How Nelson Mandela transcended race barriers to become a symbol of resistance and exemplar of human generosity of spirit
More was asked of him, and sometimes claimed for him, than any mortal man could deliver. But the world has been a fractionally better place, because Nelson Mandela lived in it. He was born into African aristocracy, a descendant of kings of the Thembu people, in Transkei in 1918. His father had four wives, among whom his mother ranked third. He was the first of his family to attend school, and it was his teacher who gave him the English name Nelson in place of his given name, Rolihlahla. At 19, he attended Fort Hare University, where he soon became involved in student politics - or rather, in organising a boycott of them. Rejecting a marriage arranged for him by his tribal elders, he became briefly a mine guard, then was articled to a Johannesburg law firm. He began living in the Alexandra black township, and started law studies at Witwatersrand University, where he met fellow students and future political activists Ruth First, Joe Slovo and Harry Schwarz.
The Afrikaner-dominated National Party attained power in South Africa's 1948 election.Thereafter, its government set about transforming the country’s longstanding policy of racial segregation into an ironclad, legally-based system of repression. In the early 1950s, Mandela became deeply involved in radical resistance to apartheid, while he and fellow-activist Oliver Tambo ran a law firm, offering cheap advice to township residents. It is hard for a modern generation to conceive what life was like for black South Africans under apartheid.They were denied not merely votes but the most basic human rights. Park benches, buses, beaches - every public facility - were rigidly segregated, marked by signs: 'Whites Only'. Sexual relations between the races were criminalised. Personal residence and movement were permitted only by licence, the hated 'pass laws'.
The police, institutionally brutal, treated blacks - and especially blacks with political aspirations - with contempt and often sadism. Dissent was savagely suppressed. Events came to a head in March 1961, when police opened fire on a peaceful protest in the Johannesburg township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. A few brave whites sought to tell the world of the crimes being inflicted daily upon an entire society. Alan Paton wrote a hugely influential novel, Cry The Beloved Country, which became a best-seller.
The priest Trevor Huddleston published a moving account of black life, Naught For Your Comfort, which highlighted the conditions the black community were forced to endure. The wonderful Helen Suzman, a Capetown independent MP, held aloft a lone liberal banner in South Africa’s parliament. But such voices seemed mere pebbles amid the unyielding rock of Afrikaner repression. So, too, did Nelson Mandela and his comrades of what became the African National Congress (ANC). Mandela was initially an admirer of India’s Mahatma Gandhi, committed to non-violent resistance. Yet in 1956, he and 150 others were arrested and charged with treason.
The marathon trial which followed continued until 1961, when all the defendants were acquitted.The experience changed Mandela. He became convinced that the whites would never surrender power by peaceful means. He became leader of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe - 'Spear of the Nation'. In August 1962, after 17 months living on the run from the police, he was arrested following a tip-off by the American CIA.
In the dock at his trial, he conducted himself with a dignity and courage which impressed even his enemies. He concluded his defence with a now-famous statement: 'During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. 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 conviction, he and his fellow defendants escaped the gallows, but were sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the next 27 years behind bars, 18 of them on the notorious Robben Island, near Cape Town. He toiled in a lime quarry, and for years was allowed only one visitor and one letter every six months. Even these small concessions were subjected to malicious delay and censorship by his jailers. Yet, in an extraordinary fashion, in his cell and silenced, Mandela became a global symbol of his people’s plight.
Occasional foreign visitors permitted to visit him emerged to tell of a superbly gracious, humorous, thoughtful figure, who never wavered in his convictions, devoted his life to self-education and planning for a political future. In 1985, apartheid president P.W.Botha offered Mandela freedom, if he would renounce armed struggle. South Africa faced international sanctions and increasing economic difficulties. It was becoming plain that Mandela the captive represented a force in the world as powerful as the whites' edifice of tyranny.
Mandela dismissed Botha’s offer, 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.' Four years later, his patient defiance was at last rewarded. President FW de Klerk announced the lifting of the ban on the ANC. On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked free into Cape Town, amid scenes of euphoric rejoicing not only among black South Africans, but across the world. In a superb speech, he declared his hope that a negotiated settlement would soon bring to an end the conditions which made armed struggle against apartheid necessary.
So it proved.
Tension and violence mounted in the months and years that followed, as Mandela negotiated with de Klerk for a new political dispensation. But on 17 April 1994, South Africa’s first election was held under universal suffrage. The prisoner of Robben Island became president with an overwhelming mandate. Apartheid, white minority power, became history. The great revelation in the years of Mandela’s rise to power was of the man himself. He had been invisible for almost 30 years. No one knew what manner of leader would emerge from behind the prison wall. Would he prove a raging revolutionary, an embittered demagogue bent on revenge against his white oppressors? Africa’s freedom from colonial rule has been compromised and often rendered a mockery by many black tyrants, indeed monsters.
He set an example of forgiveness and statesmanship which has been an inspiration to mankind, recognised in a host of global honours and accolades of which the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize was foremost. To the end of his life, he remained one of the planet’s most admired inhabitants, commemorated by statues in a hundred countries, most notably in London’s Parliament Square. He accomplished the transition from reluctant revolutionary to statesman with grace, wit and charm.
He showed the world that Africa can produce greatness. If the continent could breed even a handful of other leaders possessed of a fraction of his nobility of spirit, it might gain remission from the sentence of misery to which it seems condemned. Max Hastings, The Dail Mail, London