Nelson Mandela, 95, died today after a long illness.
He is revered as the anti-apartheid hero who led his people to freedom in South Africa after being jailed for 27 years.
Mandela, who had been seen by many white South Africans as the face of potential black domination and the personification of their fears was instrumental in engineering a peaceful transition for his country, demonstrating that racial unity and equality for all was his aim.
He donned the Springbok rugby jersey to support South Africa’s mixed race team in its bid for world cup glory in 1995 setting the tone for broad acceptance by whites, his former oppressors, that he was a man of goodwill, that a black man could share their own passions and desires.
Mandela’s election as president in 1994 brought to an end decades of often violent struggle and centuries of oppression by successive colonial powers and white governments. Sadly, his legacy is now being threatened by less statesmanlike successors and a divided family squabbling for a share of the glory – and considerable wealth – his name implies.
Born in a country that had legislated the inequality of all coloured people, his life was shaped and characterised by a struggle for survival, for education, and for freedom.
Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, a member of the Madiba clan of the Thembu people, the son of a senior tribal counsellor. His name translates literally to “pulling the branch of a tree” but is, colloquially, “troublemaker”. Nelson was the name given him by a local methodist primary school teacher. Adopted by the tribal chief he became steeped in tribal lore and custom, and learned the history of dispossession his people had endured since white settlement.
Groomed to lead, Mandela enrolled in the University College of Fort Hare in 1939. His capacity to “make trouble” came to the fore when, as a member of the student council, he quit in sympathy with a student protest. Expelled for insubordination he returned home to face his family’s anger.
Told that a customary tribal marriage had been arranged for him, Mandela again defied authority, fleeing to the city of Johannesburg where he worked while completing his degree by correspondence. He then studied law at the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand, where he met a larger circle of young politicised activists, people active in the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). These organisations had for decades ineffectually argued for black rights and freedoms, but change was afoot. Mandela and his new friends, full of energy and passion, began to campaign with new drive and purpose.
It was a timely change. By 1949, South Africa’s racial politics had taken a turn for the worse: a new white nationalist Afrikaner government had made clear its refusal to negotiate about black rights and introduced draconian new laws to crush socialist ideals. The parent ANC, denied any option to negotiate, adopted a more aggressive program of boycotts, strikes and non-cooperation favoured by the young firebrands.
The “left” was at that time a complex mix of seemingly incompatible groups pursuing different philosophies to the same end – racial equality and human rights for all. When the Afrikaner nationalists (admirers of Hitler’s national socialism) banned the Communist Party and muzzled its members with banning orders, many white leftists became more closely involved with the other groups, which had begun to realise they needed to stand together if they were to have any hope of countering the Afrikaner juggernaut. Mandela, through this time, built alliances, debated strategy with Stalinists, black nationalists ad Trotskyite, and developed a formidable reputation as an organizer and facilitator.
In 1952, all the non-racial opposition parties, under the leadership of the ANC and the SAIC, launched their first national joint action, the Defiance Campaign, in protest against new “Pass” laws introduced to control the movement and migration of black people. A national action committee organised groups of black supporters to travel without the new passes, and others to ignore curfews and use the wrong (“whites only” or “”non-whites only”) entrances for public facilities – small acts of defiance that would incur modest penalties but attract publicity. Mandela was volunteer-in-chief. By the end of the year 8057 volunteers had been arrested around the country.
The government, alarmed, arrested the national leaders and charged them with promoting communism. Mandela was among 20 found guilty of “statutory communism” but received suspended sentences and banning orders to limit their moment and silence them by making it illegal for any newspaper to quote them. The campaign, however, had caught the attention of the United Nations, and helped put apartheid on the agenda of the international community.
Mandela’s reputation continued to grow, though primarily in the Transvaal, where he and Oliver Tambo started a law firm together in 1952, offering cheap or free legal council to blacks who might otherwise go unrepresented.
The successful cooperation through the defiance campaign led to the formation of the Congress Alliance in 1954, a consultative umbrella group of anti-apartheid groups, to draft a clear and united statement on their demands and South Africa’s future.
The resultant Kliptown Freedom Charter articulated the core principles of the ANC and its allies. The banned Mandela attended in disguise, dressed as a milkman.
Mandela, like many of the younger ANC activists, had gone through a phase of demanding a purely “black” response to apartheid, but through the years of debate and cooperation with leftwing and moderate whites had moderated his views and accepted that a united front was needed to build a non-racial South Africa. The charter embodied these ideals.
But there was opposition. Some members of the black community called for militant and aggressive tactics to hasten the end of apartheid. For the moment, though, the ANC, and Mandela as a youth leader, stood by a more moderate, modern and balanced view of the situation.
The government however responded to the rival Pan Africanist Congress’s campaign by arresting 156 activists representing the bulk of anti-apartheid leadership in organisations across South Africa and charging them with high treason. Many were held in communal cells in Johannesburg’s “Fort” – a squalid prison. It was not the apartheid regime’s wisest act. In his biography, Mandela described his time there as “the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years”.
Defendant Rusty Bernstein wrote of the hours spent in common holding areas during the trial, “… the leaders of all ethnic factions of the movement are together and explore each other’s doubts and reservations, and speak about them without constraint. Coexistance … deepens and recreates their relationships.”
Among the issues discussed was the possibility of armed struggle. In 1960, while the trial was still under way, the government had banned the Congress, its constituent parties and most of its leaders. The defendants faced with the removal of any outlet for expressions of opposition to apartheid, decided to create an armed underground wing that could, if necessary, continue the struggle for freedom if legitimate protest was blocked.
Mandela was deputed to organize the group. The night after the trial ended in 1961 with all accused acquitted, he went underground. He travelled throughout south Africa organizing supporters, and clandestinely left the country to seek support – in Russia among other places – for the ANC’s military wing Mkhonto we Sizwe.
He was arrested in 1962 after the CIA tipped off South African police about his movements, and jailed for inciting strikes and illegally travelling abroad. He was already in jail when the police arrested the rest of the underground group’s leaders at a farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg.
At the ensuing Rivonia trial, 10 people including Mandela and Sisulu, faced the death sentence for committing 221 acts of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government. It resulted in the charismatic Mandela’s recognition as the prime mover in the move to activism and de facto leadership of the ANC’s underground struggle.
Because Mandela was banned his statement from the dock could not legally be published in South Africa, but it resounded around the world and was to inspire and encourage many young followers: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society … It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be … it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
In the face of international outrage at apartheid’s iniquity, the death penalty was waived. But Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment – and for political prisoners, life meant life.
In all, Mandela spent 27 years in jail, 18 of them in the harsh environment of the Robben Island prison colony. Slaving in lime quarries and chipping rocks into gravel, he developed eye problems and tuberculosis, the origin of the lung problems that plagued him to his death. But he was among friends, as successive waves of activists were jailed, sent to the island, and were taught by Mandela and others in the informal “University of Robben Island”. Despite his isolation he remained the undisputed kingpin, the key figure in the ANC and the government’s most prized prisoner.
Over those 27 long years, his reputation grew internationally, anti-apartheid campaigns were launched in his name, books were written, and films made. Rare sightings of Mandela were reported by visiting international delegations.
Back in Soweto, the sprawling black township south-west of Johannesburg, Mandela’s wife Winnie and Sisulu’s wife Albertina became figureheads of the campaigns, helping in different ways to mobilize and support the dissidents.
But other changes were afoot as a younger generation inspired by his memory, impatient of change and disillusioned by government intransigence, launched their own campaigns. Their protest erupted on June 16, 1976, when striking students marching through Soweto were shot down by armed police.
The Soweto uprising ended with at least 176 children dead, though estimates range up to 700. Student leaders went underground to organize, many crossed the borders to join MK in exile, and the unrest spread across the country as the younger generation set out to make the country ungovernable.
Unionists, encouraged and emboldened, always drawing inspiration from the jailed, iconic Mandela, renewed their demands for better conditions. As foreign diplomatic pressure and sanctions against the apartheid state were increased, the Afrikaner government had to confront – for the first time in 20 years – the stark reality that economics and demography were not on the side of white supremacy. Meanwhile, the students who had fled Soweto started returning home, armed and determined to reduce the administration to chaos.
The government responded with a vicious clampdown, assassinations of black leaders abroad and air raids on MK training camps in neighbouring African countries. A more “enlightened” and realistic faction among the Afrikaners realized, however, that they would, ultimately, have to negotiate away some or all of their power. There was only one man who had the broad appeal and authority to speak for the entire liberation movement, and they knew very well who it was.
Mandela, in his island exile, and in need of constant medical monitoring for his recently discovered lung disease, was abruptly advised that he was to be permanently transferred to a mainland jail. Overnight he found himself courted by powerful white men inquiring into his views of how the country could move forwards. He was given privileges no black man in the prison system could imagine: his personal prison warder acted, in effect, as his valet, he asked for and was given, a garden to work in, and he was taken on drives to see the outside world.
Astonishingly, when he demanded he be granted the right to conference with members of his high command, all still jailed on Robben Island, this was granted. Mandela consulted, won the support and blessing of his colleagues, and embarked on a solitary game of political chess – one man, a prisoner, confronting the political juggernaut that was the Afrikaner Nationalist Party.
In meetings over three years he laid the groundwork for the political revolution to come, consulting with the people who had jailed him, and the people who were matching wits and weapons with the still and evermore active external army Mandela had founded.
Generational change was occurring, too, in the Afrikaner government. When President P.W. Botha, a hardline apparatchik who tolerated no opposition suffered a stroke, the younger more enlightened wing seized control, installing F.W. de Klerk, one of the prime movers behind the prison consultations, as president.
De Klerk, effectively presiding over the dismantling of apartheid and ultimately the handover of control to the black majority, lifted bans on the black liberation movements, released many political prisoners from gaol and began to admit exiled leaders back into the country – better a well-organised transition than a chaotic retreat.
But years of indoctrination of white voters could not be easily reversed. There was strong opposition to the handover, and the extreme right began organizing hardline factions within the military, the police and in society at large. Laying the groundwork for the transition, however, cost de Klerk dearly among his own people.
By the time Mandela was actually released from jail, on February 11 1990, after 27 years of incarceration, the roadmap to change that he had helped draft in prison was well in hand.
The image of Mandela raising his fist into the air remains a powerful picture of strength, resilience, and power on behalf of the African people.
In his very first speech, addressing the nation and his jubilant followers, he told his people the new “rainbow” nation had to embrace the rights of all:
“Our single most important challenge is therefore to help establish a social order in which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual. We must construct that people-centred society of freedom in such a manner that it guarantees the political liberties and the human rights of all our citizens.”
In 1991, Mandela succeeded Oliver Tambo, his old partner, as ANC president. (Tambo had been chosen to lead the ANC in exile, and had slipped out of the country before the Rivonia trial. He died before he could return to the country a free man.)
In 1993, President De Klerk and Mandela were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize for the commitment to overturning the apartheid regime in South Africa.
In 1994, South Africa finally held the democratic elections for which Mandela had struggled. The ANC won the overwhelming support of the black majority that was voting for the first time. On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first black president.
Finally, at the age of 77, Mandela had sealed his legacy as one of the most important men in South African history and one of the most revered leaders internationally as well.
A pinnacle moment in Mandela’s push for ascension to equality across all of South Africa, was when he donned the Springbok journey and pushed the South African rugby union team to unite and win the world cup. The sporting competition legitimised the new Republic in the eyes of the international community and bolstered the South African people, united in a common cause.
After completing a four year term, Mandela retired from politics yet maintained a packed itinerary with numerous efforts toward building schools and clinics and working for the Mandela Foundation which works toward humanitarian efforts in the area.
His final five years were blighted by ill health, much of it the legacy of his years of incarceration. For the past three months speculation had been rife that he was on life support. The announcement of his death comes as no surprise.
In a way it is a blessing, leaving the world and his country free to mourn him and accord him the dignity for which he strove all his life. – Tony Kleu and Amy Neumann
Tony Kleu is a journalism tutor at Macleay College. As a student in Natal in 1971 he was chairman of a committee that campaigned for the release of Nelson Mandela and all South African political prisoners.