Nelson Mandela: the world mourns


6 December 2013

Expressions of grief and condolence have poured in from across the world after former president, Nobel Peace laureate and statesman Nelson Mandela, the world’s icon of reconciliation, compassion and goodwill, died at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg on 5 December 2013. He was 95.

Those 95 years were remarkable.

After spending 27 years in apartheid’s prisons, Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. He united a fraught and fearful country, bringing together blacks and whites when South Africa was living through violent and troubled times.

His legacy is enormous, and most tangible in the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. The former embodies the spirit of reconciliation, ubuntu and social justice, working through strategic networks and partnerships to capture the vision and values of Mandela’s life; the latter with developing programmes and partnerships to protect and improve the lives of children and youth.

Out of the children’s fund grew the 46664 initiative, a worldwide concert fundraising programme to help victims and orphans of Aids.


Troublemaker from the Eastern Cape


Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape province, the son of a chief of the Tembu clan of the Xhosa nation.

At the age of seven he was enrolled in the local missionary school, where he was given the name “Nelson”, after Admiral Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy, by a Methodist teacher who had difficulty in pronouncing his African name. That name, Rolihlahla, means “troublemaker”.

After his father was stripped of his chieftainship following a dispute with a local magistrate, Mandela and his mother moved to the small village of Qunu. In 1927, when Mandela was nine, his father died, and the boy became the ward of the Tembu regent, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He was to be groomed to assume high office but, influenced by the cases that came before the chief’s court, decided to become a lawyer.

In 1939, after he had matriculated from school, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare for a Bachelor of Arts degree. But the following year he was suspended from college for joining in an anti-apartheid protest boycott. Fleeing an arranged marriage, he moved to South Africa’s principal city, Johannesburg.

Arriving in Alexandra township in the northeast of the city, he found work as a guard at one of Johannesburg’s many gold mines, and later as an articled clerk at a law firm. He completed his degree by correspondence at the University of South Africa, and began to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1942 Mandela entered politics by joining the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s major liberation movement and today the country’s ruling party. It was during this time that he and a small group of mainly young members of the ANC embarked on a mission to transform the party into a mass movement.

In 1944 he, Anton Lembede and Mandela’s lifelong friends and comrades Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu founded the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). That year he also married his first wife, Evelyn Mase. In 1947 he was elected president of the ANCYL.

The year 1948 was a dark one in South Africa, with the election of the racist National Party, voted into government by a white electorate on the platform of apartheid. In response, in 1949, the ANC adopted its Programme of Action, inspired by the Youth League, which advocated the weapons of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non- cooperation with authority.

The programme aimed at the attainment of full citizenship and direct parliamentary representation for all South Africans. In policy documents co-written by Mandela, the ANCYL paid special attention to the redistribution of the land, trade union rights, free and compulsory education for all children, and mass education for adults.

In 1952, during the Campaign for Defiance of Unjust Laws – popularly known as the Defiance Campaign – Mandela was elected the ANC’s national volunteer-in-chief and travelled the country organising resistance to discriminatory laws. He was charged and brought to trial for his role in the campaign and given a suspended prison sentence.


Mandela and Tambo attorneys


In recognition of his contribution to the defiance campaign, Mandela was elected president of both the Youth League and the Transvaal region of the ANC at the end of 1952. He subsequently became the deputy president of the ANC.

Soon after the defiance campaign, Mandela passed his attorney’s admission examination and was admitted to the profession. In 1952 he and Oliver Tambo opened a law firm in downtown Johannesburg.

Tambo, the chairperson of the ANC at the time of his death in April 1993, wrote of their practice: “To reach our desks each morning Nelson and I ran the gauntlet of patient queues of people overflowing from the chairs in the waiting room into the corridors … Our buff office files carried thousands of these stories and if, when we started our law partnership, we had not been rebels against apartheid, our experiences in our offices would have remedied the deficiency. We had risen to professional status in our community, but every case in court, every visit to the prisons to interview clients, reminded us of the humiliation and suffering burning into our people.”

The 1950s turned out to be a time of strife and tribulation for Mandela – he was banned, arrested and imprisoned. His personal life was in some turmoil when he divorced Evelyn to marry Winnie Madikizela.

In June 1955 the Freedom Charter is adopted in Kliptown in Johannesburg. The charter outlined conditions of a democratic South Africa, in which all races would be equal. Six months later Mandela was arrested and charged with treason, together with 155 others. The state cited the charter as a communist plot to use violence to overthrow the apartheid government.

The marathon Treason Trial ran from 1956 to early 1961, but saw all defendants found not guilty and released.


The Black Pimpernel


In 1960 police opened fire on a group of protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. The reaction was immediate, with demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots across South Africa. On March 30 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18 000 people, and banning the ANC and other liberation movements.

With the banning, the ANC leadership went underground and Mandela was forced to live away from his family. He was a master of disguise and managed to evade the police, a feat which earned him the nickname in the media as the Black Pimpernel.

The banning also forced the ANC to move from nonviolent to violent means of opposing apartheid. Its armed wing Umkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) was formed in 1961, with Mandela as commander-in-chief.

After travelling abroad for several months, he was arrested in 1962 on his return to South Africa for unlawfully exiting the country and for incitement to strike. Convicted, he was sentenced to five years on Robben Island, the notorious political prison off the coast near Cape Town.

Meanwhile, on the afternoon of 11 July, 1963, a dry-cleaning van drove up to the door of the farmhouse at Liliesleaf, in northern Johannesburg. No-one had ordered dry cleaning – instead, armed policemen burst out of the van. The key leaders of MK were arrested and charged with sabotage.

Mandela wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom: “In one fell swoop, the police had captured the entire High Command of Umkhonto weSizwe.”

Mandela was brought up to Pretoria from the island, having served nine months of his sentence, to stand trial in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. He wrote: “From that moment on we lived in the shadow of the gallows.” However, they were spared the gallows, instead receiving life imprisonment.


Prison life


Eighteen of Mandela’s 27 years in jail were spent on Robben Island, where he carried out hard labour in a lime quarry. As a D-group prisoner, the lowest classification, he was allowed only one visitor and one letter every six months. While in prison Mandela studied by correspondence with the University of London, earning a Bachelor of Law degree.

In 1984 he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, and in December of that year, to the low-security Victor Verster Prison – known today as the Drakenstein Correctional Facility – near Paarl in the Western Cape.

While in prison, he had visits from President PW Botha, who offered to release him if he renounced violence. Mandela turned down the offers, saying he would only accept unconditional release.

His enormous charisma and leadership was evident even in prison. He turned around the 1976 Soweto youth who came to the island after the June 16 riots of that year, from being anti- to pro-ANC, at a time when the ANC had lost influence. As a result, pro-ANC movements led the revolts of the mid-1980s, under the umbrella of the United Democratic Front.


President of South Africa


Throughout the 1980s, South Africa descended into chaos and violence, with almost constant unrest inside the country, armed insurgency from without, and steadily increasing pressure from the international community to end apartheid.

Almost on the point of revolution, on 2 February 1990, the country’s National Party president, FW de Klerk, made an announcement: a negotiated settlement would end apartheid, all liberation movements would be unbanned, and all political prisoners released – including Nelson Mandela.

Nine days later Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, his wife Winnie on his arm and his fist raised in the liberation movement salute. From the time of his release to the first democratic elections in 1994, Mandela spent his time playing statesman, as negotiations repeatedly broken amid violence and retribution.

In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after its decades-long banning, Mandela was elected president of the party. His long-time friend, Tambo, became national chairperson. In 1993 he and FW de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their different roles in ending apartheid.

In 1994 South Africa held its first democratic election, which the ANC won by an overwhelming majority. Mandela became president of the Republic of South Africa, inaugurated in May. That year he also published Long Walk to Freedom, which he started writing while in prison.

After serving a five-year term as president of the country, Mandela relinquished the ANC presidency, which passed by ANC vote to Thabo Mbeki. He retired from public life in June 1999, though not from the public eye. He built himself a home in his birthplace in Qunu, which he would visit as often as he could.




Known affectionately by his clan name of Madiba, Mandela had friends across the world – Bill Clinton, Bono of U2, Naomi Campbell. His friendships went back in some cases 60 years, as with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Ahmed Kathrada.

In his autobiography Memoirs, Kathrada recounted that he and Mandela affectionately called one another madala, Zulu for old man.

“Charming and charismatic, he has both a magnetic personality and a commanding presence,” wrote Kathrada. “An uncommon amalgam of peasant and aristocrat, he is a living paradox: a democrat par excellence, with just a touch of the autocrat; at once proud but simple; soft yet tenacious; obstinate and flexible; vain one moment and humble the next; infinitely tolerant but also impatient.”

Kathrada and Mandela spent 18 years together on Robben Island and a further seven in Pollsmoor Prison, along with Sisulu.

“For all the public exposure and media attention, Madiba remains an enigma to all but his most intimate circle,” wrote Kathrada.

He recounted an incident with a terminally ill girl, Michelle Britz, that was typical of Mandela. She wanted to meet Madiba, and when she met Kathrada on Robben Island, he got to know of her wish. Kathrada passed it on to the then president, who sprang into action immediately.

“The president of South Africa, a universally respected statesman with one of the busiest schedules on earth, flew to the Mpumalanga town of Secunda by helicopter, bearing gifts for a sick child,” Kathrada wrote.

“The emotional meeting between Madiba and Michelle was shown on national television, and as she clasped her little arms around his neck and kissed him, the eyes of millions must have filled with tears, just as mine did.”


In his honour


More than 1 115 awards and honours had been conferred on him. More than 85 streets, roads, boulevards, avenues, bridges, highways had been named after Mandela. The Nelson Mandela Bridge in downtown Johannesburg stands proud in his honour.

Some 175 civic awards, including the freedom of 45 cities and towns, and honorary citizenships, had honoured him. He also had 115 honorary degrees conferred on him, and honorary citizenships and honorary memberships of organisations.

In Johannesburg, Madiba’s image is cast in a six-metre high bronze statue and stands preserved in his famous jive in Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton.

Speaking at the statue’s unveiling in April 2004, Ndileka Mandela, Madiba’s eldest granddaughter, said: “This is a very happy statue. The dancing stance pays tribute to the spirit of joy and celebration inherent in the people of South Africa.”

In May 2013 a six-metre tall steel sculpture of him as a boxer was unveiled outside Chancellor House in downtown Johannesburg, where he and Oliver Tambo had law offices. He enjoyed sparring which he began when he was studying at Fort Hare, and continued when he moved to Johannesburg.

He wrote that he considered boxing to be egalitarian, where rank, age, colour and wealth were irrelevant. “When you are circling your opponent, probing his strengths and weaknesses, you are not thinking about his colour or social status.”

Some 95 statues, sculptures, art works and monuments had been given to or dedicated to Madiba, with 105 patronages held by him.

He had a range of strange items named after him: a landfill site, a spider, a sea slug, a protea, a tea, an orchid, a rescue dog, and a racehorse.


Marriage, children and retirement


Mandela and Winnie divorced in 1996. In 1998, on his 80th birthday, he married Graca Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the president of Mozambique until his death in 1986.

In a July 2008 interview with Mike Hanna on the Al Jazeera television network, Machel described how lonely Mandela was when she first met him.

“After 27 years in jail, what he most longed for was not the glory of political life, but to have a family life,” she said. “It was a meeting of minds and a meeting of hearts.” Although she hadn’t wanted another marriage after Samora Machel’s death, she decided that her gift to Mandela on his 80th birthday would be to marry him.

“Madiba has allowed me to continue to be myself. He has always respected my space. We have a deep sense of sharing, but at the same time we respect each other’s identities.

“For a man of his age, a man who has gone through those kinds of experiences, he could have become extremely possessive. He’s not. Maybe that’s what love really means. We have found a balanced and respectful way of relating.”

Mandela outlived three of his six children, and only three of his daughters are still alive: Makaziwe, Zenani and Zindzi. He had 17 grandchildren, 14 great-grandchildren and three step-grandchildren. He also had four step-children from his marriage to Machel.

In his last years, Mandela and Machel spent most of their time at their home in the upmarket suburb of Houghton, in Johannesburg. His greatest pleasure of his old age, he said, was watching the sunset with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky playing in the background.

A short distance from the tranquil surrounds of Houghton, his famous words from the Rivonia Trial echo on the walls of the Drill Hall in central Johannesburg:

“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 for which I hope to live and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”