A statesman to all
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born during the First World War on July 18, 1918, at Mvezo on the banks of the winding Mbashe River, also known as the Bashee.
The village is near Umtata and south of Qunu, which has become well known for being the place where he spent his early years and much of his retirement after leaving the office of South African president on June 16, 1999.
He went on to marry three times, father six children, become a famed political prisoner and, much later, a renowned statesman.
Although born to a royal line, Mandela was junior in the rankings as the eldest son of his father Hendry’s third wife, Nosekeni Fanny.
He was not born to be king, although he could have chosen to spend his life being a relatively prosperous chief among his tribesmen and women. His father was, in a sense, prime minister to King Dalindyebo of the Tembu throne and was grandson of Ngubengcuka, a king of the Tembu who died in 1832.
Instead, he chose the road out of rural Transkei, not so much to seek his fortune, but to dedicate his life to the freedom of his people and his country.
‘The long walk to freedom’
It was to ultimately lead to 27 years in prison, his release on February 11, 1990, his election as president in 1994, two failed marriages, the most famous to Winnie Madikizela, and finally into the arms of, and marriage to, Graca Machel, widow of former Mozambique President Samora Machel.
It was to be a life—which spanned most of the 20th century and a little of the next—which would, a little by accident but largely owing to his tremendous contribution to the liberation struggle against apartheid, turn his name into a household one across the world.
He was guided by the pursuit of justice and equality. But it was to become a mission within the context of neo-colonial and apartheid South Africa which made him live “on the edge”—where falling over the political precipice meant years in jail and caused him to be viewed by conservative forces in the world as a terrorist.
To others he symbolised the worldwide struggle against oppression—particularly of the black man.
Another mighty force on the stage of the 20th century, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, said in 1987 that anyone who thought the African National Congress was ever going to form the government of South Africa was “living in cloudcuckooland”.
Nine years later, in July 1996, Lady Thatcher was sitting in the audience at Westminster Hall in the Houses of Parliament in London when Mandela—two years into his presidency and head of the ANC-led post apartheid government—was honoured by the British nation.
‘Defying the odds’
He was a man born to defy hugely-stacked odds. It was a far cry from the rural, and desperately poor, Transkei.
This black man from Africa had paid more than his dues to society and to the world.
He had in many ways “arrived” as a world super statesman, giving the former colonial power a lecture on the iniquities of colonialism.
In Anthony Sampson’s Mandela, the Authorised Biography, he reports that Mandela reminded his audience how the ANC first petitioned the British parliament eight decades before, in protest against being left to the mercy of the white rulers of the new Union of South Africa—just a few years after the formation of the ANC in 1912.
When his father died when was nine, Mandela was taken to the Great Place of Mqhekezweni, where the acting king of the Tembu lived. His father had asked the Regent, Jongintaba, to educate Nelson—who was later to be known by his clan name Madiba. The name Nelson was given to him while at a Methodist mission school when he was seven.
He first attended the great institution of Clarkebury across the Bashee River with the acting king’s son Justice.
He matriculated there in 1934, instilled with a love for scientific knowledge but also for British history and geography.
Mandela followed Justice to the Healdtown mission, not far from Fort Beaufort, where he graduated in 1938.
He then went on to Fort Hare University College—the place where Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the late President Hastings Banda of Malawi were also educated—with his cousin Kaizer Matanzima, later to become first president of the apartheid created Xhosa homeland of Transkei in 1976. Matanzima died at the age of 88 last month.
At that time Dalibunga and Daliwonga—the tribal circumcision names for Mandela and Matanzima—were inseparable.
At this stage Mandela was not steeped in politics but ironically was expelled from the university after leading a protest against poor food in his capacity as a Students’ Representative Council member.
He was to complete his BA degree through the University of South Africa—a correspondence campus in Pretoria. Mandela went back to the Great Place to tell the Regent that he would not apologise and go back.
It was at this time that the regent announced that he had arranged brides for both Justice and Madiba—which horrified Mandela who thought the girl chosen was “rather fat”, according to Sampson’s research.
The two young men fled to Johannesburg. Madiba worked on a mine as a policeman for a short while but soon found himself in trouble for boasting he had run away from home—and was fired.
Mandela went to Walter Sisulu—with whom he was to maintain a lifelong friendship and who was then an estate agent in Johannesburg.
Sisulu, who died earlier this year, introduced him to a Jewish lawyer, Lazar Sidelsky, who agreed to employ Madiba as an articled clerk at the firm Witkin, Sidelsky & Idelman.
‘A wedding amidst the political fray’
While studying law at the University of Witwatersrand, Mandela had married his first wife, Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Sisulu’s.
A year after their wedding in 1944 they had a son Thembi and a year later a daughter, Makaziwe, who died as a toddler.
It was during this period that Mandela began, in Sampson’s language, to be “drawn into the political fray” for the first time.
Significant was Mandela’s participation in a boycott of buses after the fare was raised from five to six pence. It was organised by his office mate—Gaur Radebe, who organised a march of 10 000 blacks who succeeded in getting the fare put back to its previous rate.
Together with Anton Lembede, a Zulu activist from KwaZulu Natal, Oliver Tambo (later ANC president and who was to lead the organisation in exile in London after it was banned by the National Party apartheid government in 1960) and Walter Sisulu, Mandela started the ANC youth league in 1944—at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in Johannesburg. Lembede was the first president with the rest serving on its executive committee.
Although this movement was a black nationalist force and did not have warm relations with the mainly white Communist Party of South Africa, they were later to be drawn together in the fight against apartheid.
In 1948’s mainly white national election, the National Party under Dr Daniel “DF” Malan defeated the white wartime leader General Jan Smuts and the policy of separate development—now better known as apartheid—was implemented with ferocious speed.
Mandela and other leaders of the league urged the ANC president Dr Xuma to support mass action and passive resistance. His reluctance to do so saw the young lions—including Mandela—replace him as president with a more radical Dr James Moroka in December 1949. In 1950 Mandela became president of the youth league.
Sisulu, by then general secretary of the ANC, produced a report proposing a programme of passive resistance to defy the government’s racial laws including the Group Areas Act, to provide for separate areas for various races, the Suppression of Communist Act and the Bantu Authorities Act.
In the defiance campaign of 1952—it was launched on May 31 that year—and within five months 8 000 people had been arrested for variously marching into whites-only railway entrances, into railway carriages or for being out after curfew.
Mandela was arrested under the Suppression of Communist Act—which even Judge Rumpff described as having nothing to do with communism as it is commonly known—and given a suspended sentence.
‘Rising through the ranks’
During the early 1950s Mandela rose in the ranks of the ANC, first becoming president of the ANC’s Transvaal region and then deputy national president in 1952—the same year that he and Tambo formed a legal firm—Mandela and Tambo, in downtown Johannesburg.
He and 156 political activists were arrested and charged with high treason in 1956, but found not guilty after a marathon trial. The charges were based on speeches and statements made by the accused, that they conspired to overthrow the government by violence and to replace it with a communist state.
‘Marriage woes, and Winnie appears’
It was during the trial that he divorced his first wife. They had produced two more children—another daughter Makaziwe, named after the daughter that died, and Makgatho, a son.
Their eldest son, Thembi, was killed in a car accident in 1969, six years after Mandela was jailed on Robben Island. Mandela was refused permission to leave the prison for the funeral.
He married Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela in 1958 and they were to have two daughters Zindzi and Zenani.
With the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress in 1960, the mood among Africans changed and pressure grew on the movement to alter its stance of non-violent resistance to targeted violence against the regime.
By December 1961, he had become commander in chief of MK—Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation).
After receiving military training in Algeria, he was captured in Howick in 1962 and was sentenced to five years in jail for incitement and leaving the country illegally.
It was while he was serving this sentence that he and MK colleagues were charged—in the Rivonia trial—with sabotage. He was sentenced to life imprisonment.
The others were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg.
Mandela was to spend 27 years in jail, most of the time on Robben Island but the last years in a house within Victor Verster Prison.
Winnie played a major role in maintaining international focus on his and the ANC’s plight and was placed under house arrest in Johannesburg and later Brandfort in the Free State.
Her trial for the kidnapping of Stompie Seipei, a black activist, was to put strain on their marriage after Mandela was released by President FW de Klerk’s government—before the constitutional negotiations which ultimately led to the first fully democratic elections in 1994.
They were to separate in 1993 and divorced in 1996. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela resigned as an MP in May this year and as leader of the ruling ANC Women’s League after being found guilty of fraud and theft by the Pretoria Regional Court in April.
‘A caring ruler’
In his profile on Mandela in They Shaped Our Century (Human and Rousseau) SABC board chairman Vincent Maphai says Mandela had an unerring instinct for the responsible use of political power. He demonstrated that moral cynicism is not the only rational choice in the world of politics.
He rightly points to Mandela’s focus on the “big picture” and his contempt for populism and partisan approaches where major national issues were at stake.
Noting that Mandela’s assumption of power in 1994 heightened the expectations of his deprived—mainly black—constituency, his government embarked on a stringent “if not unpopular” macro-economic reform programme. This involved at once the reduction in government spending and the semi-privatisation of State assets.
Maphai notes that there was no sudden massive government spending ahead of the 1999 election—at the end of the Mandela term. But the ANC increased its large majority in that election.
His style as president was notably one of a caring ruler. In the precincts of Parliament he would stop to talk to journalists or parliamentary workers alike. He asked everyone from heads of state to floor sweepers in his customary endearing manner: “How are you?” He always took time to shake as many hands as possible—and always was ready to make a remark to journalists about public matters.
‘Wowed by a revolutionary widow’
Mandela was to marry Graca Machel on his birthday in 1998—the two will be celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary on Friday—and retire from the presidency in June 1999, handing power to his chosen successor Thabo Mbeki.
After three tries, Mandela is visibly happy and publicly affectionate with his Mozambican bride. Machel—she has not changed her name—reciprocates the attention.
Although formally he has retired to Qunu, in a home built along the specs of his prison home at Victor Verster, Mandela spends much of his time at his Houghton, Johannesburg, home. He also accompanies Machel on regular visits to Mozambique.
In addition to his own public profile, he is diligent in supporting Machel in her roles as goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund, chairwoman of the National Organisation of Children in Mozambique, and president of the country’s Unesco (UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Council) Commission.
He has also taken up a key role in his retirement as mediator of the conflict in Burundi, in Central Africa. Mandela has remained outspoken on world issues—criticising the American approach to the war in Iraq and has led a world campaign against HIV/Aids.
Perhaps Maphai captures the essence of the man: “He reminded everyone that no ideology should ever become more important than the people themselves.” - I-Net Bridge