“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. 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.”
Nelson Mandela indeed walked for long to acquire civil rights for the native blacks of South Africa. His struggle was not just confined until Africa. It became a beacon of hope for all the people in the world who had been discriminated against only because the shade of their skin went deep. Can you imagine being enslaved in your own home, begging for food and water; basically deprived of every basic human right by a person whose only claim to superiority is his skin colour?
Nelson Mandela uprooted the “Apartheid” system which means a political system that discriminates on the grounds of race; and successfully revived the lost dignity, and self-esteem of people belonging to one of the most historically advanced civilizations who, with time were reduced to mere slaves due to colonisation. To call him a political figure would be an understatement. I’d rather call him one of the most impactful humanitarian leaders who stood up for his people and relentlessly fought to make this world realize that each human needed to be treated with humanity without any prejudice.
Nelson Mandela was born as Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, Transkei, South Africa. Rolihlahla literally means “troublemaker” in the Xhosa language. His father, a counsellor to the tribal chief of Thembu, and speculated to be the future chief himself at the time of Mandela’s birth lost his fortune over a local dispute with a colonial magistrate. Due to this downfall, Mandela’s family decided to move to a small village Qunu where Mandela spent his childhood happily.
Qunu was a narrow green valley without roads; only sideways linking the pastures for cattle grazing. Mandela was brought up in extreme poverty. His family could barely afford maize, pumpkin, and beans, and relied on local springs for their water supply. In this extreme poverty, Mandela’s father never undermined the importance of education. In fact, Mandela, in his entire family became the first person to see the inside of a school. He went to a school run by the British administration, who misappropriately changed his first name to Nelson to make it sound Christian. Hence, Rolihlahla Mandela came to be called as Nelson Mandela for the world. When he was about 9, his father died of lung disease, and this dramatically changed Nelson’s life. The then Thembu tribal chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who had close ties with the Mandela family, adopted Nelson; a gesture he made as to return the favour done by Mandela’s father in recommending Jongintaba for the post of the chief years ago.
Nelson thus had to quit Qunu, the village he held very dear to his heart, and arrived at the royal palace of the chief in Mqhekezweni, the capital province of the Thembuland. Jongintaba treated Nelson equal to his own children, and he was raised with the same privileges as them, which included the best education that he could afford. During his learning, Mandela developed a deep interest in African history and got acquainted with the injustice done against his own people by western colonizers. He realized that Africa was once a rich nation where brotherhood was given utmost importance until white men came to snatch away their freedom and peace. He began to feel that while his people wholeheartedly shared their rich natural resources with the white, they backstabbed them by assuming control over their lives.
A turning point in his life that served as an inspiration for him to pick up this battle against the “apartheid” system was when he turned 16 and had to attend the African circumcision ritual that marks the beginning of manhood in his culture. In African culture, an uncircumcised man cannot inherit his father’s wealth, nor marry in the local tribe. During this ceremony, Chief Meligqili, the chief guest of the day spoke sadly of how the young men embracing manhood would always be slaves of the white men, and never have any free will in their life. He sighed that these young men were unjustly deprived of happiness as they’d spend their entire life in performing mindless tasks for the white men. His words, though incomprehensible at that time to Nelson’s young mind, left a deep mark that would later turn into the resolve to demand freedom for Africa.
Jongintaba honoured Nelson with the post of the counsellor to the chief, and as Thembu royalty, Nelson attended Wesleyan mission school, the Clarkebury Boarding Institute and Wesleyan College where, as he states later in his memoir, he succeeded only because of plain hard-work. Along with academics, he was also good at boxing. Initially he was mocked as the “country boy” because of his mannerisms, but eventually became friends with several students. In 1939, Mandela enrolled in the University of Fort Hare, the only residential centre of higher learning for blacks in Africa, and which demanded the respect equal to Cambridge or Harvard, attracting the most talented crowd from the sub-Saharan African region. Mandela’s plan was to pursue clerkship, regarded as the highest authority a black African could command, at that time. However, destiny had different plans for him.
The seeds of leadership were sown when he was elected to the Students Representative Council in his second year, and during his tenure, a majority of the students threatened to boycott the voting of SRC until they were provided with edible food and adequate electricity. Mandela, standing with the students for their rights resigned from the council. Judging his resignation as a revolt against the system, Dr Kerr, head of the university expelled Mandela for the entire year unless he agreed to dutifully serve in SRC. Mandela thus returned to his home, only to witness the furiousness of Jongintaba who refused to compromise on Mandela’s education, dictating him to return to the university at once.
After completing his studies, Mandela returned back home where Jongintaba surprised him with a marriage proposal. He wanted Mandela to settle in his life as per the directed customs of their culture. Mandela, however, felt trapped with this decision and ran away from home to Johannesburg. He did all sorts of odd jobs including being a guard and a clerk, while simultaneously completing his Bachelor’s degree via correspondence. He later got himself admitted to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study law. In 1942 he joined African National Congress Youth League, a sub-fragment of the ANC consisting of people who envisioned to make the congress a mass grassroots movement rather than indulging into fruitless polite petitioning. In 1949, the ANC officially adopted the methods the Youth League, and Mandela spent the next 20 years directing various non-violent civil disobedience and non-cooperative movements against the African government. Besides that, he also founded his law firm along with Oliver Tambo, his confidant and a brilliant student he met at Fort Hare. Mandela and Tambo, their law firm provided low-cost to free legal services to the underrepresented blacks.
In 1956, Mandela and 150 of his fellow supporters were acquitted for their advocacy campaigns against the govt. During the same time, ANC was being fragmented by a new breed of African activists who disapproved of the pacifist methods of the ANC. Thus, by 1959, ANC had lost the majority of its militant support.
Mandela, initially a non-violent activist, after witnessing their struggle losing its importance, began to think that armed tussle might be the only way to bring about a solid change. In 1961, he founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, the armed wing of the ANC, dedicated to using guerrilla war tactics to dismantle the apartheid system. He organized various strikes, campaigns, and protests against the govt. His popularity was on the rise, and the govt sensed that he could shake their ground if not stopped at the right time. Hence he was put behind bars.
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison (November 1962 to February 1990), where he also secretly penned down his memoir- Long Walk To Freedom. He was sent to Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he spent in prison, where he contracted tuberculosis. Being a black prisoner, he received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, he survived the TB somehow, and also completed his Bachelor of Law from the University of London via correspondence. It was later discovered from the memoir of the South African intelligence agent, Gordon Winter that the South African govt, along with the British intelligence, had devised a plot to arrange for Mandela’s escape from the prison, only to shoot him in an encounter during his recapture. Their plot couldn’t manifest, and while in prison, Mandela coordinated an international campaign for his release, and to draw their attention towards the African black resistance movement. The immense response from the international community multiplied the self-esteem and power of not just Nelson Mandela, but the common black folk of Africa, who now for the first time could hope that they might get civil rights for real.
During his prison time, the govt tried to negotiate with Mandela and his supporters to withdraw their armed struggle in exchange for his release; but Mandela refused in the blink of an eye. He continued to attract the international community, who pressured the African govt for his release and democratic polity in Africa. However, no stones were turned until Frederik Willem de Klerk assumed office as president after the heart stroke of the then-current president P. W. Botha. He announced Mandela’s release, lifted the ban imposed on ANC, and suspended the executions of many activists. Once released, Mandela requested global cooperation to maintain its pressure on the govt until their goal of freedom was achieved. While he himself was committed towards peace, he knew that without armed struggle, their long walk of freedom would not reach its destination. In 1991, Nelson Mandela was elected as the president of the ANC, and his confidant, Oliver Tambo served as the national chairperson.
In 1993, Nelson Mandela and President Frederik Willem de Klerk jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize for together dismantling and uprooting the “apartheid” system from South Africa. Mandela also negotiated country’s first multiracial elections. However, while the white South Africans agreed for the share in power, many black South Africans now wanted complete control over the political reign of the nation. Situation strained further and resorted to violence after the assassination of the ANC leader Chris Hani. Nelson Mandela had to maintain a fine balance between assuring his people of their civil rights while cordially negotiating with the govt. He feared that unnecessary violent eruption at this stage would wary the international community resulting in the sabotage of their dream of a free South Africa. The situation was handled well with Mandela’s political ability, and on April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic elections. To no one’s surprise, Nelson Mandela, by that time 77, was elected as the first-ever black president of the country on May 10, 1994, with Frederik Willem de Klerk as his deputy.
Mandela held the office from 1994 to 1999. During his tenure, he actively worked to bring about the black majority and abolish the remains of the apartheid system. He sensed the increasing discomfort among the blacks and the whites and used sports as a medium to bring reconciliation. In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup and encouraged the native blacks, who hated the Rugby team for its white dominance, to come out and support the national team. It did bring some level of reconciliation and lost pride back among the communities. Along with his peacemaking activities, Mandela rigorously worked towards development on all fronts. From education to job creation, to health care and infrastructure, he transformed every department. He ensured that a strong central govt is established that is accommodating of the rights of the minorities and tolerant of their freedom of expression.
By the end of his tenure in 1999, Mandela decided to retire from active politics. However, he continued his philanthropy by raising funds for schools and hospitals in the rural African heartland. He also served as a mediator in Burundi’s civil war. In 2001, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In 2004, post his cancer treatment, he officially announced his retirement from public life and returned back to Qunu, his small village where he had spent his carefree childhood. In 2007, he along with his third wife Graca Machel founded The Elders, a group of esteemed world leaders and dignitaries who would collectively and privately work to solve some of the pressing problems of humanity. Their efforts have not been halted at African boundaries. They have equally impacted Asia, Middle East, and of course Africa. Mandela had also been actively involved in the awareness of AIDS, due to which his son lost his life in 2005.
Nelson Mandela made his last public appearance at the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa. He spent his last years in the serenity of Qunu, living the village life. It was as if life had come to a full circle for him. It started and ended in Qunu. Sometimes I wonder, if Nelson Mandela actually wanted to just be a village man, and had to assume the role of the leader witnessing the atrocities and pain of the people. No one can know. What we do know is that he was an exemplary leader who made the entire world question the basis of their racism. Though he did resort to controlled armed struggle in his movements, he was, for the large part an advocate of peace and brotherhood. His years spent in prison are symbolic of the sacrifice he was willing to make if it ensured in the manifestation of his dream of a free and equal South Africa. Though he parted the world on 5 December 2013, he continues to live as a thought in billions of hearts who draw inspiration from his story when they find themselves at crossroads in their lives.
On his birthday, a true ode to Nelson Mandela would be to ensure we do not practice any form of exploitation, oppression, and discrimination, against any person. After all, as he rightly puts,
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”