Rarely do simple men define history, and Nelson Mandela was no exception. His nearly century long life would see him torn between responsibilities, loyalties, and emotions. He got cocky, he got mad, and he was made to know defeat on more than one occasion, but the final product of his lifetime committed to the public will stand as a monument of human achievement in the face of extreme cultural adversity.
Mandela was born the son of a tribal chief. His traditional name translated into shaker of trees or troublemaker. You may hear him referred to as “Madiba,” which is the name of the Xhosa tribe he was born into. Though he would become known as a leader of the people, his formative years were ones of privilege. He was of a royal family and his guardian was a regent-king. This allowed Mandela a level of education that was unheard of in urban South Africa. Such indulgences can make weaker men spoiled, but Mandela would hone this education into a powerful political tool.
Image courtesy of Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science
Mandela’s first act of defiance would be against his own regal family. He ran away from an arranged marriage. He and his aristocratic demeanor ran all the way to the streets of Johannesburg by 1941. In this new urban environment, he studied law by candlelight and came under the wing of Walter Sisulu, a prominent figure of the African National Congress (ANC), an organization dedicated to fighting the injustice of the South African social, legal, and political system. Upon completing his law education, his white teacher asked him to keep out of politics. Mandela had defied this request before it was even asked of him. At the time, South Africa was under a system known as apartheid, which, among other injustices, forced black citizens to carry passbook IDs at all times and answer to white minority rule. The African National Congress brought thousands to protest, and Mandela volunteered to be the first to go to prison. He even made sure to have himself photographed burning his own passbook.
In 1960, violent protests broke out in Sharpeville in central South Africa. 69 were killed and many more were wounded. The violence resulted in the South African government declaring a state of emergency and declaring the ANC illegal.
Mandela left his wife and children to go underground. He was 42 years old. During his time in hiding, he openly questioned the non-violent principles of the ANC. Though they initially reprimanded him for these words, they soon appointed him as commander of their armed wing. And with this, the aristocratic lawyer became the underground revolutionary.
Mandela and his associates tested home-made bombs and mapped out a nation-wide sabotage campaign that made him public enemy number one. Mandela even trained in handling weapons in Algeria. South African police forces caught up with him after two years on the run. Mandela and the other underground members of the ANC were put on trial and narrowly avoided death by hanging.
In 1964 Mandela was sent to Robben Island as punishment. He was 46 years old at the time of his incarceration. He was given the daily task of filling wheelbarrows in a quarry. He could only send or receive letters every six months, and each was intercepted, read, and recorded by the authorities first.
His first son died in a car accident during this time and he was refused leave to attend the funeral. His wife was accused of an affair on the front page of the papers; papers which were conveniently left for him each morning by the authorities.
Back on the South African mainland, his words and images were banned. But during the ’80s, Mandela began secretly talking with the white government. The violent protests against the now decades long apartheid was forcing the government to the negotiating table. Though these talks were important for peace, it cost him some credibility with his old allies in the ANC, who viewed such unilateral decision-making as going against the ANC’s tradition of collective leadership. At the expense of some credibility, Mandela managed to convince the white establishment of his legitimacy and secured his release from prison after 27 years.
After Mandela’s release, the violence in the streets did not dissipate. So he took his voice to the people and called for a true democratic election. Mandela would win this election in 1994. His presidency would be one of ceremonial peacekeeper to the people in a time when racial awkwardness could easily turn to racial violence. He got the wives of old apartheid leaders to sit down to publicized lunches with the wives of old African nationalists. He wore the captain’s jacket while greeting the nation’s rugby team in front of an audience of thousands used to seeing such garments only on white men. Mandela promised to stay for only one term, and he held true to that. In the years since, he has been recognized globally as a force for peace and reconciliation. People of all different kinds of nationalities, religions, and economic backgrounds looked to him for guidance during their own, seemingly insurmountable conflicts.
Today, South African president Jacob Zuma announced that Nelson Mandela died in the company of his family. He was 95 years old.
We look to him because he saw and lived the awful reality of divisions created through insignificant differences like race. He suffered through this awful reality and came through it as a man between worlds. A man who could see both sides and forge the solutions that one side alone could not create.
It is hard to imagine living the most important parts of one’s life after spending 27 years in a cage, but it is even harder to imagine a political landscape without the comfort of the man who experienced this and used it to make the world itself a stronger place.
Mandela release from prison full speech video