulu. While working, he completed his degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) via correspondence, after which he started with his law studies at the University of Witwatersrand. During this time Mandela lived in a township called Alexandra.