Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela 1918-2013
PAARL, South Africa // In a steep-sided valley in South Africa’s verdant Western Cape, outside the sleepy town of Paarl an hour from Cape Town, is Groot Drakenstein prison. Once known as Victor Verster, it is far from the apartheid tourism trail of Soweto and Robben Island, but it symbolises the extraordinary life, impact, and legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as few other places do.
Behind the high walls and barbed wire is a cottage where he was held in the waning days of his 27 years in jail for high treason. And outside the prison gates stands one of the very few statues of him anywhere in the country, raising his fist in triumph as he did when he walked out of the jail in February 1990, about to embark on formal talks with the regime that had imprisoned him, killed thousands of his fellow Africans, and deprived millions of the right to vote, live, and work as they chose.
Four years later apartheid system of minority-white rule was consigned to history as blacks, whites, and others queued together to cast their ballots in South Africa’s first democratic election, and soon afterwards Mandela was inaugurated as president, his greatest achievement having been to ensure a peaceful transition when many feared a race-based civil war.
The birth of a freedom fighter
Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, a small town in what is today known as the Eastern Province. He lived in Soweto during the struggle against apartheid and was jailed by the apartheid government for nearly three decades, mostly on the desolate and windswept Robben Island.
For reasons unknown, Mandela’s father, a hereditary adviser to the Thembu king in the Eastern Cape province who would soon be stripped of his chieftaincy by white authorities, named his son Rolihlahla, a Xhosa word meaning “troublemaker”. The decision would prove to be prophetic.
Destined to inherit his father’s position, Mandela was sent to several schools, at the first of which a teacher gave him his English forename. He later attended Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape, the only university in the country that accepted black students at the time.
He already exhibited flashes of rebelliousness. In an instance of a minor decision having enormous long-term consequences, the ruler of Thembuland, who had become his guardian after his father’s death, arranged a marriage for him that he opposed.
He ran away to Johannesburg and like tens of thousands of migrant black labourers, he found work in the gold mines, the foundation of South Africa’s economy, the continent’s biggest. He did not remain there long, joining a law firm where he became a clerk.
In 1942 he joined the African National Congress (ANC), starting a mission that would take more than half a century to complete.
At the time the ANC was an elitist organisation, largely composed of elders who took a peaceful if unproductive approach, petitioning the government for concessions for their people. Mandela and others of his generation, among them Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, argued for a more militant style, “undiluted African nationalism” and a transformation into a mass movement.
In 1944 they formed the ANC Youth League, and in 1949, a year after the National Party won all-white elections and began building the legal edifice of apartheid, a Youth League-backed candidate took over the ANC presidency, and the movement adopted new tactics of boycotts, strikes, and civil disobedience.
As the National Party’s restrictions grew, the ANC launched the Defiance Campaign in 1952, when thousands of volunteers deliberately broke apartheid laws. Mandela, its chief organiser, was convicted under the Suppression of Communism Act and subjected to a banning order, preventing him from attending political meetings.
Throughout the 1950s non-violent resistance continued, although Mandela spent much of the second half of the decade as a defendant, along with 155 others of various races – his allies were of all colours – in what became known as the Treason Trial, facing a possible death penalty, although eventually all were acquitted in 1961.
‘An ideal for which I am prepared to die’
The National Party continued to clamp down on the anti-apartheid movement and in one of the most violent episodes in South African history, the security forces killed 69 peaceful protesters from the Pan-African Congress in Sharpeville in 1960.
With no sign of political progress and Mandela himself forced underground, the ANC took up arms and formed a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), Spear of the Nation, with him as its head.
“It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle… the government had left us no other choice,” explained Mandela in his memoir, A Long Walk To Freedom.
Many of Mandela’s most senior MK and ANC colleagues were captured in 1963 in a raid on their clandestine headquarters in Rivonia, a northern Johannesburg suburb, and together with Mandela they were all put on trial on charges of sabotage – easier to prove than treason, but still carrying a possible death penalty.
Mandela’s closing address to the judge at the Rivonia trial underscored his credentials as a great leader. Looking directly at the judge, he said: “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.”
Jailed but the struggle continues
Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, and taken to Robben Island, which lies just off Cape Town’s Atlantic seaboard.
Conditions on the island were harsh – the inmates slept on mats on concrete floors, worked for hours every day in a lime quarry, the glare permanently damaging Mandela’s eyesight. One notorious warder, known as “Suitcase” van Rensburg, who had a swastika tattooed on his wrist, made a habit of urinating next to the political prisoners’ food.
It became a microcosm of the struggle. “It was ANC policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies: we believed that all men, even prison service warders, were capable of change, and we did our utmost to try to sway them.”
Of Col Piet Badenhorst, perhaps the island’s most brutal commanding officer, he said: “Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil. His inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour.”
After 18 years on Robben Island, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, on the outskirts of Cape Town, in 1982, and three years later, as violence increased, he approached the government for talks. Military victory, he decided, was impossible, but he believed the authorities could be convinced that their system was unsustainable and their fears of black supremacy best addressed through a negotiated settlement.
He was not authorised to undertake the talks by the exiled ANC leadership in Zambia and told no one of his decision, not even his fellow prisoners.
The process took years, accelerating after Mandela was moved to the cottage at Victor Verster prison. The National Party government’s greatest concerns were fear of Communism and the protection of white minority rights, and Mandela referred them to the opening lines of the Freedom Charter, the 1955 document that encapsulated the struggle: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.”
A negotiated settlement
By 1989, the Berlin Wall had fallen, the spectre of Communism was in retreat around the world, and South Africa had a new president, FW de Klerk, who at the opening of parliament in February 1990 lifted the ban on the ANC.
Eight days later, Mandela walked out of Victor Verster. “I knew that people expected me to harbour anger towards whites. But I had none,” he wrote. “In prison, my anger towards whites decreased, but my hatred for the system grew. I wanted South Africa to see that I loved my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.”
While the peace process was irreversible, it remained deeply troubled, with violence breaking out between ANC supporters and those of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, backed by hardline apartheid supporters. When Chris Hani, the Communist Party secretary-general and a former MK chief of staff, was murdered by a white supremacist in April 1993 many felt the country stood on the brink of a race war, but Mandela went on television to appeal for calm, his 10,000 days in prison giving him the moral authority to rein in any on his own side who accused him of going soft.
Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and when finally, on April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic election, the ANC won. Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10. In office, he made reconciliation between the races his priority, most notably donning the jersey of the Springbok rugby side – long an all-white symbol of oppression whose opponents would be cheered by black South Africans – for the World Cup final in 1995. He went to Orania, an all-white enclave in the Northern Cape to take tea with Betsy Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik, the architect of apartheid, and invited Percy Yutar, the Rivonia Trial prosecutor, to lunch. It was more than anyone had expected, even of him.
As a head of government his performance was perhaps weaker. Some of his decisions and ministerial choices were criticised for putting loyalty to the struggle over competence and integrity.
Crime rates rose and he left much of the running of the administration to Thabo Mbeki, then his first deputy, losing an opportunity to implement effective anti-HIV policies before his successor embarked on the denialist approach that has been blamed for causing hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. An implicit recognition of those failures has been the prominence of Mandela’s anti-Aids 46664 Foundation in recent years.
But he often said himself he did not want to be seen as a saint. On the plinth of the statue outside the prison in Paarl are engraved the words with which he closed his memoir: “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter, I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.
“I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
And neither has South Africa’s.
Sebastien Berger is a former foreign correspondent for The National
Updated: December 6, 2013 04:00 AM