Nelson Mandela is ageing and his ‘spirit and sparkle’ is fading, his wife has said, as it is disclosed that South Africa’s former president is hospitalized on life support, suffering from a recurring lung infection. Millions all over the world yet again hold their breath at the news that the Madiba, one of the greatest moral and political international heroes of our time, is ill and fighting for his life.
Nelson Mandela feels more like a father than a famous figure to the likes of myself, who throughout our lives recognize him as the central persona in one of the most gripping and moving political dramas in the world. His story has been one of strife, great effort, obstacle, new hope, and the ultimate achievement. And even in the midst of his darkest days, he demonstrated with vigour the task of a great leader, by leading his country from the shallow hole it was in, to the elevated heights of freedom. He did this with the spirit of a saint and a perception of strength, bravery, generosity, courage and forgiveness. Nelson Mandela is a true freedom fighter whose love for his people has no end and whose life and personal success will be remembered long after the world has forgotten the evils of the oppression that once engulfed his people. He is a star who has brightened the lives of many and set the ultimate example for all leaders in Africa, because he is one who will not compromise his people’s cause for self-interest. The radiance of his personality has touched the lives of many over the years and we hope to continue drinking from his river of humanity as we pray he pulls through.
In a role seldom witnessed in Africa, he selflessly dedicated his life to fight against one of the most powerful systems of oppression ever conceived, and today he stands as a decisive testimony to the victory of nobility and hope over desolation and odium, of forgiveness and love over revenge and hate. His life personifies what a true patriot should do and how they should behave under the most trying of circumstances. The spirits of all the revolutionaries and freedom fighters of this world, past and present, surely would smile blessings upon him because he always stood fair against all kinds of domination and was willing to give his life for it. In his own words, Nelson Mandela once said, “I have fought against white domination and against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a free society in which all live together in harmony, with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Growing up in South Africa as a young black boy in the first half of the last century must have been a real ordeal as a result of apartheid. Blacks were segregated, abused, persecuted and treated little better than animals. The apartheid regime enacted laws that regarded them accordingly. But despite such adversity, Nelson Mandela was always a fighter from a young age. Instead of accepting this unreasonable system of government, he made the decision to resist and began his lifelong journey to free South Africa from the shackles of repression. Little did he know that his resolve back then would lead to the demise of apartheid, pave the road to the presidency and the ultimate honor of a Nobel Peace Award. Today, thanks to the personal effort and sacrifice of men such as Mandela, South Africa is a free state with equal opportunities for all its citizens and the pride of Africa.
Of all his sacrifices, the most heart-wrenching is without a doubt the sacrifice of his private life and youth for his people. I once read an interview with one of his daughters in which she described the solitude of growing up with a father that was incarcerated and branded terrorist by the government, and the loneliness of having to share him with the whole of South Africa upon his release. But even before his incarceration, Mandela was forced to live apart from his family. In an attempt to survive and evade the authorities, Mandela moved from place to place and adopted a number of camouflages. He became so good at avoiding the authorities that were stationed in every nook and cranny that at a point he was labeled the ‘black pimpernel’.
His childhood and upbringing could not have been more apt for the life-role he was to play. He was born in the South African town of Qunu, Transkei in 1918. His father, Henry Mandela, was chief councillor to the acting paramount chief in his town. When his father died, Mandela became the chief’s ward and was groomed for the chieftainship. From a young age he and his lifelong friend and fellow freedom fighter Oliver Tambo were driven to participate in the fight to free their people. As a student he was said to both be extremely studious and ambitious and eventually ended up starting a BA degree. However in 1940, during the course of his degree, he was expelled from University for actively participating in a student strike. He went on to complete his degree by doing a correspondence course after which he enrolled to become a lawyer. After joining the ANC, he helped found the youth league of the party in 1944. He put in many years of dedication to his cause and eventually became head of the defiance-campaign of the party. This empowered him to travel across the country to organize a resistance to discriminatory legislation campaign. During this period he was arrested and confined a couple of times but that didn’t stop him from forming individual underground cells of the ANC upon his release.
In addition, he and Oliver Tambo proceeded to open the first black legal firm in the country and even though the Law Society was petitioned to strike Mandela off the roll of barristers, his law firm and career survived. In 1960, after the Sharpeville massacre and after his release from yet another detention, Mandela as leader of the military wing of the ANC went underground to lead a campaign for a new national convention. By 1962 he went to Algeria for military training and to build a militia but upon his return he was arrested. On a charge of leaving the country illegally and incitement to strike Mandela conducted his own defence but lost and was convicted for five years in November 1962. It was during the service of that sentence he and seven others, Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Mosoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada, were charged with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. During this trial Mandela’s resolve never faulted and he continuously told the court; “I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor for the love of violence but as a result of a sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.” But despite their defence the judge remained convinced that their behaviour was not borne out of a need for the attainment of equal rights for the African people but out of a warped desire for revolution and personal ambition. Luckily for the world he stopped short of imposing the supreme penalty of death and instead opted for life imprisonment. While in prison, Mandela never compromised his political principles and was always a source of strength for the other prisoners. The apartheid government numerously offered Mandela the reduction of his sentence as long as he abided by certain conditions, but every time they offered, Mandela would refuse on the notion that “prisoners were not able to enter into contracts, only free men could negotiate”.
Decades into his struggle for the liberation of black and colored people in South Africa, Mandela, together with Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Mosoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni and Ahmed Kathrada, was charged with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. While in prison, Mandela never compromised his political principles. The apartheid government numerously offered Mandela the reduction of his sentence as long as he abided by certain conditions, but every time they offered, Mandela would refuse on the notion that ‘…only free men could negotiate.’
After decades of prison labor, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were eventually released on February 11, 1990. On that bright day, at 4:14pm, almost an hour late, a jubilant Mandela, dressed in a light brown suit and tie and holding Winnie’s hand, appeared at the gates of his prison, smiled at the ecstatic crowds and punched the air in a victory salute before taking a silver BMW Sedan to freedom. With his tenacity unblemished, he went back to his life’s work, determined to end the struggle he and others had set out to do almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa, Mandela was elected president of the party. On May 10, 1994, he won and became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. And, unlike most other African leaders, even though he was at the apex, he retired in June 1999 and relinquished power with no fuss after only one term in office.
Before being admitted to hospital, he was known to peacefully reside in his birth place with his third wife, Graca, where his most private moments were filled by his greatest pleasure: watching the sun set while listening to classical music and reading to his grandchildren. Accounts suggest he usually got up by 4:30am, exercised by 5am and took breakfast of plain porridge, fresh fruit and fresh milk by 6:30am while reading the days newspapers.
Despite severe provocation, Mandela never answered racism with racism but symbolized the triumph of the human spirit over man’s inhumanity to man. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation. He has never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and justice.
Words cannot describe how blessed this generation is to have lived during the times of a man like Mandela. I and millions of people around the world who love him dearly have learned so much from him and will continue to cherish him. If the world can have more people like him, it, indeed, would be a much better place to live in. He reminds me of a late woman named Hajia Wowo that I loved so much. But more than that, when I think of him, I do not see a person; I see an institution of goodness and a beacon of strength…I see my conscience!
In his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ Mandela describes his struggle as a journey, and of that journey he says, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
And indeed, as we pray for his fast recovery or peaceful passing, for the great Madiba it has been, for the last nine decades, a walk well walked!