Nelson Mandela: A twentieth century hero

Nelson Mandela. Picture: TSPL
Nelson Mandela. Picture: TSPL
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NELSON MANDELA achieved the status of hero in a late 20th century starved of true heroes. His imprisonment for three decades, stemming directly from his resistance to apartheid, was vindicated and capped by personal triumph when he led South Africa to full democracy in 1994 and was elected his country’s first black president.

He became a symbol of hope for human relations and reconciliation worldwide. His singular commitment to personal and national redemption lent him the aura of a messiah figure, something he scoffed at. “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image I unwittingly projected to the outside world of being regarded as a saint,” he wrote in one book.

The fact he also had real human frailties and shortcomings, by his own admissions, made him a greater man. His first two marriages failed spectacularly, but he seemed to achieve happiness when, at the age of 80, he married his third wife, Graça.

When he became president, he rubbed shoulders with and took big donations from some dubious statesmen, including Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, 
Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Indonesia’s president Suharto.

The Mandela story might have ended abruptly, and with less acclaim, in 1964. In early June that year, Mandela, then 45, scribbled some brief notes in his cell as he prepared to be hanged after being convicted of sabotage and planning guerrilla warfare against South Africa’s apartheid state.

His jottings outlined a defiant statement he planned to make before he was taken to death row. Mandela was unable, decades later, to decipher everything on that scrap of paper, but he said those parts he could read made clear he had no intention of appealing to the judge, Quartus de Wet, for mercy.

One scrawled sentence reads: “I meant everything I said” – a reference to his closing statement from the dock just a few weeks earlier. That speech, lasting more than four hours, was the most effective of Mandela’s political career. It identified him clearly as the leader not just of the African National Congress but of the entire multiracial opposition to racial separation and discrimination.

He said Africans only wanted security, a stake in society and equal political rights. “It is a struggle for the right to live. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.”

Mandela’s rough private notes as he anticipated the gallows said: “If I must die, let me declare for all to know that I will meet my fate like a man.”

When Mandela completed his statement, de Wet adjourned for three weeks to consider his verdict. On return, he pronounced Mandela guilty but said he would take more time to reflect on whether the prisoner would hang. Twenty-four hours later, Judge de Wet said he would go to prison for life.

Even so, Mandela’s subsequent ascent to eminence might have ended then. For most of his prison years, he was more or less a non-person as far as the outside world was concerned. He could not be quoted in South Africa and his picture could not be shown. Little was heard of him for many years as he broke rocks in Robben Island prison. He was allowed only 30-minute visits – once every six months. When his mother died in 1968 and his eldest son, Thembekile, was killed a year later in a car crash, his jailers refused him permission to attend their funerals. This might have been enough to bury him in bitterness for ever. Yet, in time, he transcended most of his resentments.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July, 1918. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third of four wives of Gadla Henry Mandela, a chief deposed for insubordination by British administrators who confiscated most of his income, cattle and land. Gadla died in 1927 when Nelson was aged nine. His mother took him to the Tembu royal palace where he was brought up by David Dalindyebo, regent to the infant Tembu king, Sabata. The regent sent Nelson to a succession of mission schools run by British Methodists. He never became a committed Christian, but admits the strict discipline and mental training permeated his thinking for life.

HE won a place at the South African Native College, a university founded by Scottish missionaries. He admired the principal, Dr Alexander Kerr, an austere Scot and Edinburgh University graduate, who was dedicated to black academic 

Mandela’s progress was halted by his natural streak of obstinacy and rebelliousness, and he was thrown out. Back at the palace, the regent ordered Mandela to marry the daughter of the local Tembu priest – but Mandela packed a single suitcase and hitchhiked 800 miles to Johannesburg.

He arrived in April 1941, one of thousands of rural blacks hoping to find jobs as gold miners, servants or labourers. His first job was as a night watchman in a black miners’ hostel.

Mandela was befriended by a young estate agent, Walter Sisulu, who got him a job as an articled clerk with a liberal Jewish lawyer, Lazar Sidelsky, who gave his new recruit a suit.

Mandela embarked on lengthy law studies and met Sisulu’s young cousin, Evelyn Mase, a trainee nurse. Nelson and Evelyn married. They moved into a small “matchbox house”, with no electricity or inside lavatory, in Soweto, a township for blacks 15 miles outside Johannesburg. Evelyn in due course bore four children by Nelson.

While studying law, Mandela became involved with the ANC, then a staid, disorganised body founded in 1912 to campaign for rights for Africans. With Sisulu and a young Xhosa student, Oliver Tambo, Mandela founded the ANC Youth League with the aim of radicalising the parent organisation.

In 1952, Mandela opened a legal firm with Tambo, and started socialising with great township musicians such as Todd Matshikiza, the composer of the musical King Kong, the singer Miriam Makeba and the trumpeter Hugh Masekela. He also began organising resistance campaigns.

By 1958, HF Verwoerd had become prime minister and embarked upon a draconian social engineering programme to implement apartheid. This included mass removals of blacks from areas designated whites-only. Mandela concluded violent resistance had become necessary.

Meanwhile, Evelyn left him and sued for divorce because of his philandery. Nelson courted and married a beautiful 22-year-old social worker, Winifred Nomzamo Zanyiwe Madikizela. Winnie was to become Delilah to Nelson’s tragic Samson; what his friends termed his “major moral blind spot.”

But the downward slide in their relationship began only after Mandela had joined the Communist Party, sent clandestine delegations to Moscow and Beijing to secure arms, had been arrested and tried, and sent to Robben Island for life as prisoner number 466/64.

Mandela finally made a sweet walk to freedom on 11 February, 1990, holding hands with Winnie. His 27 years in jail had protected him from criticism and earned him credentials few dared 

With the ANC’s 30-year-old ban lifted by a reformist white state president, FW de Klerk, Mandela demonstrated his own greatness by resisting any temptation to call on blacks to rise up violently against their white minority rulers.

At the same time, he had to cope with Winnie having an affair with a young lawyer, among others. Despite his private humiliation, Nelson stood by Winnie loyally, but probably unwisely, when she and members of her notorious vigilante group, the Mandela United Football Club, were tried for the torture and kidnap of 14-year-old Stompie Moeketsi, found stabbed to death near her Soweto home. The disaster of his love match with Winnie gave his entire story the dimensions of an epic novel. He finally divorced her in 1996.

Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa in April 1994 and the ANC became the government with 63 per cent of the vote in the country’s first all-race election. He retired as state president in 1999.

In 1993, Mandela was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with FW de Klerk, for their work in ending apartheid. Shortly after retiring from the presidency, Mandela married Graça Machel, widow of the former president of Mozambique.

He is survived by Graça, his ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and by three daughters. Three children, two sons and a daughter, predeceased him.

• Nelson Mandela, politician. Born: 18 July, 1918 in the Transkei, South Africa. Died: 5 December, 2013 in Johannesburg, aged 95.


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