February 11, 1990, was an bewildering day for a man, who by “birth, upbringing, emotional self-sufficiency, social grace, imposing appearance, and elite status combined to encourage in (Mandela) an unusual assurance about his destiny as a leader.” (Mandela: A Critical Life by Tom Lodge
For this was the day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years.
In that ordinary afternoon, sun dazed blurring pictures televised round the globe, saw a tall and dark man walking, with the grace of an African leopard, out to freedom, arm-in-arm with his then wife. Each raised a fist in triumph.
He had entered the prison in the midst of life; and came out as a frail 71-year-old, and South Africa wondered what kind of leader he would be. Would he be up to it, or degenerate into despots like many African saviours, riding in the glory of their prominence?
Difficult days followed with political violence claiming thousand lives, mostly black, over the next four years while tough negotiation underwent with Klerk’s government before the country held its first all-race election, which elected Mandela to the presidency, in 1994.
But on that summer’s day, South Africa entered a new era, and Nelson Mandela was the man who led the way.
South Africa, hugely rich in unique mineral resources and mild weather was colonized by the English and the Dutch, centuries earlier. The squabbling groups settled for sharing power until the 1940’s. The Afrikaner National Party, in power then invented Apartheid as a system of governance with objective to maintain white domination and preferential treatment for the whites, while extending racial separation.
The enacted 1948 apartheid law institutionalised racial discrimination touching every aspect of people’s lives, that prohibited inter-racial marriage; sanctioned “white-only” jobs and classified its people into: white, black, or coloured based on skin colour. Blacks were required to carry “pass books” on access to non-black areas.
The African reserves, or “homelands,” scheme assigned each African to a reserve with all their political rights restricted to it. By 1981, four were created, denationalising nine million blacks.
The government could declare states of emergency with penalties for fines, imprisonment and whippings for protesting. In 1960, in one such five months emergency, when blacks in Sharpeville refused to carry their passes, 69 were killed and 187 wounded. The white regime continued with trying and sentencing to death, banishment, or life sentences.
African National Congress (ANC) was formed at the time when The Land Act 1913 was enacted which forced many blacks from their farms into the towns to work.
By 1919, the ANC was leading a campaign against passes and supported a militant mineworkers’ strike. In the 40’s, ANC was leading mass movement, while the government resorted to banning its leaders and enacting new laws to stop it.
Mandela had joined the ANC believing that black Africans should be independent in their struggle for political self-determination, and for years he advocated direct action such as boycotts and strikes.
As he gained significant popularity, the armed wing of ANC, MK was founded, with Mandela as its head, promising to resort to guerrilla warfare and terrorism, failing sabotage with minimum causality tactics.
He was captured in 1962 and was sentenced to life in prison in 1964.
Earlier in 1952 he received a suspended nine month sentence, for addressing a rally. While then ANC’s membership grew from 20,000 to 100,000, the government responded with mass arrests, introducing the Public Safety Act 1953 to permit martial law.
In 1956, Mandela was arrested with other ANC leaders for “high treason” against the state. The prosecution argued that that the ANC leadership advocated violent revolution. Mandela had publicly burned his pass as rioting broke out and the government proclaimed martial law, banning the ANC. He was found not guilty, after a six-year trial.
Later the same year, The MK publicly announced its existence with 57 bombings on 16 December, and further attacks followed on New Year’s Eve.
The ANC had sent Mandela to Ethiopia, from where he secretly travelled North African countries receiving arms, fund and training course in guerrilla warfare.
In August 1962, police captured him and charged him with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission. He wore traditional kaross, in the court, refused to call witnesses, and delivered a political speech in his plea of mitigation. Sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, he sang Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika as he left the courtroom.
After uncovering paperwork documenting MK’s activities, a subsequent trial began charging Mandela and his comrades with sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. The prosecution asked for death penalty. Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, sparing the death sentence for international calls for clemency.
In the first phase of his sentence, he was sent to high security prison in Roben Island.
His prison cell was four square meters and he was given a deep plate, a spoon, a small wardrobe, a 0.8-inch-thick sleeping mat and a blanket.
His typical day started with breakfast of corn porridge and corn coffee and then working at the limestone quarry from 7 – 11. After dinner at 14:30 he would be in cell by 06:00 to study and sleep. Forced to work under the scorching sun for hours in the quarry damaged his eyes severely for the bright reflection of the sun on the stones.
He lived that way for 18 years.
By 1982, violence escalated within South Africa, and there was worldwide campaign against Apartheid and for his release. The authority moved him to Pollsmoor Prison; Negotiation for his release and for dismantling of Apartheid started.
And then he was set free in 1990.
But as the world came to gradual realisation: the man who went in 1962 was fundamentally different from the one who came out in 1990. He went in believing that armed struggle was the only way to his people’s freedom, given that all attempt to negotiate so far had been derisively rebutted; and the enormity of injustice his people had been subjected to since European domination.
However, in the prison he had risen to a higher political plateau, setting him apart from other freedom fighters. There, he studied his jailers closely. He came out convinced that, at the core, black and white had more in common, than they had on issues that affect them as races. That compassion and generosity and, above all, respect could be weapons of political persuasion, just as powerful as guns. The Robin island days shaped him.
He began experimenting his ways, with his people, in political negotiation and his one to one encounters with white establishment figures. In the later years of his prison term, he held secret talks with the minister of justice (who later recalled Mandela as “the incarnation of the great Roman virtues, gravitas, dignitas and pietas”), and the president of South Africa, the iron-fisted P. W. Botha. With them he negotiated his release from prison and to start dialogues. Eventually from there he led his people to freedom, and himself rose to become the republic’s president.
After his ascendancy, his chief tasks were to cement the foundation of the democracy, contain the countrywide violence, reassure the whites that South Africa belonged to them too and unite a fiercely divided country following years of bitter legacy.
These he did in his very own way: sending out messages, and gesture, in appropriate measures, to the South Africans of all descents. Patterns of these were plenteous. For example, South Africa was about to scrap the old white national anthem (The Call), which was about celebration of the European conquest, and replace it with “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” sung at black protest rallies during Apartheid.
Mandela proposed to put together the two; coalescing tunes of dissonant notes into a symbolic message of national unity. Not an easy argument to win against his party, but nevertheless he swayed them to his way of wisdom: that the satisfaction of banning the derided song could be pricy, whereas holding to it partially could go a long way to heal. This act was defining of his leadership.
Again, In 1993, threat of inter-racial war was looming on the horizon, as General Constand Viljoen, ex-chief of country’s Defence Force as leader of far right, had been travelling the country organising armed resistance units, or terrorist cells, more appropriately. Mandela reached out to meet him in secret and instantly impressed Viljoen with courteous attentiveness, his knowledge and interest in white South African history and his sensitivity to the fears of the whites. Mandela reasoned with him that, he could go to war with blacks with superior military might and skills; but if became a race war, blacks would far outnumber his forces, and international support and sympathy will be with them. And there could be no winners.
Viljoen was converted and called off his “armed struggle” and eventually took part in the 1994 all-race elections. He even won a parliamentary seat representing his Freedom Front. At the inauguration ceremony of the parliament Mandela broke protocol to cross the floor to shake his hand. ‘I am very happy to see you here, general’, he apparently had said. As a military man Viljoen said to have stood to attention to “his President”.
These are testimonies of effective execution of his lessons, to desired political end.
Applying all his clout, he appealed to people’s good natures, believing that it could be an effective instrument to achieve a political goal, and the only one for that matter, at the time. He asked his people to forgive and to forget. These he did, not assuming the pretence of a prophet, but as a politician with foresight, in a statesman like way. He had forsaken violence and self-taught that there could be no democracy without reconciliation, no justice without peace.
This day, as he is fighting for his life in hospital bed, South Africa has consolidated its transition from tyranny to democracy. Its political system is stable and genuinely democratic. His bequeath to his nation are rule of law and order, sense of fairness and, most of all, his examples in achieving his political goals.
Happy birthday, Nelson Mandela.
(This write-up was first published this year on Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday.)
Latif Quader is Fellow Chartered Accountant and a businessman.