Belfast Telegraph

Nelson Mandela belongs to the ages now


"Rwanda is our nightmare, South Africa is our dream.” So wrote the Nobel Prize-winning African novelist Wole Soyinka in 1994; it was a month after two events which seemed to span the polarities of despair and hope so many saw in Africa in the post-independence era.

In Rwanda a million people had died in a ghastly genocide. But South Africa had made an astonishingly peaceful transition from oppressive white rule to a black majority government elected in the country’s first free elections — and it had done so under the guidance of one extraordinary man.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela embodied not only enormous political sagacity but also an almost saintly capacity for magnanimity, forgiveness and reconciliation. Despite 27 years in jail his conduct and temperament, both inside and when he was eventually freed, earned him an unparalleled moral authority.

His very name gave a clue to the background and influences which formed him as one of the seminal figures of 20th century history. His forename was Rolihlahla – which in the tongue of his native Xhosa tribe means “troublemaker”. His family name, Mandela, like his clan name, Madiba – which became the affectionate term by which he was known in his later years as father of his nation – revealed him to be a member of the family of the paramount chief of the Thembu people, to whom his father was chief councillor in the rural Transkei, the homeland of the Xhosas in the Eastern cape province.

There he was born on 18 July 1918 and there he was imbued with strong sense of both tribal pride and of leadership. A teacher at a local Methodist school, where he was baptised by his devout Christian parents, gave him the forename of Nelson.

When he was 12 his father died and Mandela went to live with the paramount chief himself. The young Nelson watched the great man dispensing justice, which gave him an early interest in law. He was an astute student and went to the black university college of Fort Hare, where he met the man who was to be his closest friend and political ally, Oliver Tambo.

He joined the Students Christian Association, giving bible classes to local people, and becoming involved in political protest against the government’s decision to remove black voters from the electoral register — in what became the precursor to the white supremacist policy of apartheid.

By the age of 22 he had moved to Johannesburg. There, in the slum township of Alexandra, he was befriended by black activist Walter Sisulu, who arranged for him to be articled to a white solicitor, Lazer Skidelsky.

He gravitated again to politics, joining the long-standing African National Congress via its Youth League. There, along with Sisulu and Tambo, he was part of a group which revitalised the moribund ANC movement. At 22 he married a fellow ANC activist and nurse, Evelyn Mase.

Eight years later the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power and formalised apartheid.

Mandela and his fellows responded with direct action including boycotts and strikes. In doing that they made common cause with the South African Communist Party. Mandela would never join it, saying its atheism conflicted with his Christian faith. Race, rather than class, he said, was the key problem in South Africa, though in later years he became influenced by Marxism.

By 1950 Mandela, aged 32, was national president of the ANC youth wing.

His political work was so intense that he never managed to pass his law degree despite three attempts — until years later, from prison. But his politics led to him being arrested with 21 others, including Sisulu, under the Suppression of Communism Act. In 1952 they stood trial and were found guilty of “statutory communism”. Their sentence of nine months’ hard labour was suspended but Mandela was banned from attending meetings.

His response was to focus his activities through the law. In 1953 he and Tambo set up a partnership near Johannesburg, the only African law firm in the country. So successful were they that the authorities found an excuse to close them down and move their office to a far less prominent site.

Now the white apartheid government instituted increasingly repressive legislation against blacks. Protests against apartheid grew but so did mass arrests. In 1956 the police arrested 156 leaders of the ANC and its allies, including Mandela, and charged them with high treason.

In 1958, having increasingly ignored his first wife and family for politics, he married a fiery social worker, Winnie Madikizela. In 1961 his six-year treason trial ended in disarray after Mandela, who had represented himself, and the others were found not guilty by the white court.

By then the key turning point in the struggle against apartheid had occurred in 1960, when the white police opened fire on a non-violent black crowd demonstrating against new “pass laws”.

In what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre 69 people died and 180 more injured. The ANC and its rival party, the Pan Africanist Congress were banned.

Tambo fled into exile in Zambia while Mandela was forced underground as the ANC’s leader-in-residence, travelling the country disguised as a chauffeur.

The ANC switched from passive protest to sabotage, targeting government institutions like power plants and communications.

After the first explosions, Mandela left South Africa covertly to travel through Africa and to London to raise international support. But after returning to South Africa in disguise, in 1962 his car was stopped by the police in Natal and he was arrested. He was put on trial for incitement to strike, and illegally leaving the country, and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment .

While he was in jail the police staged another raid where they found sabotage plans. Mandela, Sisulu and others were charged with violent revolution. It was at the end of their trial that Mandela made the four-hour speech which drew him world attention with his declaration about democracy: “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”.

Public institutions declared support for those on trial and the UN voted for the trial to be cancelled. Though the accused were found guilty the international outcry meant they narrowly avoided a death sentence. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment and jailed on desolate Robben Island. Mandela’s struggle seemed over. But it was only beginning its most extraordinary phase.

The three prisons in which he spent a total of 27 years became to him a kind of university where he finally took his law degree.

In jail Mandela developed an inner strength and an outer authority which was such that it was exerted even over his jailers.

Through his intelligence and charm Mandela assumed leadership over not only his jailed comrades but also over many warders.

Some became so friendly that when he was later President of South Africa he invited them to his birthday party. One, Christo Brand, Mandela’s warder both on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor Prison, said: “I respected him as a leader for the South African people. And later he became my leader. And I was very proud that one of my prisoners became my leader now.”

In jail Mandela concluded that the way forward was to compel the apartheid ideologues to come to the negotiation table.

As the years passed the wider world’s antipathy towards apartheid grew until, finally, political campaigns and international sanctions reached even the foreign bankers whose support had been crucial to Pretoria’s military state. After intense behind-the-scenes lobbying, much of it conducted in person by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, they began abruptly to withdraw the loans and investments which propped up the apartheid regime. By the time Mandela reached his 70th birthday in 1988 he had become an heroic global figure.

The white government responded to tightening international sanctions with an even more heavy-handed state of emergency in which 20,000 people were detained without trial. But it had begun to see that apartheid’s days were numbered.

White politicians began to understand that the attitude of the outside world would change only when Mandela was released. The turning point in Mandela’s long walk to freedom had come.

In 1989 President PW Botha surprised the world by inviting Mandela to tea. The two men talked about a possible formula for ending apartheid and beginning a transition to democratic rule.

When Botha retired and a new president, FW de Klerk, was elected, real progress began to be made. The two politicians worked together in the face of opposition from militant factions.

Change was in the air. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell. Shortly afterwards de Klerk unilaterally and unconditionally released all ANC prisoners apart from Mandela. Within three months he was released.

The world watched on television as he emerged from his long incarceration. But Mandela reappeared not as the weak old man many had expected but spry and vigorous from his long years of physical discipline. Far from being out of touch with the modern world he proved its master in everything from his handling of TV to his handling of the militancy of the younger generation.

The perverse irony was that jail had in its way well-prepared him for this moment. It protected him from the taint of the failure and corruption which had infected so many in independent Africa. He was personally unbowed by the oppression and indignities of the white regime. And he had been honed by years of study and reflection.

Most remarkably he displayed no signs of bitterness or resentment. Instead, as he returned to the leadership of the ANC, he talked about the integrity of de Klerk and the need to reassure white South Africans — something he did with huge self-control when his radical lieutenant Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993. Mandela appealed: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being”.

He never wholly trusted de Klerk, who sought to play one black faction off against another by secretly giving police support to Zulu killing bands. Mandela had to reassert the ANC’s power through demonstrations and strikes. But over four years he continued to negotiate with de Klerk and other Afrikaners — and he brought the Zulu leaders King Goodwill Zwelethini and Mangosuthu Buthelezi into the talks. It was an achievement which was recognised when he and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

All this came at a personal cost. Mandela separated from his wife Winnie in 1992 after she was convicted of kidnapping and accessory to assault. When Oliver Tambo died in 1993 Mandela said he felt “like the loneliest man in the world”. But in 1994 Mandela voted, for the first time in his life, in KwaZulu-Natal, in South Africa’s first free and fair elections.

Victory for the ANC with 62% of the vote automatically made Mandela president and head of state.

He was inaugurated as president on May 10 1994 in a Government of National Unity with de Klerk as his first deputy and Thabo Mbeki as his second.

His first year gave an indication of the breadth of vision and boldness he brought to it. He sent out sophisticated signals. Though he began to wear African batik shirts, even on formal occasions, he also donned the jersey of the Springbok rugby team, a previously hated symbol among blacks, for the 1995 Rugby World Cup – a gesture widely seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black — and wore it again as he presented the winner’s trophy to the Springboks’ Afrikaner captain Francois Pienaar.

He sacked Winnie Mandela from her Cabinet post and flew to the white enclave of Orania to visit the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

For his mainstream support he began the laborious process of setting in place initiatives in housing, education, healthcare and economic development to address the long-entrenched social and economic inequalities in South Africa. It was a balancing task.

But his patience, wisdom, vision — and above all unambiguous moral integrity — allayed the fears of the whites and consolidated the support of his own followers.

His appointment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Chair of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights violations under apartheid was a masterstroke.

Mandela applied himself to the task with an extraordinary rigour, despite his advanced years (he was 75 when he became President). He maintained the disciplined regime which had been forced upon him in jail. He rose at 4.30am, regardless of how late he had worked the previous evening, began an hour’s exercise by 5am, before a breakfast of porridge and fresh fruit, with the morning’s newspapers, at 6.30am. He worked a 12-hour day, managing his time carefully and keeping private his favourite moment of the day — watching the sun set, often with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky playing.

In 1996 he divorced Winnie. That year it became public that he was having a relationship with Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambique’s former president, Samora Machel. The couple married two years later, on Mandela’s 80th birthday in 1998.

Mandela’s presidency was not the most fruitful part of his career. He was dogged by the scandals that surrounded Winnie, and the stench of corruption clung to many of his ANC colleagues. His programmes to deliver jobs and housing to the poorest sections of the black majority were not as successful as he hoped. Crime continued at high levels.

But Mandela did oversee the enactment of a new democratic constitution in South Africa in 1996 and the following year resigned as leader of the ANC in favour of Thabo Mbeki, and confirmed his intention not to seek a second term as president when his term of office expired in 1999.

As president, and after his retirement from that job, Mandela’s stature continued to grow.

He became a father to a nation of whites as well as blacks, almost universally known by the affectionate tribal term Madiba. Internationally he became the most widely admired figure of our age, described by Bob Geldof as “the president of the world”.

After his retirement as president he set up the Nelson Mandela Foundation and became active in international peace-making. He continued to make contributions. In 2003 he spoke out against the war on Iraq. He also began to make good the omissions of his time in office. In 2000, Mandela publicly criticised Robert Mugabe.

He began to campaign on Aids, speaking at international conferences and giving support to the 46664 fundraising campaign, named after the number he had borne in prison. When his son Makgatho died in 2005 Mandela acknowledged that the cause of death was Aids and he admitted that he may have failed his country by not paying more attention to the issue as president.

In 2004, at the age of 85 Mandela announced his partial retirement from the public stage. He did not intend to hide away totally from the public, he said, but wanted to enjoy more time with his family, concluding: “Don’t call me, I will call you”.

In 2005, on the eve of the G8 Gleneagles summit on Africa, he appeared on a Make Poverty History platform in Trafalgar Square to declare that “like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Soon afterwards, in fulfilment of Bob Geldof’s designation of him, a massive poll of BBC World Service listeners voted him the man they would most like to be the President of the World.

Mandela lived quietly in his birth place, Qunu, in Transkei. One of his last political interventions, at the end of 2007, was to try to head off a challenge to Thabo Mbeki for the leadership of the ANC by the controversial maverick Jacob Zuma. He failed.

Mandela’s 90th birthday was celebrated across South Africa and the world (there was a major concert in Hyde Park that night) on July 18 2008. In a speech to mark the occasion Mandela called for the rich to help the poor across the world. His final public appearance was during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

The last time Mandela was seen in Britain was in August 2007, for the unveiling of the long-awaited statue of him in London.

He once said: “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances”.

It was, of course, not true. Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man which is why he also became a myth. Despite provocation beyond the bounds that most individuals could stand he never answered racism with racism. He refused to become a victim and conjured something creative from his imprisonment. Through his humility, his self-sacrifice, his compassion and forgiveness he offered the model which transformed a society of racial division into an open democracy.


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, lawyer, politician and statesman: born Umtata, Transkei July 18, 1918; President, African National Congress 1991–97; President of South Africa 1994-99; married 1944 Evelyn Ntoko Mase (divorced 1957; four children), 1958 Winnie Madikizela (divorced 1996; two daughters), 1998 Graça Machel; died December 5 2013

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