A towering figure in 20th century history, Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela showed how wisdom and patience can triumph over bigotry and brute force. Truly the Father of a Nation.
Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in the tiny village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River in Transkei, South Africa. “Rolihlahla” in the Xhosa language literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but more commonly translates as “troublemaker.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was the son of one of South Africa’s leading dignitaries, Chief Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela of the Tembu Tribe, and it was as a young law student that he became involved in political opposition to the white minority regime. Joining the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942, he co-founded its more dynamic Youth League two years later.
The 1948 election victory of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party led to the apartheid system of racial segregation becoming law. Mandela rose to prominence in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People, whose adoption of the Freedom Charter provided the fundamental programme of the anti-apartheid cause.
Initially committed to non-violent mass struggle and acquitted in the marathon Treason Trial of 1956-1961, Mandela and his colleagues accepted the case for armed action after the shooting of unarmed protesters at Sharpeville in March 1960 and the banning of anti-apartheid groups.
In 1961, he became the commander of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. In August of the following year, he was arrested and jailed for five years. In June 1964, he was sentenced again, this time to life imprisonment, for his involvement in planning armed action.
He started his prison years in the infamous Robben Island Prison, a maximum security facility on a small island off the coast of Cape Town. In April 1984, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and in December 1988 he was moved to the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl from where he was eventually released.
During his incarceration Mandela taught himself to speak Afrikaans and learned about Afrikaner history. He was able to converse with his guards in their own language, using his charm and intelligence to reason with them and try to understand the way they thought. This caused the authorities to replace the guards around regularly Mandela as it was felt that they were becoming too lenient in their treatment of their famous prisoner.
While in prison, Mandela rejected offers made by his jailers for remission of sentence in exchange for accepting the Bantustan policy by recognising the independence of the Transkei region and agreeing to settle there. Amongst opponents of apartheid in South Africa and internationally, he became a cultural symbol of freedom and equality.
Mandela remained in prison until February 1990, when sustained ANC campaigning and international pressure led to his release. On 2 February 1990, South African President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and other anti-apartheid organisations. Mandela was released from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990.
He and President de Klerk – who did much to dismantle the institutions of apartheid– shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In Mandela’s 1994 autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, he did not reveal anything about the alleged complicity of de Klerk in the violence of the 1980s and 90s, or the role of his ex-wife Winnie Mandela in that bloodshed. However, he later discussed those issues in ‘Mandela: The Authorised Biography’.
After his release, Mandela returned to the leadership of the ANC and, between 1990 and 1994, led the party in the multi-party negotiations that resulted in the country’s first multi-racial elections. As the first black president of South Africa (1994 – 1999) he presided over the transition from minority rule and apartheid. He won praise for his leadership during this time, even from his former white opponents in South Africa.
Following his retirement as president in 1999, Mandela went on to become an advocate for a variety of social and human-rights organisations. He used his status as a respected elder statesman to give weight to pertinent issues, declaring the United States “a threat to world peace” in 2002 while calling on then president George W Bushnot to launch attacks on Iraq.
Because his health was declining, Mandela chose to retire from public life in 2004 and went on to reduce his number of appearances, although he was too prominent a figure to disappear completely. His name has been used to promote charitable ventures close to his heart such as the Nelson Mandela Invitational charity golf tournament, which has raised millions of Rand (South Africa currency) for children’s charities since its establishment in 2000.
The fight against Aids is one of Mandela’s primary concerns and he used his gravitas to raise awareness about the issue on the global stage. Having backed the 46664 Aids fundraising campaign, which was named after his prison number, he went on to call for more openness in discussing the condition. His son Makgatho Mandela died of HIV/AIDS in 2005 and the statesman used the occasion to tell people that not hiding the condition, but talking about it, is the only way to break the stigma.
In 2007, he brought together elder statesmen, peace activists and human rights advocates including Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Li Zhaoxing under a non-governmental organisation dubbed The Elders. The aim of the organisation was to combine the elders’ collective wisdom and use it to solve some of the world’s problems.
Although he spoke out less about issues affecting neighbouring country Zimbabwe in his retirement, Mandela attempted to persuade President Robert Mugabe to vacate office with some dignity in 2007. However, Mr Mugabe ignored him and hung on to power, leading Mandela to slam the “tragic failure of leadership” in June 2008 when Zimbabwe was in crisis following disputed presidential elections.
In November 2009, Mandela’s contributions to world freedom were rewarded with a unique gesture by the United Nations General Assembly. The body announced that his birthday, 18 July, would be known as Mandela Day. The recipient of hundreds of awards and honorary recognitions, including the Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela continues to exert influence on the world even without being actively involved in issues.
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