Fifty years ago Martin Luther King called out in hope, “Let freedom ring”. “Freedom” answered his call by walking out of Victor Verster Prison 27 years later - and the world embraced the human embodiment of that elusive concept in Nelson Mandela. The body that nurtured the concept is no more, and now the world again cries out, “Let freedom ring”, this time in tribute. Hamba kahle, Tata Madiba, your long walk is done. By KEVIN BLOOM.
On the morning of Sunday 11 July 2010, the date of the final match of the Fifa World Cup, the BBC broke the news that the international football body had been placing “intense pressure” on 91-year-old Nelson Mandela to attend the closing ceremony scheduled for later that day at Soccer City. According to the report, Mandela’s grandson Mandla Mandela had warned that the outing would be “strenuous” for a man of his grandfather’s age, and urged that the decision be made in conjunction with his medical team. In the event, Fifa was granted its wish – on a bitterly cold Johannesburg evening, the global icon was driven around the pitch in a golf cart, from where he waved to the capacity crowd and the entire world. It would be his last major public appearance.
Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibunga Mandela died at 95 on Thursday 05 December 2013.
It is nowhere near a stretch to say that the billions who saw him on TV that Sunday in July are now in mourning. A symbol of perseverance, justice, tolerance and compassion to four generations across the globe, he spent the last days of his life with his third wife Graca Machel. The Republic of South Africa, a country he was instrumental in guiding from pariah status to a proud place in the family of nations, will be forever in his debt.
Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in the Transkei, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela. His great-grandfather on his father’s side, Ngubengcuka, ruled as the king of the Thembu people, and his father was the principal councilor to the chief of the Thembu. Rolihlahla, meaning “pulling the branch of a tree”, became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo after Henry Mgadla’s death in 1927. He was the first member of his family to attend a school, the Wesleyan Mission School near the palace of the regent, where his teacher gave him the name “Nelson”.
Mandela was initiated according to isiXhosa custom at 16, and matriculated three years later from Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school in Fort Beaufort. At the University College of Fort Hare, where he enrolled for a Bachelor of Arts degree, he was elected to the Students’ Representative Council. Along with a young Oliver Tambo, he was suspended from the college for taking part in a protest boycott.
Shortly thereafter, Mandela and his cousin Justice, the son of Jongintaba, left the Transkei for Johannesburg to avoid the marriages the chief had arranged for them. Initially Mandela worked as a mine policeman, but in 1941, through the introduction provided by his new friend Walter Sisulu, he was admitted for his articles at Lazar Sidelsky’s law firm. He completed his BA through the University of South Africa, and then enrolled for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand (a degree he would finally attain only decades later, while a political prisoner on Robben Island).
In 1943, Mandela joined the African National Congress.
The personal philosophy destined to be forged as a direct result of that momentous decision would be articulated in the mid-1990s, when Mandela wrote in his memoir “Long Walk to Freedom”: “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity… For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
But, as implied in the title of the memoir, it would be a long road to such wisdom and insight. In 1944, concerned that the ANC old guard had become too conservative and polite to effect any real change, Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo, Anton Lembede, Ashby Mda and others set about transforming the organisation into a more radical mass movement. It was around the political philosophies of these young firebrands that the principles of the ANC Youth League were formed. In 1948, the year the National Party came to power, Mandela was elected the Youth League’s national secretary. By 1952 he was its president, and the key man behind that year’s mass civil disobedience campaign to protest against discriminatory apartheid legislation.
As a consequence, Mandela was convicted of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act. He was given a suspended prison sentence and confined to Johannesburg for six months. Also in 1952 Mandela, having passed the attorneys’ admission exam and with his friend, Oliver Tambo, opened South Africa’s first black law firm.
The firm was forced to move its offices out of Johannesburg in accordance with land segregation laws, which only hardened Mandela’s resolve to defy the apartheid authorities. He led the resistance against the Western Areas removals and the introduction of Bantu Education and, in 1955, played a central role in popularising the Freedom Charter. Throughout the decade, he was the victim of sustained repression, repeatedly arrested and imprisoned, and in March 1956 a five-year banning order was enforced on him.
The Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 led to the ANC becoming an outlawed political organisation, and in 1961, along with the other 155 accused, Mandela stood before the court in the mammoth Treason Trial. The trial collapsed under the weight of its own processes, but by this time, having grown disenchanted at the ANC’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, the man from Mvezo had already decided to co-found an armed wing. Mandela was named inaugural leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and co-ordinated its first sabotage campaign against apartheid military and government targets.
On 5 August 1962 Mandela was arrested after living on the run for 17 months and imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort. While he was there, police arrested prominent ANC leaders at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Mandela was brought in to stand as co-accused in what became known as the Rivonia Trial, where chief prosecutor Percy Yutar charged the defendants with the capital crimes of sabotage and crimes equivalent to treason.
Three of the accused – Mandela, Sisulu and Govan Mbeki – decided they would not appeal were they to be given the death sentence. Mandela’s closing statement in court would become an enduring rallying cry in the struggle against apartheid.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. 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.”
On 12 June 1964 the judge found all but two of the prisoners guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Mandela was sent to Robben Island, where he would remain for the next 18 years. During his time there his mother and son died, his second wife Winnie was banned and subjected to relentless harassment by the apartheid police, and the ANC became a movement in exile. In March 1982, along with Sisulu, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison. President PW Botha offered him conditional release in 1985, in return for renouncing the armed struggle, but he refused, saying: “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”
On 2 February 1990, President FW de Klerk reversed the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations. Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl on 11 February 1990. In 1991, at the first ANC national conference to be held in South Africa for decades, he was elected president of the movement. He led the ANC through the fraught multiparty negotiations of the ensuing years and in 1993 – with FW de Klerk – was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was also in 1993, however, that MK leader Chris Hani was murdered by white rightwingers, an event that threatened to plunge South Africa into all-out race war. Mandela played a pivotal role in pulling the country back from the brink. In a televised address to the nation, he said: ”Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin. The cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world… Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”
A year after Hani’s assassination, on 27 April 1994, South Africa’s first multiracial elections were held. The ANC won the vote with a 62% majority, and Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president on 10 May 1994.
By wearing the Number 6 jersey of Springbok captain Francois Pienaar to the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup, where South Africa were victorious, he galvanised black and white South Africans – if only for a time – around the idea that reconciliation was an achievable ideal.
Madiba, as he came to be known by his grateful countrymen, stepped down as president after one term. He set up three foundations, The Nelson Mandela Foundation, The Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and The Mandela-Rhodes Foundation, and did not enter full retirement until 2004. At the 2010 Fifa World Cup closing ceremony, the appreciation he was shown by billions of viewers and 90,000 live spectators foretold the legacy that is now his: Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibunga Mandela was a giant of his era, a supreme example of human fortitude and achievement, a man whose life will serve as a morality tale for the ages. DM
Photo: Former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela chats with Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown (unseen) during a meeting at his hotel in central London June 24, 2008. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez
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