Nelson Mandela: A life of hard and heroic struggle in the service of the masses

Born on 18 July 1918, Mandela was the 13th child of the Chief of the eastern Cape village of Mzevo in a remote corner of South Africa. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, named him Rolihlahla, which in the local Xhosa language means “pulling the branch out of the tree” – a euphemism for a troublemaker. After falling out with a local white magistrate, Mandela’s father, having been stripped of his title, moved his family to the nearby village of Qunu where Mandela spent the happiest days of his childhood.

Though born into a junior branch of the Thembu royal family, his life was far from being one of privilege. He lived in a mud and reed hut with his mother, tending cattle. His mother, Noqaphi Nosekeni, became a Christian, sending her son to a local Methodist school at the age of 7, where he was given the name Nelson. He was the first of his family to go to school.

When Mandela was only 9, his father died of tuberculosis and he became the ward of the Thembu paramount chief, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who arranged for him to attend Clarkebury Missionary school from which he matriculated at age 15. Four years later he graduated from Healdtown, a strict Methodist college, where he developed his lifelong love of English literature and a thorough knowledge of British history.

He then went on to pursue higher education at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa’s first, and then only, university college for Black Africans). It was here he first met his lifelong friend and associate Oliver Tambo. Mandela had been groomed to become a royal counsellor but he fell out with the Thembu Chief over a proposed arranged marriage, to escape from which he fled to Johannesburg where he joined the ANC in 1942, which at the time was demanding votes for everyone. He helped to found the youth wing of the ANC which spearheaded a programme of boycotts, strikes and civil disobedience.

Along with Oliver Tambo he formed in 1952 the only black law firm in the country. There is sufficient evidence to the effect that at some stage in the 1950s he joined the banned Communist Party and was a member of its Central Committee. Both the ANC and the South African Communist Party have since his death confirmed that Mandela was on the Central Committee of the Communist Party prior to his arrest in 1962. His membership of the Party was comprehensively brought out a year ago by Stephen Ellis in his virulently anti-communist and anti-ANC book External Mission – the ANC in exile, 1960–1990.

In the 1950s the ANC had been committed to peaceful resistance. All the same, Mandela and 150 other activists were charged with treason in 1956, an experience which made him question the value of non-violence. In 1961, after all of them were acquitted, Mandela led the drive to create an armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), whose first Commander-in-Chief he became. The decision to form an armed wing was easily reached after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 in which the South African security forces shot dead in cold blood 69 innocent people who had been peacefully protesting against restrictions on their freedom of movement, while a further 300 were wounded. The apartheid regime followed this massacre by declaring a state of emergency and outlawing the ANC, forcing Mandela and his comrades to go underground.

Ellis’s book, referred to above, also documents that the decision to resort to armed struggle was taken by the South African Communist Party following a discussion between a Party delegation and Chairman Mao Zedong. The SACP delegates who discussed this question with Mao were Yusuf Dadoo and Vella Pillay. This would seem to suggest that the leadership of the armed struggle was with the South African Communist party rather than with the ANC.

In any event, after going underground Mandela was able to evade the police for 15 months. This 6’2″ man weighing 17½ stone became adept at disguise, posing variously as a Zulu janitor, a garage worker and a chauffeur. He infuriated the authorities by making telephone calls to newspapers dictating defiant statements against government policies, even giving a television interview to the BBC. And, after a year on the run, Mandela slipped out of the country under the assumed name of David Motsamayi, visiting several African countries to galvanise support for the liberation struggle of the South African people. He was warmly welcomed. He read Clausewitz and Che Guevara, and he secured some training in guerrilla warfare in Addis Ababa. During his stay abroad he also visited Britain where he met many friends, African as well as British. In London he spent some time with Oliver Tambo, the exiled president of the ANC.

After his return to South Africa, he was arrested on 5 August 1962 at a roadblock on the Durban-Johannesburg Highway following a tip-off from the CIA, the US spy agency. He would then not know freedom until his release on 11 February 1990, after 10,000 days in jail.

Following his arrest, he was charged with leaving the country illegally without a permit and sentenced to a jail term of 5 years.

The Rivonia trial

While he was serving this sentence, Mandela and 9 other ANC members were brought before the court again with fresh charges of sabotage and treason in the notorious Rivonia trial.

The planning of the ANC’s military campaign was conducted on Liliesleaf Farm, a smallholding in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, where the ANC’s high command met and lived under various disguises. In this all-white neighbourhood, Mandela had frequently stayed, posing as the ‘garden boy’. In the end, acting upon neighbours’ suspicions, the police raided the farm and found bomb-making manuals, explosives and fuses, maps of strategic targets, and a cache of incriminating documents, including Mandela’s false passport and a political treatise written by him entitled How to be a good communist.

In view of such a lot of incriminating evidence, the verdict in the subsequent Rivonia trial was never in any doubt – the only question was whether Mandela and his co-accused would be hanged or receive life sentences.

According to his close comrade, Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela told his co-defendants: ” We cannot treat this as an ordinary legal trial; it is a political trial, and we should fight politically. We do not apologise for our activities … We do not plead for mercy. If we are sentenced to death, we do not appeal”.

In the trial Mandela and his comrades were accused of 221 acts of sabotage aimed at overthrowing the apartheid regime. On 20 April 1964, true to his word, Mandela, in his historic address to the court, frankly owned up to planning acts of sabotage, this being a decision he made in the light of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation in the country – not through recklessness or any love of violence.

He said that the ANC fought against two features which were hallmarks of African life in South Africa, entrenched by legislation, and which needed to be done away with. These features were (1) poverty and (2) lack of human dignity. He then dwelt on the hated pass laws which had such a humiliating and devastating effect on the family lives of the African population, forcing men to live an unnatural existence in men-only hostels while their families rotted permanently in the Reserves, where the wives eked out a miserable existence as permanent widows (see further below).

He told the court: ” During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. 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 see realised.” Then, knowing that he faced the hangman’s noose, Mandela looked directly at the judge and after a momentary pause added: ” But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

In the end, to sighs of relief from the public gallery, the Judge, Mr Justice Quartus de Wet, sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment with hard labour.

Robben Island

Aged 46, Mandela was consigned to the misery of Robben Island, a windswept rock on the Atlantic, used variously as a leper colony and maximum security prison. The prison regime was cruel in the extreme, with Mandela being required to break rocks in the courtyard and forbidden to talk to fellow prisoners. He lived in a small cell, so tiny that at one end his head touched the wall and at the other his feet did. Later he worked in a quarry where the glare of sunlight reflected on limestone caused permanent damage to his eyes.

Mandela and other black political prisoners were Category D, the lowest form of prison life. This allowed them to receive just one letter every 6 months and one visitor a year. They were forced to wear shorts (being as black Africans considered to be boys rather than men), they were abused verbally and physically, and they were subjected to the most humiliating punishments by their white warders. They were routinely forced to dig a pit and jump into it, whereupon the jailers urinated upon the prisoners before making them fill in the pit again. In the light of this, it was a superhuman act of generosity and forgiveness for Mandela to invite a number of his cruel and beastly wardens to his first official dinner as President of South Africa.

While in jail, Mandela suffered several personal tragedies. In 1968 his mother Nosekeni died. The following year his son Thembekile was killed in a car accident. Police raided his home, cruelly wrenching his wife, Winnie, from their young daughters before throwing her into solitary confinement. The authorities refused to grant him permission to attend either his mother’s or his son’s funeral.

Writing about the latter’s death, Mandela said: ” What can one say about such a tragedy? I was already overwrought about my wife, I was still grieving for my mother, and then to hear such news. I do not have words to express the sorrow or the loss I felt”.

Mandela fought his feelings of despondency by embarking on a course of mastering his life in prison, helped along by a sense of dignity and destiny. He read as much as he could and his favourite poem was WF Henly’s Invictus.

It matters not how strait the gate

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate

I am the captain of my soul”.

Even his racist guards began to have a grudging respect for him. Such was his indomitable faith in the justice and ultimate victory of the liberation struggle that in a rare interview from Robben Island, Mandela told a journalist that he never got depressed because ” I know that my cause will triumph”.

After Robben Island

After having served 18 years on Robben Island, where assaults by the warders, racism, inedible food, random arbitrary punishment and solitary confinement were the order of the day, Mandela and his comrades were transferred in 1982 to Pollsmoor prison near Cape Town where the regime was slightly less harsh. Then in December 1988 he was transferred to the low security Victor Verster prison near Paarl in Western cape. This time he was lodged in a warder’s cottage and provided with a white cook. This was indeed an improvement over the 8’x7′ stone cell that had been his residence as Prisoner 46664 (being the 466th prisoner registered in 1964 after his conviction in the Rivonia trial).

Freedom approaches

The continuation of the armed resistance, the Soweto uprising of 1976, the unruly conditions prevailing in the country following the murder in police custody of the Black Consciousness leader, Steve Biko, the rising working-class militancy, the international campaign for the release of Mandela and his comrades, the campaign for the imposition of meaningful sanctions against apartheid South Africa – all served to force on the white South African ruling circles the realisation that things could not carry on as before; that the days of apartheid were numbered.

On 11 June 1988, with his 70th birthday approaching, a most spectacular Free Mandela pop concert was staged at London’s Wembley Stadium, featuring Sting, Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder and The Eurythmics. It was broadcast to 67 countries. Millions around the world heard Jerry Dammers’ Free Nelson Mandela song.

With the struggle for liberation in South Africa intensifying at an ever quickening pace, the Wembley concert gave an added boost to the international Free Nelson Mandela campaign which had been launched by Oliver Tambo back in 1980. By this time, Mandela, this man of rare courage and unimpeachable integrity, who was possessed of great charisma, a towering personality and tremendous moral authority, had become a powerful global symbol of resistance. Though still a prisoner, he was increasingly dictating the terms of his and his comrades’ release, which could not be much longer delayed.

In fact, as early as 1986 the South African regime began holding talks with Mandela. In conditions of complete secrecy, Mandela held scores of meeting with Kobie Coetsee, the justice minister, ad later with Neil Barnard who was at the time the head of intelligence. During these meetings the prisoner, the Cabinet Minister and the spy chief tried to work out the outlines of a possible future dispensation for South Africa.

Seeing the writing on the wall, FW de Klerk, who in 1989 succeeded as president of South Africa PW Botha, one of the most diehard defenders of apartheid, lifted the ban on the ANC on 2 February 1990 and on 11 February, after nearly 3 decades in prison, Mandela took his emotional walk to freedom through the gates of Victor Verster jail, hand in hand with his wife Winnie, raising his right arm in a clenched fist in a show of defiance.

Constitutional negotiations

Apartheid had not only created a chasm between black and white, it also fractured South Africa into an explosive complex or races, tribes and religions, with certain factions prepared to launch civil strife.

To begin with they bided their time as the National Party government agreed to lift the state of emergency. Serious negotiations began in December 1991, with delegates from 19 political parties and tribal homelands convening as the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa). The right-wing white Conservative Party and the left-wing Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) were conspicuous by their absence and boycotted the Convention.

While Mandela was attempting to come up with a formula acceptable to the black majority, de Klerk on his part was grappling with the task of appeasing the white opponents of a settlement. In March 1992 he submitted his mandate for change to the test in a carefully-worded referendum for white voters asking ” Do you support continuation of the reform process … which is aimed at a new Constitution through negotiation?” The white voters gave their assent, with 68.6% saying ‘yes’.

Following this referendum, all hell broke loose. Turf battles had been raging, mainly in Kwa Zulu-Natal, between the supporters of the ANC on the one hand and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) on the other. On 17 June 1992 a 300-strong IFP force rampaged through the black township of Boipatong near Johannesburg, shooting and hacking to death 46 people and injuring scores, including women and children. There were well-founded reports of a ‘third force’ of highly-placed South African security personnel orchestrating the violence in an effort to prolong white rule. This dirty war was waged with the collusion of the IFP.

The Goldstone judicial commission found clear evidence that senior police officers, hand in hand with the IFP and KwaZulu-Natal police, had masterminded a campaign of gun-running, hit squads and vicious murderous attacks on black commuter trains.

Following Boipatong, the ANC walked out of the Codesa negotiations, blaming de Klerk for not putting a stop to the violence. Mandela called a general strike and personally led a march of 100,000 protesters. Incensed, he also took his case to the United Nations where, on 15 July 1992, he charged the South African government with pursuing a “cold-blooded strategy of state terrorism”.

The prospect of a complete breakdown in negotiations, and total mayhem in the townships, was enough to oblige de Klerk to sign an agreement with Mandela which provided for beefing up security and banning the public display of weapons.

Nine months later the biggest single blow to the transition process was struck when, on 10 April 1993, Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party and the most popular person after Mandela, was gunned down by a Polish immigrant as he stepped from his car outside his residence in the racially mixed suburb of Boxsburg. The assassin was detained minutes later, thanks to an Afrikaner woman who had the presence of mind to note his car registration number and call the police. Investigation revealed that he had close links with the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbewegung (ABW) and had on him a 9mm pistol lent to him by a senior Conservative member of the British parliament. The motive behind this heinous and foul murder was to derail the process leading to the end of apartheid and the birth of a non-racial South Africa.

There ensued widespread violence. Fighting between the supporters of the ANC and IFP continued, and AWB issued blood-curdling threats. In the end, though, a constitutional settlement, which Mandela alone had the stature to deliver, was concluded, paving the way for the first-ever free and non-racial elections in the history of South Africa. Held on 27 April 1994, these elections produced a landslide victory for the ANC, with Mandela being elected as South Africa’s first black president. On 10 May he was sworn in as president in the presence of guests who included, among others, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Benazir Bhutto.

In 1999, having served one term as president, Mandela stepped down and was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki who had two years earlier taken over the presidency of the ANC from Mandela.

After relinquishing the post of president of the Republic of South Africa, Mandela devoted himself to various campaigns such as the fight against HIV and Aids, and the Make Poverty History Campaign. He formed The Elders, a group of men and women, including Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and Mary Robinson, to help tackle the world’s problems.

He devoted special attention to the fight against wars waged by imperialism, especially those waged against Iraq and Libya.

In 2008, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, he was guest of honour at a concert in Hyde Park, London, given to mark the occasion.

In July 2010 he made his final public appearance at the closing of the World Cup in Johannesburg, receiving a rapturous welcome.

Thereafter he retired quietly to his home in the Houghton suburb of Johannesburg where he died on 5 December 2013.

Memorial Service

It is a measure of Mandela’s stature that 53 Heads of State and scores of heads of government attended the International Memorial Service for Mandela on 10 December, including Obama and two of his predecessors, Bush and Clinton. Just eight of them were asked to speak at the Memorial Service, including the Cuban president, Raul Castro, who was loudly cheered, while Bush was subjected to booing by the crowd. The loudest cheering was reserved for the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, whose revolutionary land reform transferring land from 4,000 white farmers to tens of thousands of blacks who had been expropriated at gunpoint by white settlers, resonates so much among black South Africans who 20 years after the end of apartheid have yet to get back their land. Robert Mugabe enjoys mass support and sympathy among South Africa’s blacks precisely on account of carrying out a programme of land distribution and indigenisation of the economy. This is precisely the reason that, while showering praise on Mandela, the imperialist gentry loathe Mugabe.

Equally, it is a measure of the status Mandela received while still alive that 700 places, including schools, streets, squares, public parks (including Mandela Gardens in Leeds) and a World Cup stadium have been named after him. He received an equal number of awards. In 2007 his statue was unveiled in London’s Parliament Square, opposite the British Houses of Parliament. The Union Buildings – the seat of government in Pretoria where Mandela lay in state – is to be renamed in his honour.

In 2009 the United Nations declared 18 July to be Mandela Day.

On Sunday 15 December Mandela’s body was flown to his ancestral village of Kunu in the eastern Cape for a state funeral.

It was a fitting end to a long life of hard, selfless and heroic struggle, in the service of the noblest cause – the liberation of mankind.

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