On the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Updated Tuesday, 14th July 2020
On Mandela day (18th July, Nelson Mandela's birthday), we look back at this article which provides a personal view of the man, the prisoner and the president. 

Nelson Mandela Statue in Johannesburg Nelson Mandela statue in Johannesburg We think that the best measure of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela as a political hero are the millions of South Africans who are celebrating his life and grieving his death. Mandela, (Madiba or Tata, the father of the nation), as leader of the African National Congress (ANC), together with COSATU, the trade union confederation, and the South African Communist Party, set the road to change and reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa. The fact that South Africa is a country at all is due to their combined political strength and Nelson Mandela’s leadership, courage and integrity. He really was a giant whose counsel and example will be sorely missed. To truly understand his life and his achievements we have to look back over the long and bitter struggle that led to Nelson Mandela, prisoner 46664, being elected the first president of the South African people in April 1994.

By 1900 Britain had broken the power of the African kingdoms, and in 1910 we handed control to the Boer and British settlers. The union of South Africa was formed with a government that recognised only the rights of white people. After the first world war, the movement for black freedom waxed and waned but as clash followed clash, the ANC emerged as the leader of a mass liberation movement in the 1950s. The ANC Youth League which Mandela had joined in 1944 radicalised the organisation and advocated civil disobedience and mass action. When the ANC Freedom Charter which said that South Africa belonged to the people, was adopted in 1955, the South African government ratcheted up its racist policies. There were millions of individual daily protests, countless unmarked marches and long strikes by school students and workers, many of which ended in bloody massacres. Mandela was by now convinced that the ANC had no alternative but to take up armed struggle.

During his long years of imprisonment, the apartheid government was slowly losing its grip on power. The anti-apartheid movement helped to ostracise the regime internationally. The South African Defence Force’s air of invincibility was broken in the 1980s Angolan war. Most crucially, under the ANC’s leadership, by the mid-1980s the black townships and the black Bantustans were made ungovernable, and the white government had to rule under a perpetual State of Emergency. Over the next few years it imprisoned 300,000 men, women and children and killed many other thousands, but it couldn’t crush a nation of grimly determined people. The governments of P. W. Botha and F. W. de Klerk were forced to the negotiating table, the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela, now the symbol of the liberation struggle, was freed. The prisoner became the president.

Our part in this struggle was small but heartfelt. As teenagers in the late 1960s, we joined the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Southampton. We held meetings, raised petitions, marched and leafleted, fly-posted, and sometimes lay down in the road to support the boycott of South African goods and sport. By the late 1970s our two small daughters were veterans of ‘Free Mandela’ pickets and demonstrations! The campaigns across the country were incredibly effective. We were inspired by South African exiles who lived locally; Albert, a white surgeon who had left the country just before the police came to arrest him, Des, a black teacher who was badly beaten by the South African police (held without charge under the notorious Pass Laws, he suffered 90 days in solitary confinement - over and over again), and Steve, an ANC man, who risked his life whenever he returned to his country. We went to seminars in Southampton and met the quietly spoken lawyer, Albie Sachs. The South African regime blew him up with a car bomb in 1988, but he survived to become South Africa’s chief Justice minister after the end of apartheid.

The leaders of the world are attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral because of what he achieved and what he was - and because the world cries out for more leaders with his intellect, courage, kindness and grace.   Some leading politicians have expressed regret that their parties and their governments propped up apartheid. They are right that history should judge them harshly but Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was magnanimous as he and South Africa emerged into freedom, peace and reconciliation. There are many challenges to overcome; post-apartheid South Africa was not forged in conditions of Mandela’s choosing and painful compromises were made. It is still a long walk to freedom but Nelson Mandela is surely a man who has died without searing regrets. He gave everything to the liberation of his people. Few can make such a claim.


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