The life and legacy of Nelson Mandela

By Issa A. Mansaray 

Contributing Writer


Nelson Mandela, 95, first Black president of South Africa who fought for the freedom of his people and against apartheid, died at about 8:50 pm local time on Thursday. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, current president of South Africa, said, “Our nation has lost its greatest son.”

Nelson Mandela painting
Image courtesy of Charles E. Crutchfield III

Mr. Zuma announced in a televised message late Thursday, “Our people have lost a father.” Dressed in black, Zuma added that Mandela’s death is the country’s moment of “deepest sorrow” and that the Mandela family has “sacrificed much and endured so much that our people could be free.”

Mandela has been in and out of the Mediclinic Hospital in Pretoria on more than six separate occasions this year undergoing treatment for lung infection. “His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to,” said U.S. President Barack Obama in an official statement on Thursday evening, adding that the late Mandela was “influential, courageous and profoundly good.”


The noble family

Born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, a village close to the banks of the Mbashe River in the Transkei region, Mandela is the most famous South African in the world. His father, Gadla Henry Mphanyiswa Mandela, was a tall, imposing man who settled village quarrels.

“I define myself through my father,” Mandela once said. “A proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness, that I recognized in myself.”

Mandela came from a large and noble family of the Xhosa people, members of the Thembu tribe. His grandfather had been a Thembu king. Mandela was nine when his father reportedly died of a lung disease. His mother took him to relatives in Qunu, and then later to Chief Jongintaba Dalidyebo as his guardian, who raised him as his son.

“He was born into a royal house, and there was always that sense about him of someone who knew the meaning of leadership,” said Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s former cellmate and longtime friend.

Fondly known in South Africa and around the world known by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is survived by his third wife, Graça Machel, the widow of former Mozambican president Samora Machel; three daughters; and several grandchildren and great grandchildren.


Education as a powerful weapon

“My grandfather’s view on education has always been that education is a weapon that one can utilize to change the world, and it became one of his main pillars when he founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation,” said Mr. Zvelivelile Mandla Mandela, the late Mandela’s grandson. “So you can see from his role of building schools and clinics throughout the country that he felt that our society, in order to develop, needed to embrace education and excel to the highest level.”

Mandela enrolled at the University of Fort Hare in 1939. He was 21 and did not complete his studies. At Forte Hare, Mandela studied English, anthropology, politics, administration and law. He met Oliver Tambo, a science student and fierce debater who later became one of his best friends.

He left Fort Hare after a student protest. When Jongintaba arranged marriages for him and Justice [Jongintaba’s son], both fled to Johannesburg. Mandela secured a job in the mines, but was later fired when it was discovered that Chief Jongintaba was unaware of their move to Johannesburg. Mandela went to stay with his cousin, Garlick Mbekeni, to complete his studies by correspondence.

Mbekeni later introduced Mandela to businessman and Black leader Walter Sisulu. At 23, Sisulu found him a job in a White law firm, Witkin, Sidesky and Eidelman. He was paid a weekly salary of about four dollars, which was barely enough to meet his needs. To save money, he walked to and from work every day.

He gained his Bachelors of Arts degree in 1942 from the University of South Africa and enrolled at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, one of four universities that accepted Blacks, to study law. He joined the African National Congress as a young lawyer in 1944.


Apartheid from USA 

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mandela stood firmly for what is right. Apartheid had very strong roots in America’s own history of race; White South Africans even toured the Southern United States to learn what they could do to replicate the kind of policies and practices that had long proliferated there after the Civil War. Mandela sought to undo that kind of racism, diminishing its presence not just in South Africa but also in the United States.

Mandela, like King, achieved the historically rare feat of uniting a fiercely divided country. The feat is rare because what ordinary politicians have always done is seek power by highlighting differences and fuelling antagonism. Mandela sought it by people’s common humanity.

It was while incarcerated in prison that he learned his most valuable lessons in leadership. As he himself acknowledged, prison shaped him. He went in angry, convinced that the only way of achieving his people’s freedom was by force of arms. This was neither an original nor a morally opprobrious approach in 1962.

Mandela spent 18 years in Robbin Island prison. Then he was moved along with Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, and others to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town. To the surprise of all and the world over, Mandela was freed from Pollsmoor on Feb. 11, 1990.


Free Mandela

On February 2, 1990, the former president of the Republic of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, commonly known as F. W. de Klerk, legalized the ANC. He made the announcement in front of the parliament that exiled political party members were allowed to return to South Africa. More than 370 who were restricted gained their liberty and freedom of speech in a country that had become known for its stringent apartheid policies.

The negotiations to have an acceptable constitution at the time were slow and packed with political tension and turmoil in South Africa. The ANC wanted a direct democratic system with one-man-one vote. De Klerk and his National Party wanted the White minority to retain veto power on all government activities and actions.

The two conflicting interests between the Blacks and White South Africans were complicated by the constant infighting between the ANC and Inkatha, the Zulu political movement in Natal and the townships around Johannesburg. The country’s economy was also crumbling fast due to international sanctions.

“Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts… Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return,” read parts of Mandela’s letter from prison. In less than a year after starting negotiations, de Klerk and his team accepted that they could not rule the country forever as a minority government. Nelson Mandela, the apartheid-declared “terrorist and political convict,” was on his path to become South Africa’s first president.


Transformational global leader

Mandela’s spirit and ability to triumph over any adversity is worth celebrating, and so is his life. The anti- apartheid activist and former South African president dedicated his life to uplifting the just causes of South Africa’s vastly diversified population.

In 1993, Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize along with de Klerk in Oslo, Norway. Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa after years of political repression. Mandela showed that there is no easy road to peace, but it is ultimately a course that triumphs over violence, which resonated with people — people in power and average citizens alike — all over the world.

“I think he is significant for a very simple reason. He demonstrated that people who advocate for peace are the solution to every problem,” said Dube. “I think Syrians could learn from him, Somalis could learn from him, the Egyptians could learn from him — people all over the world would benefit from following that example. He showed like few others ever had that peace triumphs over violence, a valuable lesson no matter where you live.”

Many South Africans have braced themselves for this day in a country where it is taboo to talk about death. Mandela’s family has been protective of him in his last few months as he fought a lung infection. Many in the country hope that Mandela will have a smooth transition to his ancestral land in Qunu as he did with the apartheid government.

South Africans have been encouraged to maintain the responsibility to sustain the legacy of Mandela, who retired after just a single term as president that ended in 1999. His last public appearance on a major stage was in 2010, when South Africa hosted the FIFA World Cup.


Issa A. Mansaray welcomes reader responses to Additional reporting was done by Farai Diza in Johannesburg, South Africa and Rudzani Musekwa from Grahamstow, Eastern Cape Province, South Africa.