Mandela was born in 1918 and grew up in a system in which a small white minority repressed a black majority. The total separation of people according to skin color permeated all aspects of life. The whites had built up a system that made them rulers, that banned blacks from certain areas, that kept them poor and ignorant, that denied them any and all opportunities for social mobility.
Mandela was born the son of a member of the Tembu royal family in the former Transkei tribal homeland. In his native tongue, his name is Rolihlahla, a slang term for "troublemaker." It was a name that he was supposed to live up to.
Mandela was one of the few people of his skin color to enjoy a higher education, originally attending Fore Hare University, at the time the only university admitting blacks. He would eventually make his way to Johannesburg, where he clerked at a law firm, studied law and eventually founded the country's first only African-run law firm with his friend Oliver Tambo.
And he enjoyed life in the city. "Mandela was seen as a man about town, and a ladies' man" as well as a dancer and a boxer, wrote Anthony Sampson, his official biographer. His interest in politics only came gradually thanks to the influence of his longtime friend Walter Sisulu, to whom Mandela was thankful all his life. "By ancestry, I was born to rule. (Sisulu) helped me understand that my real vocation was to be a servant of the people," Mandela once said.
In 1944, Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu founded the Youth League of the ANC. Its goal was to create a South Africa in which skin color played no role. It was to be a non-racist state rather than a multiracial one, and the ANC expressly stated that it did not aspire to driving the whites into the sea.
However, in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, the black movement became radicalized. Mandela became a leader of the newly founded militant wing of the ANC, the "Umkhonto we Sizwe" (Spear of the Nation). He was not a pacifist then. In addition to championing a strategy of civil disobedience against the regime, his organization carried out attacks -- not against people, but against symbolic buildings, on the infrastructure of the whites.
In the late summer of 1962, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for protest actions and other charges. One year later he and other co-defendants were placed in the dock again in the famous Rivonia trial. As the main defendant, he was charged with responsibility for numerous acts of sabotage. The public prosecutor called for the death penalty. More than 30 years later, as president, Mandela would invite him to dinner. It is precisely this kind of effort -- to treat even his worst enemies with dignity and to desire to understand them -- that makes Mandela such a highly credible person.
The judges ignored the prosecutor's recommendation and instead sentenced Mandela to life in prison. The defendants celebrated the decision almost as if it had been an acquittal, but among themselves, they had agreed that they would not appeal the decision if they were sentenced to hang. "We would disappear under a cloud of glory," he told a friend at the time. "This is the service that we can provide our organization and our people."
Mandela was to disappear in prison for 27 years. On Robben Island, he was subjected to harassment by the guards. But what caused him the greatest suffering was the fact that he couldn't be together with his wife Winnie and their five children. He was working in the island's quarry when he learned that one of his sons had died in a car accident.
The prison's management sought systematically to break the spirits of black prisoners. In the beginning, they weren't allowed to wear pants with long legs. The short trousers they were given were intended to make clear that blacks, and especially black prisoners, were to be viewed more as naughty school boys than real people.
Mandela protested so long that a guard eventually threw him a pair of old khaki pants. Mandela wouldn't have become Madiba if he had been satisfied with that gift alone. He refused to accept the gift until his fellow prisoners were also allowed full-length trousers.
Mandela persistently organized the passive resistance to the despotism. But he never held any personal hatred towards the racist regime's henchmen. He even became friends with one of his guards.
Imminent change was growing palpable by the beginning of the 1980s. Mandela was taken from the island and to a prison in Pollsmoor and, starting in 1988, in the Victor Verster Prison. There, he enjoyed certain privileges and lived in his own small bungalow with a swimming pool.
The regime seemed to be trying to get closer to its Number One enemy. Mandela also recognized the regime's weakness. The Soviet bloc was teetering, the communist threat that had always been used as a reason to justify the apartheid regime had also faded. South Africa's leaders were isolated, and international economic sanctions had driven it into a corner.
At that point, officials began to allow Mandela to leave prison on short furloughs from time to time. There were also times when he was left unguarded, but he never fled because he knew that time was on the right side for both him and the issue of black people in South Africa.
One of his greatest political achievements was not accepting the overtures the regime made to him. On his own, without even being able to consult with his followers in the ANC, he cautiously carried out "talks about talks."
In the end, President Pieter Willem Botha made the offer in 1985 to free Mandela under the condition that he would renounce violence. But Mandela refused to be bought. "Only free men can negotiate," he countered. "Prisoners cannot enter into contracts."
In 1990, the regime conceded defeat. On Feb. 2, the new South African president, Frederik Willem de Klerk, announced the end of apartheid and lifted the ban on the ANC. At least 150 million people watched the televised coverage of Mandela defiantly raising his fist as he was released from prison. Mandela was part of the negotiations for a smooth transition of power. He and De Klerk were both given the Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
In 1993, before the first free elections, the country was on the verge of civil war. Skirmishes occurred between armed white right-wing extremists, Zulu separatists and ANC fighters. People were killed every day. Then a white fanatic shot the charismatic communist Chris Hani. Madiba put all of his moral weight and charisma in a radio address with which he hoped to prevent an explosion of violence. "A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster," he said, at the same time praising "a white woman, of Afrikaner origin" who "risked her life so that we may know and bring justice to the assassin." He was able to prevent mass bloodshed.
In 1994, Mandela formed a government of national unity together with de Klerk. Black Africans took control of an inefficient, bureaucratic state that had been economically ruined and suffered from massive social inequity based on the color of people's skin. After five years, Mandela voluntarily stepped down as president -- and also in that sense he is an unequalled role model for many African leaders.
In his private life, he divorced Winnie Mandela, a power hungry person embroiled in scandals. He then married Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique.
For much of his life, Mandela's family had to survive without him. It was only after his release from prison that he really got to know his children. This pained Mandela more than his imprisonment or degradation. After prison, he wanted to catch up with them. Right up to the end of his life, he was never alone again. His family was also gathered at his home in Johannesburg to say goodbye to him during his final hours.
So what was so special about Nelson Mandela? I think what has impressed me most about him and the life he has lived is his deep commitment to a cause – the cause of abolishing Apartheid and creating a new South Africa in which citizens can live together regardless of background. Of course there is much more work to be done before the country can fulfil its true potential. But what was achieved by Nelson Mandela and his followers is a true revolution.
The second aspect that has deeply impressed me is the way in which this revolution was achieved. After leaving prison following decades of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was not bitter or out for revenge but showed great strength of character by setting in motion a process of reconciliation – leading it by example. This combination of dedication to a just cause and the great strength of character shown pursuing it in my eyes is the foundation of the legend that he is. It is also the reason why he was such a dignified leader.
How will people judge the life of Nelson Mandela? What will his political legacy be? Nobody knows yet but I hope that the qualities I mentioned above – dedication to a just cause and great strength of character – will become more of a political model in a world in which these characteristics are all too often absent. “Pragmatic” day-to-day management of the status quo – the dominant political model of today – can never replace the dedication and character shown by people like Nelson Mandela.
There surely are enough things in today’s world that need to be changed but a leader of Nelson Mandela’s calibre is nowhere to be seen. For many of our contemporary politicians even accepting the task of fundamental change seems too daunting. That’s why too many of them don’t even try.
This needs to change and leads me to my favourite Mandela quote, meant to encourage people not to discard their ambitions but to try realising them: “It is always impossible until it is done”. The world has lost an inspirational leader and a true role model. He will leave a void that will be very difficult – if not impossible – to fill.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
African Affairs Expert
Photo-Credit: AFP- Nelson Mandela & Winnie Mandela, the day of his release from prison-Photo