When you say the name “Nelson Mandela” everyone knows who you are talking about. Buzzwords like “inspiring”, “brave”, “just”, “political” and “innovative” circulate around your mind and ultimately culminate in the image of a dark-skinned man with silver hair and a countenance akin to that of the enlightened Buddha. However, while we all know he spent an extensive amount of time in prison for defending his anti-apartheid beliefs, do we know enough about the historical facts to fully, and truly, appreciate this icon? Nelson Mandela surrendered the majority of his years to fighting for a revolutionary cause, so surely we can give up at least a few minutes to get the facts straight once and for all?
Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18th July 1918 and was given the name ‘Nelson’ by his primary school teacher in Qunu, in accordance with the tradition of giving all school children supposedly “Christian” names. Originally a native of the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei, Mandela became a ward of Acting King Jongintaba of the Thembu people in 1930, after being forced to relocate to the Great Place in Mqhekezweni, following the death of his father.
After completing his Junior Certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute and following on to matriculate from Healdtown, a relatively well-respected Wesleyan secondary school, Mandela embarked upon a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University College of Fort Hare. However, he never completed his degree at Fort Hare because he was expelled for joining in a student protest. When Mandela returned to the Great Place after having been expelled from university, King Jongintaba threatened to arrange wives for him and his cousin Justice if he didn’t go back and complete his degree. In an attempt to avoid this imposition, Nelson and Justice fled to Johannesburg in 1941. Nelson subsequently finished his BA through the University of South Africa and only went back to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943. (He later studied for an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1952 and for a degree through the University of London after his imprisonment in 1962, but he completed neither of these academic commitments.) Mandela eventually obtained an LLB from the University of South Africa during the last few months of his imprisonment in 1989 and graduated in absentia in Cape Town.
In a decision that was to unalterably influence the rest of his life, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1944 and helped to establish its Youth League division, the ANCYL. He also married Evelyn Mase in this year and they had four children together before separating in 1955 and divorcing in 1958.
After making significant progress through the many ranks of the ANCYL, Mandela participated in many of the non-violent, anti-government activities organised by the group. Such activities included the 1949 Programme of Action, which saw the ANC transformed from a middle class liberal association to a mass militant liberation movement, employing such non-violent methods as civil disobedience, strikes and boycotts in the hopes of improving the situation of Black Africans living in South Africa.
In 1952, Mandela was chosen to be the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign, with Maulvi Cachalia as his deputy. This Campaign (a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC) ) once again employed methods of civil disobedience, in retaliation to new apartheid and Pass laws. (Pass laws forced Africans of black descent to carry ‘pass books’ containing their fingerprints, a photo of themselves and information on areas of restricted access, where people who the government classed as “black” were not allowed to enter.) Following the campaign, Mandela and nineteen other activists were sentenced to nine months intensive labour under the Suppression of Communism Act.
Before being sentenced to life-imprisonment on 11th June 1964, Mandela was acquitted of charges set against him during a five year Treason Trial, but the ANC and Pan Africanist Congress were banned after police killed sixty-nine unarmed people in a protest against the pass laws held at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960. Before this protest, Mandela married Winnie Madikizela on 14th June 1958.
After having secretly left South Africa and visiting Africa and England in an attempt to raise support for the now armed struggle against apartheid, Mandela was arrested soon after his return to South Africa on 5th August 1962. (Whilst away, Mandela had received military training in Morocco and Ethiopa.) After being charged with leaving the country illegally and inciting work-strikes, Mandela was sentenced to five years imprisonment. In the space of a month, several of Mandela’s ANC comrades were also arrested.
On 11th June 1964, the Rivonia Trial (which had started on 9th October 1963) saw Nelson Mandela and his comrades sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage. Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were sent to Robben Island. However, Denis Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white.
During his incarceration, Mandela’s mother died in 1968 and his eldest son Thembi died in 1969. He was not allowed to attend their funerals.
After having refused three conditional offer of release, Mandela began peace talks with government officials in the later stages of his twenty-seven year incarceration. On 12th August 1988, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and was transferred to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl where he spent the last fourteen months of his imprisonment.
Mandela was released from the gates of Victor Verster on Sunday 11th February 1990. (His ANC comrades had been released four months earlier.) Nine days before Mandela was freed, the bans on the ANC and the PAC had been lifted.
In 1991, Mandela was elected President of the ANC. In 1993, he and President FW de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. But on 10th May 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected President. However, he stepped down from the position in 1999 after promising he would only serve one term.
Nelson Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg on 5th December 2013, after enjoying fifteen years of marriage with his third wife Graça Machel.
No amount of words can do justice to the bravery, integrity and strength of Nelson Mandela. But educating ourselves about the forces he fought against and recognising his work can allow his legacy to live on and finally grant the man who fought so strongly for justice, some justice of his own.
If you would like to learn more about Nelson Mandela and/or South African history, please use the following links:
Alternatively, watch the film, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, released in 2013.