South Africa’s first black president, African icon, and anti-apartheid revolutionary, Nelson Mandela, is dead. He breathed his last on 5th December 2013 after a long and complicated battle with a lung disease. He was 95 years and 140 days old.
Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18th July 1918 in Mvezo, Cape Province, South Africa to the Thembu Royal family. His surname was adopted from his patrilineal grandfather whose first name was Mandela. The name, Rolihlahla is a Xhosa term that refers to “troublemaker”. He got the name Nelson from his teacher when he was a seven-year old attending the local Methodist school where his mother sent him to.
“No one in my family had ever attended school. On the first day of school my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name. This was the custom among African in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why this particular name I have no idea” – Mandela, 1994
Mandela spent some of his childhood with his two sisters in the village of Qunu where he tended cattle and played with boys his age. At about the age of nine, his father moved into Qunu to spend time with the family but soon died of a disease that Mandela believed to be a lung infection.
A few years later, his mother sent him to live in the palace of the Thembu monarch, where his uncle the regent treated him as his own son. He enrolled in a Methodist school there and developed particular interest in African history, English, and geography. His love for all humans regardless of race had begun to manifest there as he considered the Europeans as benefactors rather than oppressors for which they were widely perceived in those days.
By 1936, Mandela applied to study at the Clarkebury Boarding Institute in Engcobo, which was the largest school for black Africans. His intention of furthering his education at the time was to enable him become a privy councillor at the Thembu royal house as he could not become king despite being a member of the royal family. His grandfather from whom he inherited his name, Mandela, was of a “Left-Hand House” thus making him and his descendants ineligible to inherit the throne but able to become councillors for the royal house. During those days at the Clarkebury Institute, Mandela showed interest in athletics, especially long-distance running and boxing.
With the assistance of his uncle whom he lived with in the Thembu palace, Mandela was able to afford higher education at the University of Fort Hare where about 150 other students schooled. For his Bachelor of Arts in the university, he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch Law with lofty dreams of becoming a clerk. During those years, he explored other interests such as ballroom dancing, stage acting, and teaching bible classes at the Students Christian Association. He was a fervent supporter of the British when World War II broke out in 1939. He was indifferent to active politics at the time, though later in life he would join the African National Congress (ANC). His rebellious side would later develop when, still in his first year, he was a mastermind in establishing a students’ House Committee for freshers, challenging the sophomores’ seeming dominance which consequently led to his suspension from the university. He was never able to graduate or earn his degree.
Mandela’s tilt towards politics was set in motion when, in December of 1941, on his return to Mqhekezweni he discovered that his uncle Jongintaba had arranged for him to be married to a local girl. He soon fled the town as he did not want to be burdened by the responsibilities of marriage at the time. He got employment as a night watchman in Crown Mines but it was not long before he was fired when his employer realised he had run away from home (to avoid getting married). He was introduced to Walter Sisulu, ANC activist who got him a job as a clerk in a law firm. It was at the firm that he befriended Gaur Redebe – a member of the ANC and Communist Party in South Africa. Though Mandela attended some of the meetings that the Communist Party held, he refused joining, stating that the party’s atheistic leanings conflicted with his own Christian beliefs and that the problems in South Africa were more of racial concerns rather than class-based ideologies for which the Communist Party was prominently known. He was able to resume his university education at the University of South Africa where he studied for his bachelor’s degree at night via correspondence.
Mandela completed his university studies in 1943 and returned to Johannesburg to work as a lawyer in anticipation of a political career instead of his initial dream of working as a privy councillor in Thembuland. Mandela rose in ranks in the ANC, becoming an integral member of the party.
On 5th August 1962, Mandela was arrested alongside an associate, Cecil Williams, on charges that they were inciting workers to disrupt peace in the town and that he also had left the country without official notice. Both he and his associate were sentenced to five years in prison, having turned the court trial to a political endeavour, delivering reverberating speeches in the courtroom and refusing to invite witnesses when asked to do so.
About a year into his prison term while languishing behind bars, police investigations revealed that Mandela had been involved in clandestine operations that aimed to violently overthrow the white supremacist government and of actions described as sabotage. He was, again, tried along with his cohorts and on 12th June 1964 after about a year for which the infamous Riviona Trial lasted, Mandela and his associates were sentenced to life imprisonment despite the prosecutor’s call that they should executed.
Mandela and his co-accused spent 18 years on Robben Island, where Mandela was confined to a 8ft by 7ft cell and classified to the lowest grade of prisoners – Grade D. He spent days in the hot sun breaking large rocks into pellet-sized gravels and in 1965, he was transferred to the lime quarry where the reflection of the Sun on the lime damaged his eyesight permanently. Though he was forbidden from reading newspapers on Robben Island, he managed to get some news clippings smuggled to him, for which he was punished by getting locked up in solitary confinement. Due to being at the bottom of the grading system for prisoners, Mandela was allowed only one visit and one letter, which was heavily scrutinized, once every six months. In spite of these challenges, Mandela remained undaunted and continued to study for his law degree.
His wife, Winnie Mandela, also an activist, was not allowed frequent visits to the prison and herself was imprisoned on many occasions. While in prison, Mandela’s mother died, which was followed by the death of his first son, Thembi, in a car accident. He remained politically active in prison, lectured other prisoners on the bible and undertook the task of studying Islam.
In 1982, Mandela was transferred to another prison, the Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town. Though conditions in his new confinement were better, Mandela noted that he preferred Robben Island due to the friends he had made there and the scenery of the place. One reason alluded to his transfer was that he and his other political prisoners were beginning to influence younger prisoners with their ideas. Over the years, calls for his release did not cease, gaining global attention and being a prominent subject of international politics between South Africa and other nations. Violence began to erupt in South Africa, banks began to close business as investors blacklisted the country due to unyielding responses from the South African government to release Mandela and other prisoners sentenced with him. In 1985, South African President P.W. Botha offered Mandela a conditional release if he vowed not to incite or activate violence or socio-political activities that could inspire such. Mandela spurned the offer, releasing a statement through his daughter, noting that “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people [ANC] remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”
In December 1988 after recovering from a bout of tuberculosis, Mandela was transferred, for the second time, to another prison – Victor Verster Prison. This time to more humane conditions, which was a warder’s house with a personal cook.
Mandela was released on 2nd February 1990 by the then ruling President of South Africa, F. W. de Klerk, following meetings and discussions between both men. de Klerk legalised all previously banned associations and parties, including the ANC, and released Mandela unconditionally.
Mandela walked out to freedom on 11th February 1999, holding the hand of his wife, Winnie and waving to the crowd. Global media broadcast the historic event live to millions of homes.
On 27th April 1994, South Africa conducted a general election with Nelson Mandela representing the ANC while incumbent, de Klerk represented the Democratic Party. Though the media in South Africa greatly opposed Mandela, he won a majority 62 percent of votes. During his acceptance speech, Mandela noted that the election was not without instances of fraud in certain areas. He thus became the first black president of the country for a term of five years serving from May 1994 to June 1999, refusing to run for a second term despite widespread calls for his re-election. He resigned from political life in March 1999, asuming the role of a statesman and global philanthropist instead.
Mandela was hospitalised in February 2011 for respiratory problems. In December 2012, he was again hospitalised for lung infection and had surgery for the removal of gallstones. His lung infection recurred in March 2013 and worsened in the months following that, causing global concerns. In late June 2013, a relative of Mandela’s told the Daily Telegraphthat the statesman had been placed on life support.
He was discharged on 1 September 2013.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died in his home in Houghton, Johannesburg on 5 December 2013 surrounded by his family. South African President Jacob Zuma made the official announcement of his death.
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