President, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and statesman Nelson Mandela, the world’s icon of reconciliation, compassion and goodwill, has died at his home in Johannesburg. He was 95, and had been in and out of hospital over the last few years.
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, 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”.
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 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 undergraduate degree by correspondence through the University of South Africa, or Unisa, 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. 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 its Youth League, which advocated the weapons of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authority.
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
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.
The 1950s were years of strife and tribulation for Mandela – he was banned, arrested and imprisoned. His personal life was also in some turmoil: he divorced Evelyn to marry Winnie Madikizela. He was also one of the accused in the historic Treason Trial that ended in 1961, with the state dropping all charges.
THE BLACK PIMPERNEL
On 21 March 1960, police opened fire on a group of protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. The reaction to what quickly became known as the Sharpeville Massacre was immediate, with demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots across South Africa. On 30 March, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18 000 people and banning the ANC and other liberation movements.
Following 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 time and again, a feat which earned him the nickname in the media as the Black Pimpernel.
The banning also forced the ANC to move from non-violent to violent means of opposing apartheid. Its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), was formed in 1961, with Mandela the 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 of Cape Town.
While serving this sentence, he was charged with sabotage in the infamous Rivonia Trial. In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Of the 27 years he spent in jail, 18 were spent on The Island, as it was known by many activists, 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 Laws degree.
PRESIDENT OF SOUTH AFRICA
On 2 February 1990, the country’s National Party president, FW de Klerk, made a remarkable announcement: a negotiated settlement would end apartheid, all liberation movements would be unbanned, and all political prisoners released – including 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.
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 his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which he had started writing while in prison.
After serving a five-year term as president of the country, Mandela ceded the ANC presidency to Thabo Mbeki. He retired from public life in June 1999, though not from the public eye. He built a home in his birthplace of Qunu, which he would visit as often as he could.
IN HIS HONOUR
Nelson Mandela had the freedom of 45 cities around the world, and honorary citizenship of 11. In Johannesburg, his image is cast in a 6m high bronze statue and stands preserved in his famous jive in Nelson Mandela Square.
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.”
The countless tributes to him around the world are without precedent. At last count, he had 23 schools, universities and institutions named after him; 25 halls, buildings, monuments and housing developments; 13 stadiums, squares, plazas, parks and gardens; 91 streets, roads, boulevards and parks; 32 bursaries and scholarships, foundations and lectures; 13 statues, sculptures and artworks carry his name.
Mandela outlived three of his six children, and only three of his daughters are still alive: Makaziwe, Zenani and Zindzi. He had 18 grandchildren, six 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.”