Nelson Mandela was a remarkable person. He not only overcame his adversaries in the political struggle but also outshone them morally by working for reconciliation after apartheid ended.
Some people assume a larger than life stature in death than they had when alive. Nelson Mandela was one such person, already a legend in his lifetime. Through his steely determination and quiet dignity, he forced even his staunchest enemies to acknowledge his greatness. Mandela died on December 5 at the age of 95 and virtually everyone, of who’s who on the international scene, was there to pay him tribute.
A man of great courage and commitment, Mandela struggled for the plight of the oppressed masses of the world. Madiba, as he was fondly known, exemplified truth, justice and forgiveness and his passing leaves a huge void that will be difficult to fill.
Mandela was born in Transkei, South Africa on July 18, 1918. Educated at the University of Fort Hare, he completed his Law degree at the University of the Witswatersrand in 1942. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) and vigorously opposed the racist apartheid policy of the Nationalist Party that came to power in 1948. Mandela was first tried in 1950 along with Oliver Tambo and others for treason, but later acquitted.
The Sharpville Massacre in March 1960 during which 69 anti-apartheid demonstrators were brutally murdered by the police, resulted in the banning of the Pan-Africanist Congress and the ANC. This led to the creation of “Umkhonto we Sizwe” or the “Spear of the Nation” and military confrontation became a reality. After receiving military training abroad, Mandela returned to South Africa but was promptly arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment.
In 1964, Mandela and others, including Ahmed Kathrada were tried for plotting to overthrow the government by violent means. In the trial that came to be known as the “Rivonia Trial,” Mandela and his associates decided not to retain counsel. Instead, Mandela spoke directly to the court. They were expecting the death sentence, and Mandela made clear in his opening statement at the trial on April 20, 1964, “I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did.” And he insisted that this was a principle for which he was prepared to die.
They were all expecting the death sentence but when the presiding judge delivered the verdict, much to their surprise — and relief — it was life imprisonment. It was reflective of the time that a life sentence was greeted with cheers. They had committed no crime; they were struggling for human dignity. They should have been applauded.
During his previous trial in 1962, Mandela explained what he stood for and what he thought of the apartheid system. “I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.” And he delivered the coup de grace after his sentencing in November 1962 when he announced, “If I had my time over I would do the same again, so would any man who dares call himself a man.”
After the Rivonia Trial sentencing, Mandela and his comrades were flown in a military plane from Pretoria to Cape Town and then put on a boat to Robben Island, seven miles off the coast. They were all in chains and shoved to the lower deck. According to Mandela’s own account in the Long Walk to Freedom, the white guards on the upper deck would urinate, splashing them down below where they were chained. Perhaps, the white guards thought they were entitled to such behaviour because they considered the blacks and coloureds, as the others were called, to be somehow inferior beings.
Life was extremely harsh on Robben Island. For nearly 10 years, they were kept in isolation. The only time the prisoners got an opportunity to speak to each other directly was when they were taken out to work in the quarry. This was extremely hard work; they were required to break rocks with pickaxe. Ahmed Kathrada says that initially they found it very difficult. Their hands and feet blistered and bled but gradually they got used to it and in fact looked forward to the gruelling work outside because it afforded them an opportunity to meet and talk to each other.
After nearly a decade’s incarceration on Robben Island where they were allowed a single letter from the family each year, the conditions improved slightly. They could now receive a letter once a month and were also allowed more contact with each other inside the prison. At about this time, Mandela was offered relocation to another prison. He flatly refused saying either they should all be moved or he would not abandon his friends and fellow prisoners.
It was during imprisonment on Robben Island that Mandela and the ANC became international symbols of resistance against the brutal apartheid regime. While Western regimes — the US, Britain and others — branded them “terrorists,” their plight also gained sympathy from a global audience. The horrors of apartheid started to seep into global conscience.
Anti-apartheid campaigns were launched in many parts of the world and many governments especially in the Muslim world, as well as liberation movements offered material help to the ANC in its struggle for justice, freedom and dignity. The world was clearly divided between the oppressors and the oppressed. One’s stand on apartheid determined which side of the divide one stood.
During 1990, owing to massive internal and external pressure, the apartheid regime relented and released Mandela and all his comrades. Mandela had already been moved out of Robben Island earlier and on February 11, 1990, he walked out as a free man never to look back. In 1991, Mandela formally took the reigns of leadership of the ANC.
1994 was indeed a milestone in the history of South Africa when the first multi-racial democratic elections were held and Mandela was elected the first black president. Mandela served only one term as president, guiding and showing leadership during the very challenging transition to democracy. He declined to run for a second term when he could have easily won.
On December 5, 2013, Mandela, aged 95, breathed his last. Western rulers, current and former, whose countries had branded Mandela a “terrorist” and aided and abetted the apartheid regime that had tormented the blacks for decades, now came to sing Mandela’s praises.
Hamba Khale Madiba. Rest in Peace.