Nelson Mandela: The Slow Farewell

For several weeks now Nelson Mandela has reportedly been on his deathbed. People across the world are already in stages of mourning, many hold their breath, bracing for the bad news that may soon come.

At 94 years of age the renowned political freedom fighter, former political prisoner and eventual president of South Africa is suffering from the ill-health that comes with old age combined with a lung condition he contracted during his 27 years in prison that weakened his system.

His loss is devastating for a world he changed, irrevocably, for the better. Yet, his legacy lives on, secure, partly because of the integrity and self-sacrifice he was known for. He managed to transcend the limits of race and show the world at large that a justified, passionate, and significantly, well-executed populist movement could be unstoppable and ultimately successful.

The South Africa that resulted from Mandela’s struggles was one with a democratic government. A democracy strongly safeguarded by a constitution built upon cornerstones of human rights.

Mandela’s movement was built upon four limbs: (1) the mass organising of protests within the townships of South Africa, (2) an army of well trained guerrilla fighters that were based outside of South Africa, (3) diplomatic initiatives executed by the internationally influential and legitimate institution, the UN, and (4) a grassroots international solidarity campaign that, importantly, ensured the events within South Africa did not occur behind the impenetrable curtain of State Sovereignty. It was this overarching and contagious international solidarity with Mandela and the movement he fathered that inspired economic sanctions, including some bank and cultural boycotts, to pressure the South African Apartheid regime and its allies and supporters abroad to relinquish power.

Mandela was a Xhosa, born in to the Thembu royal family. He did his undergraduate degree at Fort Hare University, which was then a university for black South Africans; he then studied law at the University of Witwatersrand, one of very few black South Africans who studied there during this period. It was during his time at University that he became involved in the anti-colonial political movement, joining the African National Congress (ANC), and becoming a founding member of its Youth League.

In 1948 the Afrikaner Nationalists of the South African National Party came to power and began to implement a policy of apartheid. It was between 1948 and 1955 that Mandela began to rise to prominence within the ANC, and, as a lawyer. During this time he was repeatedly arrested for subversive activities and, between 1956 and 1961, was put on trial for treason, along with other members of the ANC leadership. In this trial he was found not guilty.

In 1961 Mandela branched away from his previous commitment to non-violent tactics of protest and co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). The MK quickly executed a systematic campaign of bombing targets within the apartheid government.

It was this campaign that led to Mandela’s 1962 arrest. He was convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government and, in the Rivonia Trial, sentenced to a life in prison.

Mandela spent a total of 27 years in prison.

The first 18 years of his imprisonment were spent on Robben Island in a damp and tiny concrete cell with nothing but a straw mat as furnishing. Mandela and his fellow political prisoners from the Rivonia trial were forced to spend their days doing physical labour, breaking rocks into gravel. In January 1995 they were reassigned however to work in a lime quarry. As Mandela was not permitted to wear sunglasses to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun off the lime he was left with permanently damaged eyesight.

In 1982, in a concerted attempt to remove Mandela and other senior members of the ANC leadership from other political prisoners imprisoned on Robben Island at the time, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison. The living conditions here were better and he was given much more freedom to communicate with the outside world.

In 1988 Mandela contracted tuberculoses and was consequently moved to Victor Verster Prison where he was housed in relative comfort. He stayed here until his release.

In 1990, after a long international campaign for his release, including the economic sanctions, and amid escalating civil strife, Mandela was released.

He became president of the ANC and led negotiations with the then South African President, F.W. de Klerk, to abolish the systems of apartheid and establish multiracial elections.

In 1993 Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Multiracial elections took place, for the first time in South Africa, in 1994. It was in these elections that Mandela led the ANC to victory and was elected president of South Africa. He held this position for five years, until 1999 where he chose not to run for another term, citing his ill health and desire to rebuild relationships with his family as the principle reasons.

His short term as president was a momentous one. He formed a Government of National Unity in a cohesive attempt to diffuse the ingrained, virulent ethnic tensions. He also established a new constitution for South Africa, which not only strictly safeguarded the newly built democratic institutions but also human rights. This constitution is widely accepted as being one of the most sophisticated in the world.

During his term as president Mandela also initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to systematically investigate the human rights abuses which took place under the apartheid regime. This commission has been largely commended and evaluated as a better approach than that taken in the Nuremberg Trials.

Internationally, Mandela was a champion for persons with HIV/AIDS and those, particularly within the African continent, living in poverty. He also oversaw the military intervention in Lesotho in 1998 and served as a mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial in 2000.

Over the years he was in the spotlight Nelson Mandela was called many things. Terrorist, communist and criminal for example. However, as the saying goes, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and the fight for freedom is what Mandela devoted his entire life to, sacrificing his familial relationships and 27 years to a prison. He fought for the freedom of the black South Africans from apartheid, and from poverty. He fought for racial equality. On a greater level he fought for the disenfranchised at large, giving a voice to struggles previously un-championed.

One day even revolutionaries must die.  What is important now is that Mandela’s legacies – democracy, equality, and transparency – as well as his self-sacrifice and integrity, are not forgotten.