Madiba is gone. Hardly a surprise as he was fading in front of our eyes for three years and on the verge of death a few months ago. Yet the wave of universal grief did surprise in its depth and intensity; perhaps because it was increasingly unheralded in our fractious world. Tributes came from everywhere. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela had many enemies in life but none in death. The man was an inspiration, deeply revered and loved. Those that lived through his imprisonment, rallied around this massive injustice as a central shibboleth for their own causes. FW Klerk was the first Dutch South African who understood their time in power was unsustainable due to the international pressure that Mandela put on his oppressors.
There were others equally important to the cause of defeating apartheid, and some like Steve Biko famous as a martyr in his own right. But Mandela’s quiet dignity in prison shines through. The photographs from Robben Island did not lie. Here was a man his enemies had not beaten. Mandela spent 27 years locked up from the age of 44 to over 70 and he spent the first 10 in a state of perpetual anger against his captors. Mandela knew this was unsustainable and retreated into himself. He dropped the burden of martyrdom and learned the Zen of incarceration, inspiring others. Fellow prisoners would say that whenever they felt demoralised, one look at Mandela walking tall would revive them.
Mandela and the African National Congress he led from prison were dubbed communist terrorists by the regime, a charge picked up by many in Europe (which may or may not have included David Cameron) who painted South African politics over the left/right divide of their own lives. The ANC wanted to redistribute the wealth, but it had to be that way when 15% of the population held all of South Africa’s vast mineral riches because of their skin colour.
By being the most public victim of discredited racial superiority theories, Mandela said more with photos and silence from inside than he could ever do outside with his voice. By being quiet, he was, as Ban ki-Moon eulogised, a giant for justice.
His ideas filtered out through osmosis. His strength was his nobility and a refusal to copy his enemies’ ways. To get away from confused notions of black versus white he conjured up the rainbow nation and when he finally became president in 1994, he ordered a Truth and Reconciliation Commission instead of a witch hunt.
In retirement, he was South Africa’s “security blanket” so they could sleep with good conscience. His successor Thabo Mbeki’s problems with recognising AIDS and Jacob Zuma’s corruption could almost be forgiven while the not-white knight of the ANC was still alive.
Mandela was a clever politician who knew how to reach across the aisle. His deftest touch was to wear the Springbok jersey as South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995 on home soil. Every leader likes to be associated with a good news sports story and there were few as good as the plucky Boks plundering the title at their first tilt from the indomitable All Blacks. Mandela presented the trophy to Francois Pienaar, both wearing green and both smiling broadly, transcending sport into a defining moment for the transformation of South Africa. The Springboks had been the poster boys of the apartheid regime, and a lightning rod for protest wherever they played abroad.
This wasn’t Madiba’s only astuteness. Before the election a year earlier, South Africa seemed likely to tear itself apart with conservative Boers unwilling to accept the handover of power. He visited Betsie Vorwaerd whose late husband Henrik invented apartheid in 1948 to solve the white republic’s problem of growing anti-colonialism. Mandela told Betsie the Dutch had nothing to fear from his leadership. He would go softly on the handover, but the legacy was tough for those that followed him.
In 1993 Mandela and de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize in one of Norway’s better decisions. Like Gorbachev, de Klerk took on a difficult mission to deliberately give away power when so many around him called for him to harden his stance against “the terrorists”. Through the Nixon and Reagan eras, the US cosied up to the South Africans as a bulwark against their bete noire of communism. When the Cold War ended Mandela was released and the regime unravelled.
Mandela had breeding for greatness. He was born in 1918 as a Xhosa tribal chief in Qunu in the Eastern Cape. Mandela (usually called by his Xhosa clan name Madiba or given name Rolihlahla which appropriately means “troublemaker” but never the European Nelson, given to him by a teacher at college) grew up in mudwalled huts but he eventually became a Thembu chief when his father died.
Mandela had human frailties and it showed in his family life. He was married three times, divorced twice and he abandoned long-time second wife Winnie despite her standing behind him during his prison years. Eldest son Thembi died in a car crash, another son Makgatho died of AIDS (something he was later powerless to stop the state from becoming paranoid over). He left an extended clan of grandchildren and great-grandchildren squabbling over his legacy.
Mandela studied arts and law at the University of Fort Hare. There he met Oliver Tambo and the pair later set up a black legal practice in Johannesburg. They were also politically active and with Walter Sisulu, founded the ANC youth league.
The Smuts regime had no love of the blacks but the even more extremist Nationalists came to power in 1948 and institutionalised common practices of discrimination. Mandela’s first arrest came in 1952 when he served nine months for “statutory communism”. It removed lingering doubt Mandela had about the justice of his cause. He gained his law degree in 1952 and although banned from meetings and from leaving Johannesburg, he was a thorn in the government’s side. He was arrested again in 1956 for treason, as was the entire ANC executive and the trial dragged on without resolution for several years.
The ANC were such a threat to the regime they were eventually outlawed in 1960. It was a fatal moment for Mandela because it put him permanently outside the law.
He left the country and trained up a military wing in Algeria and Ethiopia known as Umkhonto we Sizme. Shortened as MK, it meant Spear of the Nation, appealing to the black wars of the past against Europeans in South Africa. With Mandela in hiding, Tambo went to London and became the public face of the ANC and a flea in the hair of European governments.
Mandela was on the run leading MK military operations to sabotage the economy, it was only a matter of time before his luck ran out. In 1964 he was caught sneaking back into the country and sentenced to five years for illegally leaving South Africa. While in prison, authorities found more evidence about his involvement and leadership of the ANC. He was charged with treason. Expecting the death sentence, Mandela’s speech from the dock still resonates. The regime didn’t want to make a martyr of him and sentenced him to life at the republic’s toughest prison Robben Island off Cape Town.
The conditions he faced, especially in those early years can barely be imagined. Between punishments there were many years of soul destroying rock crushing. Yet his movement grew in strength through the violence of the 1960s and 1970s spurred on by Sharpeville and other massacres. Mandela spent 20 years at Robben. As his fame grew, the regime bartered with him. He could have his freedom if he accepted banishment to Transkei or if he renounced violence. Mandela rejected all deals.
In the UK, the band the Special AKA put the issue into public consciousness in 1984 with their hit Free Nelson Mandela. He wasn’t freed but his conditions got easier. That year, he moved back to the mainland on Pollsmoor prison and then in 1988 – now 70 years old – to Victor Verster model prison at Paarl. Mandela was a leader-in-waiting and he visited Premier PW Botha a year later. Botha was sick and replacement FW de Klerk moved quickly to release all the ANC leaders including Mandela.
He emerged to the world on February 11, 1990 aged 71. There was a triumphant world tour and calls for peace with whites. De Klerk held a whites-only referendum which supported multi-race elections by a two to one margin (69-31). Re-installed as ANC president, Mandela led the party to victory in its first legal elections in 1994. Once in power, he was laissez-faire economically preferring to spend political capital on truth and reconciliation. He spent one term as president and decided not to re-contest in 1999. Mandela still had plenty of energy and cachet as an elder statesman, becoming an international ambassador to resolve conflicts in Burundi and elsewhere in Africa.
He retired from public life in 2004, aged 85, and retreated to become a living saint. He was frail in his brief appearance at the 2010 World Cup and the world knew there was not much time left. He drove his battered body on for another three years before finally dying this week.
Maybe now released from his shadow, black South Africa will reach the standards he wanted from it. The country also needs the death of the ANC, a war-time behemoth unsuitable for peacetime needs. Its entrenchment of power is now the country’s biggest danger. Only when it succumbs to its own decrepitude will South Africa have a chance to meet the goals of the ANC’s greatest leader.