1918 - 2013
Setting the Stage
South Africa was a country composed of multiple tribal clans who traded and intermarried for decades. The arrival of the Dutch East India Company in 1652 brought an unprecedented change to the country. With the intention of colonizing new lands and reaping the benefits of localized natural resources, the Dutch had dismantled the culture and lifestyle of native South Africans. Diamonds were first discovered in South Africa in 1900, sparking the English invasion resulting in the Boer War.
Following independence from the English in 1931, the Afrikaaner National Party seized majority political control, and invented apartheid as a tool to further strengthen segregation between whites and blacks. Racial discrimination was institutionalized and made law, resulting in many segregation laws. There were “white-only” jobs, and all blacks were required to carry identification papers.
South African people protested the new laws which reduced their rights and freedom in the land of their birth. Demonstrations were met with stiff and violent response. A state of emergency was called in Sharpeville in 1960, when Africans refused to carry their papers. The emergency lasted for 156 days, and resulted in 69 dead and over 180 injured. Even up to 1989, anyone could be detained and interrogated with no criminal charges.
The story of Nelson Mandela highlights the struggle of Africans in South Africa. He became the face of the movement for freedom, a global hero, and living legend for his ability to forgive the Afrikaaners who incarcerated him for twenty-seven years.
In His Words
The policy of apartheid created a deep and lasting wound in my country and my people. All of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt. But the decades of oppression and brutality had another, unintended effect, and that was that it produced the Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Robert Sobukwes of our time – men of such extraordinary courage, wisdom, and generosity that their like may never be known again. Perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character. My country is rich in the minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil, but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than the purest diamonds.
I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur. Not only because of the great heroes I have already cited, but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
But then I slowly saw that not only was I not free, but my brothers and sisters were not free. I saw that it was not just my freedom that was curtailed, but the freedom of everyone who looked like I did. That is when I joined the African National Congress, and that is when the hunger for my own freedom became the greater hunger for the freedom of my people. It was the desire for the freedom of my people to live their lives with dignity and self-respect that animated my life, that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband into a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk.
It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
The Presidential Inaugural Address of 1994:
The Time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.
We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination.
We succeeded in taking our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace.
We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.
We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free. Their dreams have become reality. Freedom is their reward.
We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.
Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that, for each, the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfil themselves.
Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another, and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.
The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement.
Let freedom reign.
God bless Africa.
Character Traits of a Hero
Richard Stengel, Mandela’s biographer, spent much time with Nelson Mandela to identify the events that shaped and molded the man we now know as Mandela. Focusing on the decisions, influences, and reasoning behind his actions, the personality of Mandela is illuminated and reveals many of the characteristics of a hero.
After Mandela’s father died, he was entrusted under the guardianship of Chief Jongintaba, who opened his eyes to what it took to be a leader. “The chiefly style of leadership was not about vaulting oneself to the front but about listening and achieving consensus.”
Mandela contrasts this with the Western style of leadership, “where people fight to get ahead and leave others behind.” The idea of individualism did not permeate into African leadership, which was best described as ubuntu, or the idea that people are empowered by others, and unselfish interaction influences others to be better individuals.
After his arrest for his participation in the anti-apartheid movement, Mandela pled not guilty at the Rivonia Trial and dared the government to hang him. Before being sentenced to life in prison, he spoke of his life-long fight for African people. “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 which I hope to life for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela recognized that only true selflessness would enable him to lead and succeed for his people.
Like a natural chess player, Mandela attributed his success to long, careful planning and thorough analysis. As a young man, Mandela was hot-headed and made decisions based on negative emotions. After his release, it was stated that he was impossible to rile. He recognized that the mistakes in his life could be attributed to the decisions that were based on anger. ‘In the long run’ is a statement used often by Mandela. Always playing for the end game, Mandela carefully planned ahead and waited for the right moment to act.
Stengel states, “Through all those dark years, he did not believe in miracles. Miracles, if they existed, were man-made; it was hard work and discipline that helped you push things in your own direction.” A true realist and strategist, Mandela recognized the moment to sacrifice. In 1985, he initiated secret talks with the white government of South Africa. Though it violated his principles and could have resulted with Mandela being branded a traitor [of the African National Congress], he saw the opportunity to act for the better of the movement.
In prison, Mandela spent many years studying the Afrikaans population, their language and culture. He observed that the demeanor of the Afrikaan guards and warders was very human; capable of sympathy, stern determination, but mostly of understanding and straight-forwardness. Eventually, he had many of the guards coming to him, speaking of their lives, the treatment of prisoners and government rule. He argued that the African and the Afrikaner were much more similar than they had thought, explaining their submission to British rule. Even when the most uncompromising officer closed himself to Mandela, he was able to open up and find something to connect with him. Mandela had an ability to find a human quality in everyone, reveal it, and influence them to see the human quality in him, his struggle, and African struggle.
Though Mandela agrees that he is a hero, he recognizes that there were thousands of heroes in South Africa who kept the movement alive while he was imprisoned. Each and every one of them, including himself, stood on the shoulders of each other, risking their lives and displaying tremendous amounts of courage. Mandela also credits the many countries that pressured the South African government to release him.
Mandela’s education from English headmasters taught him the importance of study, honor, and discipline. While at Fort Hare, he listened to Winston Churchill’s stirring wartime speeches and saw how a leader can inspire a nation. Yet, it was the “thousands of men and women whose unknown and unremembered acts of courage [that] allowed him to demonstrate his.”
Challenges and Hope
Mandela described apartheid as a new term rooted in an old idea. “It literally means ‘apartness’, and it represented the codification in one oppressive system of all the laws and regulations that had kept Africans in an inferior position to whites for centuries.” On the surface, the injustice of apartheid affected every African. But the injustice stretched far into the lives of those who were victims of its circumstances, and highlighted a much more personal struggle that many dealt with, including Mandela.
During his time at Robben Island, Mandela and other inmates had turned the facility into their own personal university. “We became our own faculty, with our own professors, our own curriculum, our own courses.” They refused to accept that apartheid would keep them from being the humans they wanted to be. They transformed the institution that housed them into a place of education. By working together, they were able to educate themselves and each other, despite the physical and mental limits that surrounded them.
After his mother’s death in 1968, Mandela questioned his decisions and whether or not he had chosen the right path in life. He considered his mother’s personal struggles, including the poverty in which she lived, and compared them to his own. Mandela’s struggle for African equality was one that his mother did not understand, yet it resulted in negative circumstances for her and the rest of his family. Eventually, he kept coming back to the same answer, which was always clear to him. He could not ignore the suffering of others while thinking only of his family. Even at the expense of his family, Mandela recognized the needs of Africans as being superior to those he unconditionally loved.
In 1978, Mandela’s second-youngest daughter, Zeni, married Prince Thumbumuzi, a song of King Sobhuza of Swaziland. Because of his position and status, Zeni was able to visit her father any time she wished. When she and her newborn daughter visited Mandela, she embraced him and held him for the first time since she herself was a baby.
It was a dizzying experience. The visit had a more official purpose and that was for me to choose a name for the child. It is the custom for the grandfather to select a name, and the one I had chosen was Zaziwe – which means ‘Hope’. The name had a special meaning for me, for during all my years in prison hope never left me – and now it never would.
It was the dream of Mandela that his granddaughter would symbolize and represent the beginning of a generation that would know nothing of apartheid. Even as the system of apartheid was a constant reminder of his own incarceration, it was the hope of its end that kept him alive, sane, and a loving member of his family.
After his release from prison, Nelson Mandela shocked the world with his new attitude. He did not blame whites for his imprisonment, and did not have a vendetta or revenge-filled fantasy. Desmond Tutu speaks on his release:
Nelson Mandela emerged from prison not spewing words of hatred and revenge. He amazed us all by his heroic embodiment of reconciliation and forgiveness. No one could have accused him of speaking glibly and facilely about forgiveness and reconciliation.
By the time of his release on February 11, 1990, he had spent all of twenty-sevenyears in jail. No one could say that he knew nothing about suffering.
Everything had been done to break his spirit and to make him hate-filled. In all this the system mercifully failed dismally. He emerged a whole person.
This calm, yet determined demeanor exposed Mandela as an individual above his own personal suffering. He did not escape inwards, exploring his pain and anger. Instead, he focused his energy towards rebuilding the lives of South Africans.
Five years after his release, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed in Cape Town. Its mission was to resolve all grievances by those who have been wronged, in any form of human injustice, by South Africa. The life of Nelson Mandela influenced many individuals, including Desmond Tutu, to form the commission so others, like Mandela, can be heard and justice can move forward in granting amnesty. “In negotiations we are, as in the process of forgiveness, seeking to give all the chance to begin again.”
Peace is possible, especially if today’s adversaries were to imagine themselves becoming friends and begin acting in ways that would promote such a friendship developing in reality. It would be wonderful if, as they negotiated, they tried to find ways of accommodating each other’s needs. A readiness to make concessions is a sign of strength, not weakness.
The History of Apartheid in South Africa
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Back Bay Books, 1994), 622.
Robin Malan, The Essential Nelson Mandela (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 1997), 73-74.
Richard Stengel, Mandela’s Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love, and Courage (New York: Crown Publishers, 2009), 80.
Paun Duncan, Mandela: An Illustrated Biography (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 40.
Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 39.