In celebration of Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday, celebrated this week, people in South Africa and across the globe were encouraged to spend at least 67 minutes (for this is the number in years that Mandela has given to the service of his country) doing good deeds, and helping the less fortunate.
This call to good will was met with an overwhelming response. These responses came in all shapes and sizes. There were gestures of the magnificent, such as the donation of ten customised vehicles for the disabled to South Africa’s Department of Social development, to the more humble, as staff from numerous organisations volunteered their time to help build homes in Mfuleni, SA, for beneficiaries of the Habitat for Humanity project. ‘Inspired’ is the word that comes to mind when one thinks of the ways people honoured Mandela. It wasn’t ‘just another birthday of a has-been-political-leader’, as Wednesday 18th July marked a day upon which the whole world wanted something of the man affectionately known as ‘Madiba’ in their lives. This small, but very powerful word moved millions. I take a look back over a handful of moments that made Nelson Mandela the revered icon that he is today.
1. 1944 was the year a new generation of black African leaders came to the fore, coming with a radically different approach to the anti-apartheid movement. Mandela, along with Oliver Tambo, with whom he had studied at Fort Hare University, and Walter Sisulu, who was a close friend and relative, formed the African National Congress Youth League, the ANCYL. The youth wing had very different tactics when it came to tackling apartheid prejudice, much of which precipitated as a result of frustration at the lack of movement from ANC actions of petitioning and demonstrating.
Mandela and his cohorts instead advocated civil disobedience, strikes and non-collaboration in a bid to achieve the group’s proposed goals. This was a veritable success as activists flocked from the youth sector. The enthusiasm with which this new branch was met was backed up by the results of the victory of the National Party, which won the 1948 all-white elections on the platform of apartheid. In particular, Mandela’s commitment and disciplined work was recognised as exemplary, and he was made National Secretary in the same year. Mandela’s conviction later earned him the role of president of the Youth League in 1951.
2. In 1961, Mandela’s true nature as a master tactician rose from the ashes. Mandela built on the more proactive nature of the youth branch of the ANC with setting up military armed wings. In what was a radical departure from ANC policy, he was central to the creation the ANC group: Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, MK), and he became the MK’s first commander.
Mandela was previously committed to non-violent protest against the apartheid movement, but felt that armed resistance had become the best way to sabotage such a tyrannical regime. From his view, the aim was to “hit back by all means within our power in defence of our people, our future and our freedom”.
In spite of his battle for South Africa, the old saying unfortunately held true “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” ‘MK’ soon became classified as a terrorist organisation and was subsequently. The militant group carried out numerous bombings during the next 20 years, killing at least 63 people and injuring a further 483 over the course of the campaign. In spite of these more negative statistics, Mandela’s tactics paid off as the world took note of the growing South African crisis, especially after his involvement with the organisation led to his imprisonment. He became known as Africa’s foremost black leader.
3. 11 July 1963 saw the MK leader’s life thrown into turmoil as a raid, undertaken by the authorities on Lilieslief farm, discovered the militant group’s headquarters. Leading members were arrested, notably Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg and Mandela himself. The trial that followed was named ‘The Rivonia Trial’, after the suburb of Johannesburg where the militants were found.
Mandela, along with his co-accused was charged with over 200 counts of “sabotage, preparing for guerrilla warfare in South Africa and for preparing an armed invasion of South Africa.”
The ruling judge at the time, President Quartus de Wet didn’t impose the death sentence, partly due to immense international pressure, instead sentencing them to life imprisonment. Mandela and his comrades proudly confessed their role in the sabotage, but namely in the desire to alleviate the grievances of the country’s African people.
From the dock, dressed in full tribal dress, Mandela went on to deliver one of his many awe-inspiring speeches that left crowds cheering as the men left court in a police lorry:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” It was these words which lay the foundations for some of his guiding principles by which he worked for the liberation of South Africa.
4. From 1989, Mandela had been involved in talks with Frederick De Klerk, (the now State President as a replacement for the ailed P.W. Botha) regarding the country’s future. Mandela was key in De Klerk’s resolution to lift the ban on forming political parties, including the ANC, as well as releasing political prisoners, including Mandela himself. After 27 long years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was released on 11 February 1990 from Victor Verster prison, triumphant after his tireless struggles to heal the wounds of South Africa. He was well aware however, that there was a great more to be done to stabilise the country, as he indicated in his hopes and goals for the nation’s future in a speech he gave at the Cape Town City Hall.
5. On 20 December 1991 the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, “CODESA”, was set up to negotiate constitutional change in South Africa. The constitution came to be based on a one man, one vote system whereby the democratic process would become fairer and more transparent. Both Mandela and De Klerk were major contributors to these negotiations.
This effort and their previous work for emancipating South Africa were jointly awarded in December 1993 with the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mandela and De Klerk were central to the peaceful conclusion to the atrocities of apartheid, and establishing grounds for a new democratic South Africa. De Klerk and Mandela were commended on the political compromises each was able to make with the other, for the sake of their nation. Their solidarity paved the way for all Africans to be able to reconcile themselves to a new South Africa and find a way forward from hatred and prejudice.
6. April 1994 brought the dawn of a new age for South African democratic politics. When the country’s first multi-racial elections were held, the ANC won a 62% majority. A Government of National Unity, GNU, was formed, which could last for up to five years as a new constitution was drawn up. On 10 May 1994 Nelson Mandela made his inaugural presidential speech from the Union Building, Pretoria: “We have at last, achieved our political emancipation. we pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another… Let freedom reign. God Bless Africa!”
Freedom fighter and statesman, Mandela will always be honoured for his tireless efforts in the service of both his country and human rights on a global scale. A man who has achieved the feats that he has, and stirred such an incredible spring of goodness in the world is surely one to be held up as an icon for all to follow. In a shameless leap onto the bandwagon, I also wish that every day could be ‘Mandela day.’