Nelson Mandela, the icon of freedom, forgiveness and reconciliation; one of the brightest stars of the 20th century’s humility and decency, had passed away peacefully at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa on Thursday, December 5 2013, aged 95. In breaking the news, South African President Jacob Zuma said, “We have lost our greatest son.” On his death now, as much as during his lifetime, this iconic figure is held in almost universal respect and reverence right across the world – from Beijing to Buenos Aires, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. There is hardly any newspaper today, anywhere in the world, which does not carry the sad news of passing away of this great man.
He is great not because he ruled over a powerful nation on earth, far from it. He took over the reign of a broken nation – a nation deeply torn and traumatised by decades of visceral racial hatred, institutionalised as an administrative policy called apartheid – and fixed it and made it work so elegantly that within one term of his presidency (1994 – 1999) the country was at peace with itself. Of course, there were problems in South Africa when he finished his presidency. But the country did not tear itself apart after decades of vicious racial segregation and violence. The blacks, the whites, the browns and any other inter-racial individuals called him, with utmost respect and reverence, the Madiba meaning the father.
The story of Nelson Mandela is as fascinating and inspiring as a fairy story. He was born on 18th July 1918 as Rolihlahla Mandela. He was adopted as a foster child by a tribal chief in a remote South African town Mvezo, in Eastern Cape and was raised in the tribal tradition. However, when he was sent to a school, he had to change his name to Nelson Mandela as it was customary for school children to have English names. After finishing school, he started working in a law firm in Johannesburg and qualified as a lawyer in 1952. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 as a show of protest against racial discrimination and repression. He was the first black lawyer to start a law firm and that was against the apartheid policy at that time. (Readers may be reminded here that another black lawyer by the name Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Mahatma Gandhi) was thrown out of a first class compartment in the same country some 50 years earlier, although he possessed a first class train ticket!).
In no time he had inevitable brush with the authorities. He faced various restrictions here and there in his career as a lawyer. Ultimately he was arrested in 1956 and charged with treason along with 155 other ANC members. The trials lasted for over four years and eventually they were acquitted in 1960. In 1962 he was again arrested and in 1963, when he was in prison, he was charged along with seven others with sabotage! In 1964 he was sentenced along with others to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island prison.
In his memoirs ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, he describes his life (or lack of it) very vividly; but strangely there was no feeling of anger or revenge. When he described the harshness of treatment and punishment, it was with total passivity and magnanimity. From 1964 till February 1990, he spent almost 27 years in a cell about 7ft long by 6ft wide. He used to sleep along the 7ft part of the cell, even then his head and toe used to touch the walls. He was not given any book or even allowed to read at the early years of his imprisonment. One day while was outside to collect his meal, he found a newspaper lying on the courtyard. He picked it up and as nobody was screaming at him, he put the paper in his shirt pocket and came to his cell. Without waiting for the guards to go away, he opened the newspaper and started to read – as he put it ‘like a child getting a candy’. He was so absorbed in reading the newspaper that he missed the sound of guards’ footsteps and all of a sudden he heard two guards standing in front of him and saying, “Mandela, we are charging you for unlawful possession of a newspaper and reading it.” The punishment he received was three days solitary confinement (in even a smaller cell) with no food. Only thing he received there was rice water, which was the boiled water drained out of cooked rice.
However, as time passed international protests, particularly among the students throughout the world, grew louder and louder. In London Tariq Ali, fiery left wing students’ leader, along with Peter Hain MP (who subsequently became a Labour MP and Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State) and others spent endless hours in Hyde Park Corner in 1970s campaigning the British government to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa and force apartheid regime to release Nelson Mandela. There were vigorous campaigns not only in British campuses but also round the world. Although sanctions were imposed in 1967, they were ineffectual. While students were up in arms, conservative governments in the early 1980s in the United States and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively branded Nelson Mandela as a terrorist!
However, under pressure, the Western countries did impose severe sanctions and gradually apartheid regime started to fall apart. In 1990 FW de Klerk lifted the ban on ANC and on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after nearly 27 years in prison. Nelson Mandela declared, “We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
In 1993, Nelson Mandela was awarded Nobel Peace Prize jointly with FW de Klerk. He described in his memoir quite succinctly that he was asked by lots of ANC leaders whether he should receive the Nobel Prize with FW de Klerk, the last apartheid era president. He dismissed their disapproval by saying that when a person acknowledged the gross injustice he and the system had meted out to others, there was nothing more one could seek. The Nobel committee cited, “their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundation of new, democratic South Africa.” Accepting the award, Nelson Mandela said, “We will do what we can contribute to the renewal of our world.”
In 1994, because of Mandela’s life long struggle for justice, the people of South Africa comprising all races and creed for the first time in its history got the democratic rights to vote. In the election, ANC won and Nelson Mandela became the 1st black President in the post-apartheid era. The white rule came to an end after more than three centuries in South Africa and Mr. Mandela was very gracious in acknowledging the tremendous contribution Mr. FW de Klerk made in bringing about this reconciliation.
What would be the legacy of Nelson Mandela? He is the epitome of forgiveness and reconciliation. But for him, South Africa could have been in a state of racial violence and internecine conflict. He defused the extremely volatile situation and brought the multi-racial protagonists to live in harmony and in peace. That is by no means a small achievement. One only needs to look around now to appreciate how difficult it is to bring two antagonistic parties, two different religious groups, two different individuals together and live side by side amicably with honour and dignity.
It is amazing to note that two greatest men of the twentieth century – Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi – have so much in common. Both of them were lawyers by profession and both in their early lives suffered pain and suffering, abuses and injustice, strangely in the same country. Probably such pain and suffering made them what they were – to see clearly the inhumanity and injustice of the whole system – and that made them to rise up and do something super human. Nelson Mandela was called Madiba and Gandhi was called Bapu – both meaning the father! They were never vindictive, bore no grudges against anybody and by sheer force of humanity, sense of fairness and forgiveness they corrected and rectified nearly impossible situations. So, it is no wonder that Nelson Mandela is dubbed with very good justification as the Gandhi of South Africa.
A Rahman is a retired Nuclear Safety Specialist in the UK. He is an author and a columnist.