Once reviled as a ‘terrorist’ by adversaries who jailed him, acclaimed as a liberator by his people who venerated him, Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president who became the world’s favourite statesman, has died.
It is far too soon for a detached evaluation of the overall impact of this 20th century colossus. His record in office was not without blemish: though personally untainted by financial scandal, his fierce loyalty to comrades from the anti-apartheid struggle meant he often turned a blind eye to the corruption that spread in the new South Africa; foreign policy decisions suggested that Pretoria’s support could be influenced by financial considerations rather than principles; diplomatic intervention in African conflicts proved ineffectual; trade reforms in South Africa were often at the cost of its African neighbours, leading to a resentment of the continent’s superpower that persists to this day.
But few can dispute the claim that Madiba — the clan name by which nearly every South African knew him — changed the course of his country’s history. His extraordinary compassion and shrewd understanding of his enemies, sustained throughout and beyond his 27 years in detention, his determined pursuit of racial reconciliation, were exemplary.
Mandela rescued his country from the brink of disaster, doing so in a way that transcended South Africa’s crisis, serving as an inspiration around the globe, and giving generations of Africans a hero they shared with an admiring world.
In a life rich in drama, triumph and tragedy, four momentous events proved milestones.
It was his conduct at South Africa’s infamous four-year treason trial in 1956, followed by the trial in 1962 that led to his incarceration, where his defiant, electrifying statement from the dock – “democracy (is) an ideal for which I am prepared to die” – first alerted the outside world to the presence of a remarkable man. Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was taken to Cape Town’s notorious Robben Island prison. No photographs were allowed, and until his eventual release, his image was frozen in time.
On February 10, 1990, more than a quarter of a century later, having endured privations and hardships and after nearly two years of secret negotiations, Mandela walked to freedom through the gates of Cape Town’s Victor Verster prison, where he had been transferred, watched by television cameras that broadcast live to millions around the world.
Four years later, Mandela was again in the international spotlight, when at the age of 72 he celebrated the outcome of South Africa’s first democratic elections, in which he led the African National Council to an overwhelming victory, with 62 per cent of the vote.
But perhaps the most enduring image of all is of a beaming Mandela, wearing the green and gold Springbok rugby shirt, shaking hands with team captain Francois Pienaar, just before the kickoff in the 1995 World Rugby cup final against New Zealand. It was a gesture rich in significance, given the sport’s strong associations with the Afrikaners of South Africa, whose leaders did so much to entrench apartheid.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (his middle name means ‘troublemaker’) was born on July 18, 1918 at Mvezo, a village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the Transkei, a poor but picturesque province between the rugged Drakensburg mountains and the blue waters of the Indian ocean, and home to the Thembu people.
Although close to the royal household, he was not of the royal family. Instead he was groomed to be a court adviser, an upbringing that helps account for the dignity and assurance which marked his conduct throughout his life, and which made him feel at home with commoners and queens alike — a quality shown during a state visit to Britain in 1996.
The visit cemented a friendship with the British royal family, the Queen in particular, whom he regularly phoned, addressing her as “Elizabeth”, enquiring after “Phillip”, and offering a break in South Africa to the young princes William and Harry after their mother Diana had been killed in a car crash.
Mandela’s formal education was dominated by church-run institutions, whose schools prepared him for entry to the University College of Fort Hare, founded in 1916 by Scottish missionaries, and home to some of the leading Africa intellectuals of the time.
“We were exhorted to obey God, respect the political authorities, be grateful for educational opportunities, and for the opportunities afforded us by the church and government”, he recalls in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
THE STRUGGLE IS BORN
He soon lived up to his middle name. Mandela resigned from Fort Hare’s student representative council in a dispute over its role, and was suspended by the principal. The episode led to Mandela setting off for Johannesburg, where he first became an articled clerk, and in 1943 began a law degree at the city’s Wits University.
By the time he went in partnership with Oliver Tambo, the man who was to lead the ANC in exile, he was deeply involved in politics, spurred on by a watershed event: the 1948 parliamentary election, won by Dr Hendrik Verwoerd and the National Party.
Under Verwoerd, racial segregation was formally entrenched as apartheid, turning into law the assumption that Africans were innately inferior to Europeans. The stage was set for confrontation.
Mandela played a leading role in the creation of the ANC Youth League, helped launch the so-called “defiance campaign”, a series of non-violent protests against racial segregation, including the pass laws, the hated permit system which required blacks to carry identification cards which limited their movements to specific areas.
Although his life was now dominated by politics, he found time to box in a township gym. With the build of an athlete – tall, broad shoulders, tapering to narrow hips, light on his feet – he seemed a natural. Mandela, however, played down his ability: “I was never an outstanding boxer… he writes, “but it was a way of losing myself in something that was not about the struggle”.
The ‘struggle’ took its toll on his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, a nurse, which ended in divorce in 1955. But he never lost his eye for an attractive woman. His relationship with his first wife was coming to an end when he was smitten: “As I passed a nearby bus stop, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a lovely young woman waiting for a bus ..her name was Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela …. and I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.”
Winnie won his heart, and later broke it, getting caught up in events leading to the death of a young boy, and suspected of being unfaithful to her marriage vows. They separated in 1992. For years he had been in the front line, instrumental in drawing up the ANC’s Freedom Charter, with its memorable opening line: “We, the people of South Africa, declare … that South Africa belongs to all who live in it …”
“I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicised, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle”, he wrote in his autobiography.
“To be an African in South Africa,” he continued, “means that one is politicised from the moment on one’s birth … I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities …(which) produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”
In December 1956, Mandela and 150 others — black, white, Indian and coloured activists — were arrested and charged with treason.
The marathon trial ended in 1961, with all defendants acquitted.
Mandela, however, feared re-arrest and went underground, where he concluded that the ANC policy of non-violence would never dislodge a regime so intransigent. “In my heart I knew non-violence was not the answer.”
In June 1961 the ANC leadership took a fateful decision: Mandela was authorised to create a military wing, and sent on a mission abroad to secure support. (READ: When Kenya rejected plea to host the ANC)
“I, who had never been a soldier, who had never fought a battle, who had never fired a gun at an enemy, had been given the task of starting an army – Umkhonto we Sizwe, the spear of the nation.” After a journey that took him through much of newly independent Africa and ended in London, he returned to resume his underground life.
It was only a matter of time before the dawn knock on the door. On August 5, 1962, after Mandela had been seventeen months on the run, the security police swooped.
The case of the State versus Nelson Mandela and Others, better known as the Rivonia Trial, after the farm where he had been captured, opened in October 1963. He and the other defendants were charged with complicity in over 200 acts of sabotage, hitting power pylons and electricity stations, aimed at ‘facilitating violent revolution’ according to the prosecution.
In a remarkable statement from the dock, Mandela admitted he had helped form MK, defended his actions, and ended on a note of defiance that rang round the world:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society …it is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela and colleagues were taken to Robben Island, a narrow windswept rocky outcrop, 18 miles off the coast, where a group of burly white warders greeted them with the words: “Dis die eiland! Heir gaan julle vrek” (This is the island! Here you will die!)
Conditions were harsh and unhealthy. Mandela’s cell was damp, the winter months bitterly cold, the work in a lime quarry arduous, the warders brutal.
He was 46 years old.
From the mid 1980s, however, his status began to change. Apartheid was under increasing challenge. The state realised that Mandela’s role was vital if centuries of white domination that began soon after Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, and which culminated in 40 years of apartheid, were to end through negotiation and not violent confrontation.
After 18 years he and other ANC officials were moved to Pollsmoor prison, near Cape Town, making it easier for talks between the two sides. The first formal round secret talks got under way at Pollsmoor in May 1988.
Later that year he met President P.W. Botha, the hardline president, an occasion that combined the historic, the comic and the bizarre.
Shortly before the two men got together, South Africa’s intelligence chief, Niel Barnard, noticed that Mandela’s shoelaces were loose, and knelt to tie them.
Mandela, true to form, has kind words to say about Botha.
“He had his hand out and was smiling broadly and in fact from that very first moment, he completely disarmed me. He was unfailingly courteous, deferential and friendly”. Similar gentle appraisals mark just about every comment he makes about international figures. Queen Elizabeth is ‘a great lady, very sharp’; Pope John Paul was “humble, very humble”; even Margaret Thatcher, who had called the ANC a terrorist organisation (a view shared by the US state department well into the 1990s) was “warm, caring … I was tremendously impressed by her.”
On February 10, nearly 30 years to the day after British prime minister Harold MacMillan had warned South Africa’s all-white parliament that the ‘’wind of change’’ gusting through Africa inevitably would reach the Cape, Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster prison, wife Winnie by his side, confronted by a battery of television cameras.
Mandela faced seemingly overwhelming problems.
Black townships across the land were ungovernable. A conflict close to civil war raged in the province of Natal, where 20,000 had died. State security forces were given free rein to suppress dissent within SA borders, using torture and hit squads; and the generals supported insurgencies in Mozambique and Angola.
Mandela arrived late for his appearance at Cape Town’s city hall. A restless crowd had earlier clashed with nervous security forces, encounters marked by the sound of breaking glass, accompanied by the acrid smell of tear gas. It was an occasion that called for a sensitive speech, but what he delivered seemed hard, didactic and inflexible, and had, it turned out, been written by an ad hoc committee of the ANC.
But the following day, at a press conference on the lawn of the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, Mandela took charge. The good humour, civility, tolerance and compassion that guided his conduct were displayed at their best.
Reconciliation became the watchword, as he met Percy Yutar, his treason trial prosecutor who had sought the death sentence, and took tea with Betty Verwoerd, wife of the architect of apartheid.
Fortunately for South Africa, a heart attack had forced Botha to step down, for notwithstanding his courteous reception of Mandela, he was an irascible, finger-wagging conservative.
The, pragmatic FW de Klerk – with whom Mandela was to share the Nobel peace prize – succeeded him, and talks on a new constitution got under way.
The ANC, the National Party, Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha, and a host of smaller parties set about negotiating a new constitution, with few observers holding out much hope of success.
Mandela’s relations with de Klerk were sometimes fraught, and on one memorable occasion Mandela displayed the steely side to his character. It was at the first session of the constitutional conference, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), in December 1991. With the accumulated anger of centuries of humiliation and brutality borne by fellow black South Africans, Mandela laid into de Klerk, calling him “the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime” who was guilty of duplicity, trickery and lying.
In April 1993 the peace process was brought to collapse when Chris Hani, a charismatic ANC leader who was a hero to the radical youth, was assassinated by two white right wingers.
Mandela went on television to appeal for calm. An event that could have destabilised South Africa brought out the best in him, presidential in his quiet authority.
The election of 1994 turned out a triumph. At a celebration in Johannesburg that night, Mandela, surely then the world’s sprightliest septuagenarian, strutted his stuff across the stage and into history, leading a joyous high-stepping celebration of South Africa’s emancipation from apartheid.
After completing his term, Mandela gracefully handed over to Thabo Mbeki, his de facto prime minister during his time in office, and gradually retired from public life, making his last appearance at the 2010 football World Cup, accompanied by his third wife Graca Machel, widow of the Mozambique leader, who he married in July 1998.
Of the many images of Mandela – young boxer, treason trial defendant, walking to freedom, celebrating election victory – one surely stands out.
Mandela had chosen the anniversary of the 1976 student revolt, one of the most sensitive anniversaries in the country’s calendar, to deliver a message to the black youth, just days before the World Cup rugby final.
Right arm aloft, fist clenched, sporting a peaked cap in the green and gold Springbok colours, Mandela called on them to rally behind a rugby team that was overwhelmingly white: “The cap I am wearing is to honour our boys … I ask each and every one of you to stand behind them, because they are our pride, they are my pride, they are your pride … they are our kind.”
At the end of the ‘Bok victory that Saturday, a small boy on a Johannesburg street corner joined in the celebrations. With his hands cupped aside his head, forefingers jutting like budding horns, neck arched, back curved and rump high, a youthful black springbok pranced with delight at South Africa’s success.
A passing white motorist hooted in response. Driver and boy exchanged grins as wide as Nelson Mandela’s as he delighted in his team’s victory.
The scene encapsulated the reconciliation Mandela tirelessly sought, personally demonstrated and ceaselessly urged on a country that for centuries had been divided by race — a principle that surely will be uppermost in the thoughts of South Africans as they grieve the loss of this moral giant who wrested power from the hands of moral pygmies.
by Michael Holman.