Today will mark another milestone in the life of an Icon and Legendary Freedom Fighter, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
Madiba* was born 95 years ago to the Thembu royal family of the Xhosa stock in South Africa. He grew up in a South Africa where the minority whites (Afrikaners) held dominion over the majority and indigenous blacks (who had become second class nay third class citizens of the land of their fathers).
Within the space allowed the black man in those days, Madiba had all the opportunity to rise to some comfort, not necessarily just because of his background, but also because he worked hard to become a reputable lawyer.
People very close to him would have been disappointed that he forfeited all of that to engage in a struggle that may have appeared fruitless at the time he joined it.
As soon as he joined the struggle to bring an end to Apartheid (a former policy of segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-European groups in South Africa), he gave it his all. He worked his way relentlessly through the youth wing of the African National Congress, ANC to co-founding the militant arm of the ANC, the Umkhonto we Sizwe, MK (the ‘Spear Of The Nation’ in 1961 with the South African Communist Party, SACP which lead a bombing campaign against government targets leading to it been declared a ‘Terrorist’ organization by most Western Countries at the time).
The MK was formed in reaction to the massive clampdown on protesters and liberation leaders resisting white monority rule in South Africa. Mandela alluded to the change of tactics from the traditional ”Non-Violent Approach” (a school of thought pursued by Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jnr to much success and wide acclaim) favoured by the President of the ANC at the time, Chief Albert Luthuli, when at a press conference he declared that,
”If the government reaction is to crush by naked force our non-violent struggle, we will have to reconsider our tactics. In my mind we are closing a chapter on this question of a non-violent policy”.
He was arrested in 1962 and convicted of ”Sabotage and Conspiracy to Overthrow the Government” in the famous Rivonia Trial and sentenced to ‘Life Imprisonment’ but he served 27 years in prison, most of which was on Robben Island.
Madiba’s arrest brought the much needed sympathy the way of the ANC and most governments now began to see the situation in South Africa in a different light. This led to the isolation of the country’s government, imposition of sanctions and support and assistance (financially and otherwise) to the cause of non-white South Africans in general and the ANC in particular.
If anyone thought that the muzzling of the South African government will lead to a change in policy as regards the Apartheid System, then they were in for a rude shock, because the government responded by becoming more brutal. While Mandela and his co-accused were fortunate to be tried and sentenced to prison for their acts and stand, other ‘Freedom Fighters’ were not to be so fortunate. For instance, on September 12, 1977 South African police authorities claimed that Stephen (Steve) Biko one of South Africa’s most influential anti-apartheid activists had died due to the ‘Hunger Strike’ he embarked on in protest of his incarceration. Though an autopsy would later reveal that he died of brain hemorrhage from being struck multiple times in the head (to which the government alluded that the injuries were self inflicted) it was not until 1997 that five officers admitted that they had killed Steve Biko, while testifying before the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission**’.
The arts soon swung in favour of Mandela as many musicians cut their teeth in music doing songs about him (infact, many Reggae musicians were swept into oblivion after Madiba was released for lack of material to work with), concerts were organized worldwide pressing for his release, while art galleries were inundated with pictures and sculptures of him (mostly of his younger days as no one knew how he looked at the time he was in jail because of the media censorship of his picture or his likeness by the South African government of the day).
Several attempts were made by successive South African governments to release him owing to local and international pressure, on conditions that were less than what Madiba and many blacks wanted but he declined.
Some say, Mandela is still alive today because the prison wall rather than break his resolve ‘protected’ him. I believe he would have long been dead if he had lived free on the outside doing what many of his comrades were doing within and in exile outside of South Africa.
Eventually, the South African government under President Frederick W. de Klerk succumbed to international pressure and released him in 1990. He was soon elected the President of the ANC and was involved in negotiations with de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections in 1994, which Madiba led his party to win to become South Africa’s first Black President. He had prior to this time won the Nobel Prize for Peace alongside de Klerk in 1993.
He formed a Government of National Unity (despite winning in a landslide) in an attempt to diffuse ethnic tensions but declined the opportunity to run for a second term.
Typical of Madiba, he now devoted his energy from South African affairs to the world in general, supposing I guess that he has left his dear country in the hands of capable lieutenants to now take South Africa to the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’ (he may have been proved wrong though, as Black South Africans are yet to find their feet economically in a ‘FREE’ South Africa). He may also have felt he’s done his bit like Moses in the Bible book of Exodus did and left the rest for Joshua.
I’m personally glad he did, considering that politics may end up tainting whatever positive image one may have achieved as a freedom fighter, just like it’s done with Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
His Nelson Mandela Foundation, since then has been involved in contributing to the making of a Just society by keeping alive his legacy, by convening dialogue around critical social issues of our day.
While Madiba paid attention to the world, his family expectedly suffered. I doubt He could be said to be a ‘good’ father to his children or a good wife to Winnie Mandela (which he divorced a few years after leaving jail over irreconcilable differences before marrying former Mozambiqan first lady, Graça Machel, his third wife) and he admitted as much in his autobiography. It therefore doesn’t come to many as a surprise that his family is currently tearing itself apart while he lies on a hospital bed.
Today, Mandela is in critical but stable condition at a hospital in Pretoria with a recurring Lung Infection, where he has being since the 8th of June.
It is also a day that South Africans are being urged to match Madiba’s 67 years of public service with 67 minutes of charitable acts on a day designated worldwide as ‘Mandela Day’.
I will not mess this piece up with what South Africa’s become since Madiba left office, though I find very outrageous the attempt by the Zuma government to exploit his condition for political capital.
So, as Madiba turns 95, I join billions worldwide in Congratulating him and wishing him all the best in health and otherwise. I know that like me, he’s inspired so many others and I know I speak for the many when I say I find myself fortunate to live at a time he walked (still walks) this terra firma.
*Nelson Mandela is also fondly called MADIBA.
It is the name of the clan to which Mandela belongs. As in most African societies, a clan name is considered to be more important than a surname as it refers to the ancestor from which a person descended.
** The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a panel established in 1995 to investigate and bring to light offenses committed during the Apartheid Era in South Africa.