For years, he was reviled as a terrorist and agitator in Western countries, imprisoned for 27 long years, spending the prime of his life confined to a small cell on an island off the coast of South Africa. Yet, incredibly when he came out of his prison cell, he exhibited no bitterness or malice towards his captors and tormentors. In 1990, after his release, Nelson Mandela mused, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” He soon became a beloved figure around the globe, an admired icon in a world where so few towering figures have been seen lately. His people affectionately called him, Madiba, the teacher.
[quote]”I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison”[/quote]
Mandela had long suffered from ill health due to a lung infection reportedly caught during his long incarceration. Since last June, he had been critically ill, possibly on life support, and confined to his home near Johannesburg. So, when at midnight on December 5 South African president Jacob Zuma announced his death at age 95, it was not unexpected. Zuma was visibly emotional as he declared, “Our nation has lost its greatest son. What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human. We saw in him what we seek in ourselves.”
His death was mourned around the world. Minutes after the announcement, ordinary people of all races started to converge on the South African Embassy here at Washington, where Mandela’s statue stands, to pay their homage, to bring flowers and candles, and to express a mixture of sadness and joy. Flags were lowered at the White House, Buckingham Palace in London, as well as in the Palestinian territories. He had unflinchingly supported the Palestinian freedom struggle.
In a way his passing was an occasion for celebration as well. Mandela had successfully completed his life’s mission, having liberated his people from an oppressive white minority rule, dismantling the hated apartheid system. In expressing his sentiments, President Obama borrowed the memorable quote, first uttered on the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, one and half centuries ago. “He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.” South African ambassador, Ebrahim Rasool, a Muslim, and the Mayor of Washington, Vincent Gray, have planned week-long activities to celebrate his legacy.
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, in a family of African tribal nobility steeped into the ancient African customs and arcane rituals. His tribal name translated into troublemaker, which he amusingly described as very fitting. He obtained a bachelor’s degree and later became the first black South African to study law. He became active in African National Congress, organizing its youth wing.
The majority South African population had suffered from racial discrimination since the arrival of European colonists, mostly Dutch and British, several centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi spent 21 years (1893-1914) there organizing resistance against the discriminatory policies, especially against Indians. Racial segregation became the official government policy under the rule of the Afrikaner-dominated National party that ruled the country from 1948 to 1994. Under this policy, majority non-whites were deprived of their citizenship rights and consigned to one of the segregated enclaves, known as Bantustans. They were provided separate but inferior education and medical facilities, and few social services.
[quote]He turned to armed resistance in the face of brutal segregationist policies of the White regime[/quote]
Mandela mounted strong resistance to the oppressive policies that he described as “a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, [which] produced in me an anger, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.” However, he was not a perennial pacifist in the mold of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr Martin Luther King. He turned to armed resistance in the face of brutal segregationist policies of the White regime.
In 1964, he was arrested, tried for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. In his speech at his trial he declared “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and achieve. But if need be, for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela spent the next 27 years behind bars. He was allowed no newspapers and a visitor only once a year, and a letter every six months. These restrictions did not stop him from writing a number of letters to his then-wife Winnie Mandela and his children which he carefully saved. These are now available for view in the Mandela museum. He also learnt to speak the Afrikaner language as he thought it might be helpful to be able to speak the language of his tormentors.
With the end of colonialism, pressure grew for the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the country was subjected to crippling international sanctions. The regime finally buckled, and the last white president, de Klerk, ordered the release of Mandela in 1990. When Mandela, tall, elegant and regal in bearing, emerged from captivity, he was greeted by a huge welcoming crowd, his appearance electrifying the audience. Four years later, in democratic elections, he was elected the first black president. Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1993.
Mandela’s true greatness shined after he became the president of South Africa. In view of the brutality and oppression to which the black majority had been subjected to for centuries, many had feared that there would be reprisals and the country would be plunged into civil war. There were plenty of precedents. Next door in Zimbabwe, the first black president, Robert Mugabe, had ruthlessly confiscated white-owned farms and properties, ruining the country’s economy. In Iran, in the wake of the overthrow of the Shah’s regime in February 1979, there were hundreds of summary trials and executions. In Bangladesh, we are witnessing political trials going on now that date back to the conflict some four decades ago.
Mandela proved the prognosticators wrong. He became a living legend, his reputation rooted in his overwhelming magnanimity, forgiveness and the ability to transcend racial and religious barriers. A visionary, he reassured the minority white South Africans that the country belonged to them just as much as to the majority race. At his presidential inauguration, he invited his former white jailer, whom he had grown fond of. He formed a racially mixed cabinet in which foreign minister and deputy president were both white. And, while at the peak of his popularity, he walked away from power on completion of his four-year term, setting an example.
There are concerns that Mandela’s departure may reverse some of the gains made in racial harmony in South Africa, a powerful yet a polarized country. Most observers, however, believe that the pluralistic, syncretic traditions stilled in the country are by now so well established that recidivism seems unlikely.