I have never really idolised anyone and hence, there has never been anyone I have ever wanted to meet except for one person, Nelson Mandela. From the moment I first heard about him, some 27 years ago when he was released from prison and I was only 10, I have been fascinated and captivated by his story and had always had the dream to meet the man himself. Although meeting him is no longer possible, his legacy still moves me greatly and contributes greatly to how I think and act.
Nelson Mandela, born Rolihlahla Mandela of the Madiba clan of the Thembu people, showed the inclinations of the man he would turn out to be from the very beginning of his life. He was told stories by the elders of the wars of resistance which his Xhosa ancestors, along with other native South African peoples such as the Zulu and the Khoikhoi, valiantly fought against the Dutch settlers and the British colonisers. These stories helped inspire the young Madiba and shape him into the great leader he later became. When his father named him Rolihlahla, colloquially translated to Troublemaker, little did he know the great things Mandela would achieve for his people and for his country.
Mandela studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare but failed to complete the course as he was expelled during his second year there for joining in a protest which led to him participating in a boycott against student policies. Threatened with arranged marriage by the King of his tribe if he didn’t return to Fort Hare and complete his studies, Mandela instead chose to run away to Johannesburg and worked for a time as a mine security officer.
He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree while working in Johannesburg and writing his articles while practicing Law by working for the attorneys Witkin, Eidelman and Sidelsky, the latter of whom he was first introduced to while working as a mine security officer. He finally returned to Fort Hare in 1943 for his graduation.
It wasn’t until 1944 that Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) when he helped in the formation of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). Mandela quickly climbed the ranks of the ANCYL and the ANC adopted the more radical, Programme of Action, mass-based policy in 1949 because of the efforts of Mandela and the ANCYL.
By 1952 the ANC had begun with its Defiance Campaign, a campaign of civil disobedience in protest against six unjust laws which the ruling, Afrikaner-dominated, National Party had passed since having been elected to power in 1948, with Mandela as National Volunteer-in-Chief. He was arrested, charged and sentenced to nine months of hard labour, although that sentence was suspended for two years.
During this time he also started his own law firm, Mandela & Tambo, the first black law firm in South Africa, together with his lifelong friend Oliver Tambo.
Mandela was arrested again in 1955 and put on what became known as the Treason Trials. The trial lasted for six years and Mandela wasn’t acquitted until 1961. However, during the trial, on the 21st March 1960, around 5,000 to 7,000 people from the township in Sharpeville, Transvaal had gathered outside the local police station to protest against the Pass Laws. The police opened fire and 69 unarmed people, including 10 children, were massacred as they tried to flee. Mandela and the others who were on trial were detained during this time as mass protests erupted around the country.
Once Mandela was acquitted in 1961, he was asked to lead a new armed wing of the ANC named uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) which translates to Spear of the Nation. The ANC had come to the conclusion that they could no longer protest non-violently in the face of the government’s violence and after warning the South African Government of their intent were they not to reform and increase political rights for all, MK’s first attacks were launched on the 16th December 1961 against government installations. MK was subsequently classified as a terrorist organisation by the South African government and also the United States.
Mandela was once again arrested in 1962 for leaving the country without a permit and inciting workers to strike after having left South Africa secretly under the alias of David Motsamayi. He had, among other things, been in Morocco and Ethiopia to receive guerrilla training.
Mandela was immediately charged and sentenced to five years imprisonment. After being transferred to Robben Island in 1963, Mandela was back in Pretoria a few weeks later to stand trial again along with seven of his ANC comrades. In what became known as the Rivonia Trial, the eight men were spared the death penalty but were sentenced to life imprisonment with hard labour on Robben Island, with the exception of the white Denis Goldberg who was instead taken to Pretoria Prison. Mandela entered prison in 1964.
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.
Nelson Mandela, 20th April 1964
Mandela was set to spend a total of 18 years on Robben Island, with much of his early years there spent in solitary confinement, and another 8 years of imprisonment back on the mainland. Adding that to the time he spent in prison before he was sentenced in the Rivonia Trial meant that he would spend a total of 27 years in prison for his political beliefs and his wish to have every person looked upon with equal rights.
During his stay on Robben Island, he was subjected to many inhumanities, as were all the inmates. Upon first arriving on the island he was told that he would die there.
Mandela soon became the leader of the inmates whilst there and would often find himself in isolation because, as Mandela wrote in The Long Walk to Freedom, “the authorities believed that isolation was the cure for our defiance and rebelliousness.” However, Mandela would also be the one the guards came to when they wanted to negotiate with the prisoners or get them to do something.
Mandela had a great mind and an even greater spirit and as the prisoners were allowed to apply to study while there, as long as that study wasn’t political or about military history, Mandela convinced some of his fellow inmates to study Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor, as it would help them understand their oppressors by learning how they think and about their culture. He also continued to study law while imprisoned through the University of London.
Mandela also applied to start a garden in the prison on a patch of unused land, where after being granted permission, he was able to grow vegetables for some of the other prisoners and for the guards, who would come with satchels to collect their vegetables.
In some ways, I saw the garden as a metaphor for certain aspects of my life. A leader must also tend his garden; he, too, plants seeds, and then watches, cultivates, and harvests the results. Like the gardener, a leader must take responsibility for what he cultivates; he must mind his work, try to repel enemies, preserve what can be preserved, and eliminate what cannot succeed.
Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk To Freedom, Published in December 1994
In 1990, Mandela was released from prison and he began long and protracted talks with new President F. W. de Klerk and his Government about ending white minority rule in South Africa and in 1994, after having voted for the first time in his life, Nelson Mandela became the first black President of South Africa.
Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he is affectionately known in South Africa, was one of the greatest leaders of our time and when faced with the most difficult of choices, always chose his people first. After his release from prison there were still many uprisings and clashes happening throughout South Africa and whilst many wanted Mandela to endorse this violence, he chose not to but instead lead by example and plotted a non-violent and empathetic way to the Presidency.
Mandela even made F. W. de Klerk his Deputy as he strived to create the Rainbow Nation and assure the minority whites that South Africa was not a place for them to feel afraid, and both of them, through their efforts to make South Africa equal again, won a joint Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. During his presidency he also set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed by both the Government and the ANC during the Apartheid years with Archbishop Desmond Tutu appointed as its chair.
Much can be learned from Madiba and his life. He was an exceptional human being and a man devoted to the betterment of human relations. Nelson Mandela or Troublemaker, as his father had named him, proved to the world time and again that the only ones troubled by his actions were those who were trouble for the rest of the world.
- The Long Walk To Freedom
- Nelson Mandela Foundation
- South Africa History Online