Tall, commanding, blessed with a smile that could light up a stadium. Yes, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was all that. His death was announced today. He was 95.
By Bram Posthumus, Dakar
He was born into royalty on 18 July 1918 in the village of Mvezo, in Transkei, South Africa. It was his father who named him Rolihlahla. Its literal translation is ‘pulling the branch off a tree’, but the simpler meaning has stuck, if only for its prophetic portent. Rolihlahla: ‘troublemaker’.
By the time Mandela’s professional life was taking off, the National Party had taken power. Their 1948 election victory was the triumph of apartheid: the idea that segregating the races and excluding the black majority from enjoying the riches of the land was the way forward. The African National Congress’ answer was the 1955 Freedom Charter, a blueprint for a democratic and equitable South Africa. In the thick of all this was the boy from Mvezo, now a lawyer and ANC youth leader, playing cat-and-mouse with the government. He was also a non-violent political activist.
Until Sharpeville, 21 March 1960.
On that day, South African police shot into a crowd of unarmed black demonstrators, killing 69 people. Most of them were shot in the back. It triggered the creation of the armed branch of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, meaning ‘Spear of the Nation’. Its first commander: Mandela.
He was arrested in 1963 with other high cadres and charged with, among other things, preparing an armed invasion of South Africa. During the trial he famously said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He was condemned to prison, for life.
In captivity on the infamous Robben Island, Mandela studied, debated and kept up his boxing skills. He and his colleagues were subjected to physical humiliation and forced hard labour. The awful conditions gave him tuberculosis. Contact with family and friends was tightly controlled.
But time was on the inmates’ side. Southern Africa was being liberated, country by country and, by the time ministers from the besieged apartheid government came to see Mandela in prison, South Africa was the last white-ruled country left on the tip of the continent – and about to go.
In February 1990, Mandela was released from prison. This was followed by four years of acrimonious negotiation with F.W. De Klerk. Mandela’s stubborn pragmatism shines through this quote: “Whether I like [De Klerk] or not is irrelevant. I need him.”
In 1993, the two men shared the Nobel Peace Prize. In April of the next year, South Africa avoided civil war and held its first free elections. Mandela quietly hoped that the ANC did not get an absolute majority. He got his wish: one-party rule was the last thing this newly free country needed.
An old cartoon shows Mandela in a romantic mood. The cartoonist has him saying: “From now on – it’s us three: you, me and the Revolution.”
He shielded most of his private life but we do know that in his early days he fled his home village because a marriage had been arranged for him. In 1955, he met his first wife, Evelyn Mase (cousin to ANC leader Walter Sisulu), but she left him after 11 years. The relationship was on the backseat; politics drove everything. His second marriage was to the flamboyant Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, whom he had met during one of his trials in the early 1960s. There she is, in that famous photo, hand in hand with Nelson as he is finally released from prison after 27 years.
In 1996, they divorced on the grounds of adultery and Mandela went on to look for a little more stability and found Graça Machel – a fitting match. She had already been married to a revolutionary. Mozambican freedom fighter and later president Samora Machel was her husband when he died in a never-explained plane crash, in the then white-ruled South Africa.
Presidential life and beyond
His inauguration as president was truly a national party: flamboyant, exuberant and incredibly moving. When the air force did a flyover above the Pretoria grounds where he had just been sworn in, jets released the colours of the new South African flag. There was not a single face turned up to the sky that day that was not covered in tears.
Mandela said he was going to be in office for only one term. So in 1999, already 81 years old, he stepped aside, stating he was too old for such a young country. And he stayed out of South African politics, just as he said he would.
In 2000, he was asked to mediate in the long, violent and complicated political crisis in Burundi. At South Africa House in London, he explained his approach. After lighting up the entire room with that smile, the audience heard how he was basically telling Burundians to follow what he told them to the letter, a modus operandi that would have been dismissed as positively colonial had anyone else attempted to pull this off. But he was royalty. Still, it didn’t work.
Yet he continued to fight against AIDS, something he admitted he had failed to tackle as president. It was an issue he took personally, as the disease killed his son, Makgatho. From 2007, Mandela also chaired a group of world statesmen – known as The Elders, which included Desmond Tutu and Jimmy Carter – who aimed to use their influence and experience in the service of peace.
The world, having spotted an icon for everything that was great and good, wanted him wheeled out again and again. The last time his own party, the ANC, did that to him he showed visible signs of irritation. Even icons are human, especially when ill.
But now Mandela has his peace. Goodbye, wonderful Troublemaker.