“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 willing to die.” Nelson Mandela, Rivonia trial, 1963.
In the Hollywood production, Invictus, the personage of President Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) was asked why he was not taking revenge and retaliation against the white minority that had kept him in prison for 27 years and killed so many of his friends and relatives.
Mandela replied, “I wish I had the time”. Later he would add: “If I cannot change when circumstances demand it, how can I expect others to change?”
If Mandela was born 3,000 years ago, he would have been called a messiah and been the founder of a new religion. Though his stances and friendships were mostly socialist and communist, his words and actions spouse very narrowly those of Jesus Christ. He professed a supreme disdain for materialism.
Barring a brief period in his life (1960-1962) when he advocated violence through armed struggle, he has always been an adept of non-violence, as he learned from Mahatma Gandhi. He never relished his mantra of solidarity, help to the needy, social equity, and forgiveness.
A teacher who could not pronounce his first name, Rolihlahla, called him Nelson. He kept the name. However, he is affectuously called Madiba by his admirers. Madiba is the name of his clan of the Xhosa-speaking tribe, Tembu, from which he was born in 1918.
Nelson grew up to become an attorney. In 1952, at the age of 34, he opened a civil rights law practice with Oliver Tambo, the founder of the African National Congress (ANC). In 1955, he helped draft the Freedom Chapter that will became the basis of the constitution for the new multiracial South Africa, of 1996.
In 1963, he was arrested for sabotage and sent to prison for life, along with many other activists.
He spent 18 years of forced labor on Robben Island. He was transferred to Poolsmor’s maximum security prison in 1981 for seven years, then later to Vester.
He was a cause celebre for the anti-apartheid movement and a thorn in the side of the Afrikaner government. Several times, the government proposed to release him. But Mandela refused to be a free man, unless all his co-prisoners from the ANC were freed.
Released on February 11, 1990, he became, four years later, the first non-white president of South Africa. He saved the country by avoiding a civil war and enacting a power-sharing agreement with the white minority. He retired in 1999. He died in 2013, at the age of 94.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, conjointly with F Willem de Klerk.
He was the father of six. He married three times. Winnie Mandela, his second wife carried the flame of freedom and the Mandela name while he was in jail. Late in life, he married Graca Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, president of Mozambique.
Along with Toussaint Louverture and Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela pertains to the pantheon of black leadership. His face is chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of African Leaders. One can assuredly bestow on him the word of Lamartine about Louverture “This man was a nation,” (Cet homme fut une nation).
“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” Nelson Mandela.
After Nelson Mandela, larger than life, the world will no longer be the same…
(The Traveller, Monday, October 10, 2017).