Nelson “Madiba” Rolihlahla Mandela was born on the 18 July 1918, to the Thembu Royal Family in Umtatu, in South Africa’s Cape Province, his forename, Rolihlahla, meaning troublemaker in Xhosa. His father was a local chief, and his early life was very much filled with old customs and rituals in his mother’s village, where, as a young boy, he herded cattle. Although both his parents were illiterate, his mother was a devoted Methodist and sent him to school under the guardianship of a fellow chief. He followed his religion with great vigour and studied African History, Geography, English and Xhosa. He moved to Clarkebury Boarding Institute, the largest school for black Africans in Thembuland, where he gained education through a western system. In 1937, aged 21-years-old, he moved to Healdtown to a Methodist college, and his interest in native African culture grew immensely as well as his hobbies of boxing and running long-distance.
His foray into law studies began in 1943, when he was the only native African student at the University of Witwatersrand, where he faced racism but overcame it by befriending a racially diverse student group of Europeans, Indians, and Jewish students. The students collectively decided that there was a need for Africans to be independent, having seen the oppression they faced, and in 1944 they founded the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) with Mandela as a member of the executive committee. In the 1948 general elections in South Africa, where only whites were permitted to cast their votes, the very racist, Afrikaner-dominated Herenigde Nasionale Party won. The Nasionale Party and its policies of expanding racial segregation had a profound impact on the path Mandela would take. Soon, Boycotts and strikes were taking hold of townships, and the ANC, after replacing some reluctant leaders, was taking on a more direct, proactive, revolutionary, and radical approach to gaining community and national support to end apartheid and racial abuse. As Mandela became more focused on the ANC’s movement, he lost his hold on his education and failed his final year exams 3 times and was denied his degree in 1949.
In 1950, he was elected National President of the ANCYL. His interest in dialectical materialism was enriched by readings of Karl, Marx and Joseph Stalin, and his underlying interest was deciding on a non-violent path, influenced by Mahatma Gandhi. His ability to address the public was extraordinary, and his rallies swelled in numbers of up to ten thousand. At a Durban rally, he openly criticized the ruling government party and landed briefly in prison. His courage to speak the truth and his character were being widely recognized. The ANC’s memberships greatly boosted to a hundred thousand, and the government retaliated with a massive crackdown, arresting the members of ANC and the general rallying public. Police brutality against blacks in custody was a norm. As support for Mandela and his vision grew, everyone was able to see the leader in him, his vision of non-violent activism was becoming clear, despite the many arrests that followed his 1953 speech, “No Easy Walk to Freedom” at the ANC meeting, which elaborated his plans for an organizational structure for the ANC should the party be banned. After this, Mandela passed his law exams in Africa and started his own law firm with Oliver Tambo. It was the first African law firm to deal predominately with cases of abuse against fellow black Africans. Needless to say, the law firm was not popular with the authorities and they were forced to relocate amid harassment and threats. All this made his determination more clear. “We, the people of South Africa,” he said in the opening of the Freedom Charter, “declare for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.”
After an ANC delegate meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1962, he travelled in secret to Egypt, Mali, Senegal, Tunisia, Morocco and other African nations before heading to London, England, where he met anti-apartheid activists, journalist and reporters opening his views and creating further thought to the path of non-violence. Upon return, he was arrested for leaving the country without permission and assisting labour strikes. While he was on trial, his followers held vigils outside the court, making the ANC’s opposition to racism clear. Mandela was found guilty of the charges and sentenced to 5 years in prison. In 1963, while in Prison serving for the previous charges, he was further charged with conspiracy to overthrow the government via guerrilla warfare, as it was discovered he had raised money from the African trips and had begun a six-month course in guerrilla warfare in Ethiopia, of which he only completed two months and returned to South Africa. The government felt he was rousing support to take up arms against them and deemed him a terrorist, communist, and “arch-Marxist”.
Mandela used his trial to gain more international attention for the ANC’s stance against apartheid, and despite press censorship his speech, “History Will Absolve Me”, caught the attention of many prominent international institutions, like the United Nations. Sadly, the prosecutors were seeking the death penalty, and despite the international attention, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at Robben Island, where he did 18 years of hard labor as a D-category prisoner, which meant no visitors and one letter every six months. Mandela did hard labor, was hardly fed, slept on concrete, was practically blinded from working in the glare of sunlight and then in utter darkness, had no stimulation, but they could not break the spirit of the man and even till his last days, he said, “There were pains that would never go away, for as long as he lived but he chose to embrace his freedom, make the most of his new life and set out to do what he could to make the world a better place”. Over time, in prison, he overcame the physical and mental abuse of the officers by engaging whole-heartedly in his correspondence studies to obtain his bachelor of law at the University of London. He also studied Islam, due to an interest that developed during his traveling, and Afrikaans so he could communicate better with his captors.
During his following years in prison he went from a class D inmate to finally a class A prisoner in 1975, when conditions for black prisoners were slightly improved.
Mandela, on his sixtieth birthday, in July, 1978, was gaining even more notoriety and international attention in prison, but the government refused to release him. As South African Cold-War-allies, U.S. President, Ronald Reagan, and U.K. Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, branded Mandela a terrorist and communist. During these years, other black movements such as the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) gained momentum seeking militant uprising, but the leaders were imprisoned in the same Robben Island prison as Mandela.
The world started to pay attention again to Mandela and his plight for ending Apartheid without using violence or causing civil war, when a journalist named Percy Qoboza started an international campaign in 1980, titled, “Free Mandela”. South Africa started receiving foreign pressure, as Mandela was awarded an honorary doctorate in Lesotho, the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding in India, and the Freedom of the City in Glasgow, Scotland in 1981.
In 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor prison where he was housed with fewer ANC leaders to squash his movement and influence over other ANC members held at Robben Island. Here, Mandela took advantage of the better conditions and was permitted 52 letters a year, he wrote vigorously and was corresponding widely.
At the time, P.W. Botha had come into power in South Africa, and his government had permitted people of color and Indian citizens to vote for their own parliaments and have a say in the education, housing, and health of their own. Native African’s were not permitted the same leniency. The United Democratic Front (UDF), a multiracial party, appointed Mandela as a patron to fight such reforms and end P.W. Botha’s attempt to change the course of apartheid down racial lines. The country was almost at civil war, and violence was rife all over, which resulted in economic sanctions. At this time, the “Free Mandela” campaign was at its height. The commonwealth nations were putting great pressure on South Africa to free Mandela
International figures started to pressure the government to release him to save the country from civil war and further bloodshed. Botha offered Mandela freedom should he accept the mandate of “unconditionally rejecting violence as a political weapon” against his government. Mandela did not accept, as the government had funded a secret movement known as Inkatha to attack ANC members and was using the army to combat the resistance movement. This tactic by the government engendered further violence, as the ANC retaliated, committing over 400 attacks against government forces.
Foreign delegations, such as “Eminent Persons Group”, led by the Commonwealth Nations to bring about negotiations between the opposing parties were sent to openly discuss apartheid and racial segregation with Botha. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser visited Mandela in prison, but Botha refused to release Mandela. Following a stroke in 1989, Botha was replaced by the more moderate F.W. de Klerk. This same year, the world was shocked when Botha invited Mandela to have tea and F.W. de Clerk released all ANC prisoners except Mandela, following the fall of the Berlin Wall. F.W. de Klerk knew apartheid was unsustainable and discussed with his parliament the legal registration of the ANC and the release of Mandela. South Africa was suffering a great deal under economic and banking sanctions. He was opposed to it but remained focused on releasing Mandela for the good of the country.
Mandela was finally released from prison on 11 February 1990, after serving 27 years in prison being silenced by the white government. When he gave his famous speech outside Cape Town City Hall that the ANC struggle to end apartheid was not over and that only a defensive measure would be used. He showed that despite all measures by the government, his power as a global symbol of resistance against apartheid and human rights violations had only grown. Mandela was a man who had suffered immensely, but he was not bitter; the suffering enabled him to continue his fight.
His popularity continued to grow enormously as he toured Africa and Europe and appeared at Wembley Stadium for a tribute concert entitled, “Free South Africa”. His first overseas visit after release was to meet with Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister of Australia, who was a long-time supporter and played a major role in convincing Margaret Thatcher that Mandela was not a communist. Mr. Fraser and Mr. Hawke spearheaded the Commonwealth campaign against Margaret Thatcher to convince her of the greatness of Mandela as a civil rights activist and not a terrorist. Mandela went on to Europe to meet Pope John Paul II , Margaret Thatcher, and Francois Mitterrand, among others. He met Fidel Castro, whom he admired greatly, and went on to gain huge support from the African American community in the US, when he met with George H.W. Bush. He visited India and met with R. Venkataraman and Suharto of Indonesia, continuing to Malaysia and Japan.
In 1991, in Durban, Mandela addressed the government about the ANC becoming the majority ruling party and was elected ANC president, replacing Tambo, and selected fifty men and women for his multiracial national team. Between 1991 and 1993 there were continued clashes between the ANC and Inkatha supporters, and Mandela faced media backlash, as his wife, Winnie, was on trial for kidnapping and assault. Mandela was supportive but always critical and suspicious of the African media as it was predominately owned by middle class whites, who took every opportunity to publicly criticize his personal life.
In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in 1994, the ANC began campaigning for elections with Mandela gaining the majority of his funding from overseas supporters. Mandela’s campaign featured a “Reconstruction and Development Program” to provide housing, free education, and to increase access to water and electricity, under the slogan “ A Better Life for All”. During a televised debate with de Klerk, the world was shocked when Mandela shook de Klerk’s hand and went on to seal victory by taking seven provinces and 62 percent of the popular vote in the national election, becoming the first black president of South Africa.
Mandela’s inauguration was watched globally by billions of people, and he named de Klerk as Deputy President, allowing him the presidential residency, and moving himself to Westbrooke Manor and renaming it “Valley of Mercy”. Mandela started the process of national reconciliation and the transition from minority apartheid to a majority multicultural democracy through his diverse cabinet and through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated crimes under apartheid committed by the government and the ANC, appointing Desmond TuTu as its chair. During two years of hearings, cases of bombings, assassinations, rapes, torture, and murder were heard. So that no heroes or martyrs were created, the commission board granted amnesties in exchange for testimony of crimes. The aim for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was to have the oppressed and oppressor face to face in the hope that they would forgive, forget, and form a new country. This, along with his address for the country to get behind the previously hated all-white Springboks national Rugby Team at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, helped him win the hearts of millions more South Africans, particularly the whites. South Africa finally did get behind Mandela, and with a new flag they became the “Rainbow Nation”, with eleven official languages. The Afrikaners kept their language and cultural heritage, and the Afrikaans-language section of the national anthem remained. Finally, they were the Rainbow Nation united.
During his presidency, he donated majority of his income to his Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and his policies created free health care for children under six and pregnant women. Grants for disability, old age, and child maintenance were introduced. Welfare spending was increased by thirteen percent. More than 3 million people had access to clean, running water and were provided with housing. 3 million more people now had telephone lines, 1.5 million children gained access to education, and 2 million more people now had electricity. The Labour Relations Act of 1915 put and end to unfair discrimination in the work force, implemented effective dispute resolutions, extended rights to all workers, and created workplace democracy and collective bargaining. The Land Restitution Act of 1994 allowed people who had previously lost their land under the racist Native Land Act of 1913 to settle their land claims. This act safeguarded tenants against eviction and created court system for claims. Mandela changed the course of a nation and its people, and he was starting to influence other African countries in their policy-making.
The new Constitution of South Africa was ratified in May, 1996, and Mandela stepped down as ANC president and supported the candidacy of Jacob Zuma in December, 1997. Mandela gave his farewell speech from politics in March, 1999, when he retired and took on a life of continued civil activism against discrimination. He founded the Nelson Mandela HIV/AIDS Foundation in 1999 and continued his work in rural development, education, and school-construction.
He was still vocal during his retirement, especially against western powers. He strongly opposed the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, and in 2003, he condemned the U.S. and U.K. for the War in Iraq, saying the world’s powerful nations were trying to police the world and undermine the U.N. Mandela made his dislike for the American policies clear in his later years, saying the United States was committing more “unspeakable atrocities” than any other nation across the world.
There is no man standing in our lifetime who is more admired and respected than Nelson Mandela, and respected by people in all walks of life, clearly because he was a simple man who stood for the humble, the weak, the marginalized, and the powerless, the little people so often ignored, taken for granted and abused by power. He stood for them until the very end of his life. He showed compassion and forgiveness through all the adversity that he faced, not only for those mentioned above but for his critics, colleagues, supporters, and even sworn enemies. He was a unifier, a peace-maker, a courageous, humble leader, a giant for justice for all. Mandela’s death brought great sadness to the world, because he was simply loved by all, for he showed mankind that whatever the odds we face, persistence, justice, faith and endurance can persevere. He was not bitter for those who wished him harm; he wished them well. So we celebrate Mandela, the man who showed tremendous courage and triumphed over prejudice and hate. He lives forever in our hearts and in history to give us courage for whatever the future of humankind will face.
“When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity,” he said, on death, in an interview for the Academy award-nominated 1996 documentary Mandela.
Nelson “Madiba” Rolihlahla Mandela, 1918 – 2013.
Photograph by Charles Roffey. The picture of a graffiti of Nelson Mandela in Qunu, Eastern Cape (South Africa) has been used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and has been slightly edited for the cover.