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Obituary of Nelson Mandela: Through his chains it was as if we were all enslaved, and through his extraordinary magnanimity he freed the world

2013 December 6
by Paul Vallely

“Rwanda is our nightmare, South Africa is our dream”.  So wrote the Nobel Prize winning African novelist Wole Soyinka in 1994. It was just a month after two events which seemed to span the polarities of despair and hope so many saw in the continent of 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 ever – 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 long years in jail at the behest of his white enemies his conduct and temperament, both inside and when he was eventually freed, earned him an unparalleled moral authority among blacks and whites alike.

His very name ought to have given 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 the responsibility of leadership. A teacher at a local Methodist school, where he was baptised by his devout Christian parents, gave him the forename of Nelson after a great military leader from across the seas, it being the missionary custom to give exemplary English names to all the African boys.

When he was just 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 the law. He was an astute and able student and after the Methodist high school when to the black university college of Fort Hare, where he met the man who was to become his closest friend and political ally, Oliver Tambo. He joined the Students Christian Association, giving bible classes to the 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 – the idea of “separate development” for whites and blacks.

By the age of 22 he had moved to Johannesburg. There, in the slum township of Alexandra, he was befriended by the black activist, Walter Sisulu, who arranged for Mandela to be articled to a white solicitor, Lazer Skidelsky. In addition to his work, and his part-time studies at the University of Witwaterstrand, he gravitated again to politics joining the longstanding 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 the age of 22 he married a fellow ANC activist and nurse Evelyn Mase and began a family.

Eight years later the Afrikaner Nationalist Party came to power and formalised the policy of apartheid. It was 1948 and echoes of Hitler’s notions of racial superiority lingered in South Africa. Only whites were permitted to vote and racial segregation became the order of the day. Mandela and his fellows, influenced by the example of Ghandi in India, 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 Marxist thinking.

By 1950 Mandela, aged 32, was national president of the ANC youth wing. He became deeply involved in the ANC’s first passive resistance campaign against the polices of segregation. His political work was so intense he never managed to pass his law degree, despite three attempts – only succeeding 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 banned from attending meetings or talking to more than one individual at a time.

His response was to focus his activities through the law. In 1953 he and Tambo set up a partnership with Tambo near the centre of Johannesburg. It was the only African law firm in the country. So successful were they in helping their black clients, often dealing with cases of police brutality, 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”. The move hampered the political activity of the ANC’s younger generation of activists, among whom the imposing Mandela, with his chieftain’s bearing and his lawyer’s power of words, was becoming a commanding figure and something of a womaniser. In 1958, having increasingly ignored his first wife and family for politics, he married a fiery and vivacious social worker, Winnie Madikizela. In 1961 his six-year long treason trial ended in disarray after Mandelka, who had represented himself, and the others were found not guilty by the white court, to the consternation of the government.

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” under which the white government insisted that blacks must live only in designated “homelands” and carry identity papers when outside them. In what became known as the Sharpeville Massacre 69 people died and 180 more were injured. The ANC and its new rival party the Pan Africanist Congress continued to demonstrate and burn passes. In response both parties were banned. Tambo fled into exile in Zambia.  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 rather than people in an attempt to appeal to worldwide public opinion and choke off foreign investment in South Africa to compel the white minority to abandon apartheid.

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, and living in hiding for more than a year 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 with hard labour.

While he was in jail the police staged another raid. It was on a farm in Rivonia where they found future sabotage plans. Mandela, Sisulu and others were charged with violent revolution. It was at the end of their trial Nelson Mandela made the historic four-hour speech which drew him to the attention of the world 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”.  All round the world public institutions declared support for those on trial and the United Nations 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.

For many 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 and sharpened his political judgement through constant debate with the other prisoners who accepted his discipline as their leader. In jail Mandela developed an inner strength and an outer authority which was such that it was exerted even over his jailors. “It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies,” he later wrote. “We believed that all men, even prison service warders, were capable of change, and we did our utmost to try to sway them.”

Through his intelligence and charm, Mandela assumed leadership over not only his jailed comrades but also over many of the warders to whom he was unfailingly courteous but uncowed. 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 on both 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 not in overthrowing the apartheid state, which would have been wasteful in terms of lives, time and energy. Instead he decided he had to compel the apartheid ideologues and strategists 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 in the past. After intense behind-the-scenes lobbying pressure, 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. Polls showed that a  majority of whites now opposed the system. White politicians began to understand that the attitude of the outside world would change only when Nelson Mandela was released. The turning point in Mandela’s long walk to freedom had come.

In 1989 President, P.W. 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 majority rule. And when Botha retired and a new president, F.W. de Klerk, was elected real progress began to be made. The two politicians worked together, in the face of opposition from militant factions among both blacks and whites. 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 all banned political parties were legalised and Nelson Mandela 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 and intellectual discipline. Far from being out of touch with the modern world he proved its master in everything from his handling of television – which had not even existed in South Africa when he was sent to prison – to his handling of the militancy of the younger black generation.

The perverse irony was that jail had in its way well-prepared him for this moment. Prison had 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, debate and reflection.

At 71 he revealed  mental flexibility lacking in many half his age. He was wise, conciliatory and far-sighted, walking with immense skill a tightrope between maintaining the support of young militants while building the confidence of his erstwhile white enemies and wooing the overseas investors he knew the country needed to return now sanctions were no longer necessary.

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 President 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 and Mandela addressing the nation to appeal for calm with the words: “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 has to reassert the ANC’s power through demonstrations and strikes. But over four years he continued to negotiate with de Klerk and other Africkaner politicians who had previously approved the torture and murder of Mandela’s party members – and he brought the Zulu leaders King Goodwill Zwelethini and Mangosuthu Buthelezi into the talks to secure maximum buy-in from all factions in the country’s first multi-racial elections. 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 had been convicted of kidnapping and accessory to assault. And when Oliver Tambo died in 1993 Mandela said he felt “like the loneliest man in the world”. But in 1994 Nelson 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 per cent of the vote – automatically made Nelson Mandela president and head of state. It also revealed that the delicacy of his approach to national reconciliation had attracted significant support among the white community.

Mandela was inaugurated as president on 10 May 1994 in a Government of National Unity with de Klerk as his first deputy and Thabo Mbeki as his second. In his inaugural address he said: “Never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.” Making those words real was a formidable task.

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 he wore it again as he presented the winner’s trophy to the Springbok’s Afrikaner captain. He sacked his ex-wife Winnie Mandela from her Cabinet post, following allegations of corruption, and took tea with the widows of white politicians and flew to the white enclave of Orania to visit the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the primary 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 and improve the living standards of the country’s black population.

It was a balancing task. But Mandela’s patience, wisdom, vision – and above all unambiguous moral integrity – allayed the fears of the whites and consolidated the support of his own followers, many of whom were vulnerable to the siren calls of more militant voices. His appointment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as Chair of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission – to investigate human rights violations under apartheid – was a masterstroke in confronting the horror of the past in a way which moved the nation forward, black and white together.

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 eating and exercise regime which had been forced upon him in jail. He rose at 4.30am, regardless of how late he worked the previous evening, began an hour’s exercise by 5am, before a breakfast of plain porridge and fresh fruit, with the morning’s newspapers, at 6.30am. He worked a 12 hour day, managing his time carefully, extremely impatient with unpunctuality, and keeping private his favourite moment of the day – watching the sun set, often with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky so long denied him in jail, playing in the background.

In 1996 he divorced Winnie who was later found guilty on 43 counts of fraud and 25 of theft and sentenced to five years in prison. 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 eightieth birthday in 1998, after heavy public prodding by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Mandela’s presidency was not the most fruitful part of his career. He was dogged by the scandals that surrounded Winnie. 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 in the townships, and elsewhere. He failed to address the crisis that the Aids pandemic was causing in his nation. Though he ordered troops into Lesotho to maintain stability after a fiercely disputed election he appeared, publicly at any rate, not to exert much pressure on President Robert Mugabe who was already beginning to wreak havoc on the economy and democratic polity of neighbouring Zimbabwe.

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 of South Africa, and after his retirement from that job, Nelson Mandela’s stature continued to grow. In South Africa he became a father to a nation of whites as well as blacks, almost universally known by the affectionate tribal term Madiba, a traditional form of address for an ancestral chief. Internationally he became the most widely admired figure of our age, dubbed by Bob Geldof as “the president of the world”.

He did not step down from public life. After his retirement as President he set up the Nelson Mandela Foundation and became active in international peacemaking, in Burundi and elsewhere. He continued to make contributions on the international stage. In 2003 he spoke out against the war on Iraq, calling the United States “a threat to world peace” for its belligerence and its determination to exclude the United Nations from decision-making on the conflict.

He also began to make good the omissions of his time in office. In 2000, Mandela publicly criticised Robert Mugabe, referring to African leaders who had liberated their countries but had then overstayed their welcome. He began to campaign on the issue of 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, an admission which many families avoided for fear of stigmatisation. At one point he admitted that he may have failed his country by not paying more attention to the pandemic as president.

Mandela himself had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2001 though treatment was successful. But in 2004, at the age of 85, citing his failing health, 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”.  Thereafter he appeared in public less often, though he still sallied forth, white-haired and walking slowly with a stick, for causes dear to his heart.

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 “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.

On the occasion of his 89th birthday in 2007 he announced that he and Desmond Tutu were convening a group of the world’s leading elder statesmen – including Graça Machel, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Li Zhaoxing, Mary Robinson and Muhammad Yunus – to contribute their wisdom and independent leadership to address thorny international problems – speaking “freely and boldly, working both publicly and behind the scenes on whatever actions need to be taken”. But the group, The Elders, was to be chaired by Tutu.

Thereafter 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. It was as if the days of great statesmanship was over and South Africa had returned to the murky daily reality of corruption and tribal politics. At the end of 2007 his ex-wife Winnie topped the poll in the ANC’s National Executive Committee elections.

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

The last time Mandela was seen in Britain was in August 2007, for the unveiling of the long-awaited statue of him in Parliament Square in London. Mandela, characteristically, tried to draw the spotlight away from himself, saying: “The history of the struggle in South Africa is rich with the stories of heroes and heroines, some of them leaders, some of them followers. All of them deserve to be remembered”.

Earlier he had once said of himself: “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 his sense of forgiveness he offered the model which transformed a society of racial division and oppression into an open democracy.

His life was an inspiration not just in South Africa but throughout the world, to all who are oppressed and deprived, and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation. He was a model of faith, hope and charity.

There was about him something to which the world aspired. It was as if we saw ourselves dimly reflected in his glory. Through his chains it was as if we were all enslaved, and through his extraordinary magnanimity he freed the world.

Paul Vallely

Nelson Rolihlahia Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, lawyer, politician and world statesman, born Umtata, Transkei 18 July 1918, leader of the African National Congress, President of South Africa, 1994-99; married, 1944-1957 Evelyn Ntoko Mase (4 children), 1958-1996 Winnie Madikizela (2 daughters), 1998-2013 Graça Machel. Died 5 Dec 2013

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