- Posted December 7, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Nelson Mandela: Your memories
MADIBA, who rescued his country from the brink of disaster
It is far too soon for a detached evaluation of the overall impact of this 20th century colossus.
His record in office was not without blemish; though personally untainted by financial scandal, his fierce loyalty to comrades from the anti-apartheid struggle meant he often turned a blind eye to the corruption that spread in the new South Africa; foreign policy decisions suggested that Pretoria’s support could be influenced by financial considerations rather than principles; diplomatic intervention in African conflicts proved ineffectual; trade reforms in South Africa were often at the cost of its African neighbours, leading to a resentment of the continent’s superpower that persists to this day.
But few can dispute the claim that Madiba — the clan name by which nearly every South African knew him — changed the course of his country’s history.
His extraordinary compassion and shrewd understanding of his enemies, sustained throughout and beyond his 27 years in detention, his determined pursuit of racial reconciliation, were exemplary.
Mandela rescued his country from the brink of disaster, doing so in a way that transcended South Africa’s crisis, serving as an inspiration around the globe, and giving generations of Africans a hero they shared with an admiring world.
In a life rich in drama, triumph and tragedy, four momentous events proved milestones.
It was his conduct at South Africa’s infamous four-year treason trial in 1956, followed by the trial in 1962 that led to his incarceration, where his defiant, electrifying statement from the dock — “democracy (is) an ideal for which I am prepared to die” — first alerted the outside world to the presence of a remarkable man.
Sentenced to life imprisonment, he was taken to Cape Town’s notorious Robben Island prison. No photographs were allowed, and until his eventual release, his image was frozen in time.
On February 10, 1990, more than a quarter of a century later, having endured privations and hardships and after nearly two years of secret negotiations, Mandela walked to freedom through the gates of Cape Town’s Victor Verster prison, where he had been transferred, watched by television cameras that broadcast live to millions around the world.
Four years later, Mandela was again in the international spotlight, when at the age of 72 he celebrated the outcome of South Africa’s first democratic elections, in which he led the African National Congress to an overwhelming victory, with 62 per cent of the vote.
But perhaps the most enduring image of all is of a beaming Mandela, wearing the green and gold Springbok rugby shirt, shaking hands with team captain Francois Pienaar, just before the kickoff in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final against New Zealand.
It was a gesture rich in significance, given the sport’s strong associations with the Afrikaners of South Africa, whose leaders did so much to entrench apartheid.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (his middle name means “troublemaker”) was born on July 18, 1918 at Mvezo, a village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the Transkei, a poor but picturesque province between the Drakensburg mountains and t the Indian ocean, and home to the Thembu people.
Although close to the royal household, he was not of the royal family. Instead he was groomed to be a court adviser, an upbringing that helps account for the dignity and assurance that marked his conduct throughout his life, and which made him feel at home with commoners and queens alike — a quality shown during a state visit to Britain in 1996.
The visit cemented a friendship with the British royal family, the Queen in particular, whom he regularly phoned, addressing her as “Elizabeth,” enquiring after “Philip,” and offering a break in South Africa to the young Princes William and Harry after their mother Diana had been killed in a car crash.
Mandela’s formal education was dominated by church-run institutions, whose schools prepared him for entry to the University College of Fort Hare, founded in 1916 by Scottish missionaries, and home to some of the leading African intellectuals of the time.
“We were exhorted to obey God, respect the political authorities, be grateful for educational opportunities, and for the opportunities afforded us by the church and government,” he recalls in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
The struggle is born
He soon lived up to his middle name. Mandela resigned from Fort Hare’s student representative council in a dispute over its role, and was suspended by the principal.
The episode led to Mandela setting off for Johannesburg, where he first became an articled clerk, and in 1943 began a law degree at the city’s Wits University.
By the time he went into partnership with Oliver Tambo, the man who was to lead the ANC in exile, he was deeply involved in politics, spurred on by a watershed event: The 1948 parliamentary election, won by Dr Hendrik Verwoerd and the National Party.
Under Verwoerd, racial segregation was formally entrenched as apartheid, turning into law the assumption that Africans were innately inferior to Europeans.
The stage was set for confrontation. Mandela played a leading role in the creation of the ANC Youth League, helped launch the so-called defiance campaign, a series of non-violent protests against racial segregation, including the pass laws, the hated permit system that required blacks to carry identification cards that limited their movements to specific areas.
Although his life was now dominated by politics, he found time to box in a township gym. With the build of an athlete — tall, broad shoulders, tapering to narrow hips, light on his feet — he seemed a natural.
Mandela, however, played down his ability: “I was never an outstanding boxer...” he writes, “but it was a way of losing myself in something that was not about the struggle.”
The “struggle” took its toll on his first marriage to Evelyn Mase, a nurse, which ended in divorce in 1955. But he never lost his eye for an attractive woman. His relationship with his first wife was coming to an end when he was smitten:
“As I passed a nearby bus stop, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a lovely young woman waiting for a bus ... her name was Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela.... and I knew that I wanted to have her as my wife.”
Winnie won his heart, and later broke it, getting caught up in events leading to the death of a young boy, and suspected of being unfaithful to her marriage vows. They separated in 1992.
For years he had been in the frontline, instrumental in drawing up the ANC’s Freedom Charter, with its memorable opening line: “We, the people of South Africa, declare ... that South Africa belongs to all who live in it ...”
“I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicised, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle,”, he wrote in his autobiography.
“To be an African in South Africa,” he continued, “means that one is politicised from the moment of one’s birth ... I had no epiphany, no singular revelation, no moment of truth, but a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities ... (that) produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”
In December 1956, Mandela and 150 others — black, white, Indian and coloured activists — were arrested and charged with treason. The marathon trial ended in 1961, with all defendants acquitted. Mandela, however, feared re-arrest and went underground, where he concluded that the ANC policy of non-violence would never dislodge a regime so intransigent. “In my heart I knew non-violence was not the answer.”
In June 1961 the ANC leadership took a fateful decision: Mandela was authorised to create a military wing,