Mandela: a remarkable 92 years

 Nelson Mandela with Siphiwe Tshabalala,  the South African football star who scored  the very first goal of the 2010 Fifa World  Cup
Nelson Mandela with Siphiwe Tshabalala,
the South African football star who scored
the very first goal of the 2010 Fifa World
Cup. (Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

President, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and statesman, Nelson Mandela, the world’s icon of reconciliation, compassion and goodwill, turns 92 on Sunday 18 July 2010.

The day will be the first international Nelson Mandela Day, as declared by the United Nations in 2009. On the day, people around the world are urged to spend 67 minutes helping others, to celebrate the 67 years Mandela spent fighting apartheid.

Today, US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton issued a statement wishing Mandela happy birthday.

“I am honoured and humbled to call President Mandela my friend,” she said. “Like millions of his admirers around the world, I am deeply moved by his generosity of spirit and unfailing courage in the face of overwhelming obstacles.

“Nelson Mandela is a hero to people of all backgrounds and experience who strive for freedom and progress. His story is filled with an amazing strength and integrity of spirit. There is no one more deserving of this unprecedented international recognition, and I am delighted to offer him my warmest wishes on this special day.”

Already, birthday presents are piling up at the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s gift office – many of them vuvuzela trumpets. Times Live reports that many of the presents began to arrive after the end of the 2010 Fifa World Cup, and they include a basket of books from Peru’s ambassador, a woollen hat from NGO Gogo Magic and a wooden boat from the Cameroonian soccer team.

On Saturday Mandela will celebrate his birthday with South African President Jacob Zuma and other African National Congress dignitaries, and spend Sunday, his birthday, with his family, including his wife Graca Machel.

An enormous legacy

Nelson Mandela’s 92 years have been remarkable.

After spending 27 years in apartheid’s prisons, Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. He united a fraught and fearful country, bringing together blacks and whites when South Africa was living through violent and troubled times.

His legacy is enormous, and most tangible in the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. The former embodies the spirit of reconciliation, ubuntu and social justice, working through strategic networks and partnerships to capture the vision and values of Mandela’s life; the latter with developing programmes and partnerships to protect and improve the lives of children and youth.

Out of the children’s fund grew the 46664 initiative, a worldwide concert fundraising programme to help victims and orphans of Aids.

This year, his birthday was commemorated as Mandela Day, celebrated worldwide. It is hoped that the day will become a global fixture, to always remember the sacrifices Mandela made for peace and reconciliation in South Africa.

Part of Mandela Day was a campaign to encourage everyone across the world to take 67 minutes in the day to do something for the good of humanity and the planet.

“Mr Mandela has spent 67 years making the world a better place. We’re asking you for 67 minutes,” says the Mandela Day website.

Troublemaker from the Eastern Cape

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape province, the son of a chief of the Tembu clan of the Xhosa nation. At the age of seven he was enrolled in the local missionary school, where he was given the name “Nelson”, after the Admiral Horatio Nelson of the Royal Navy, by a Methodist teacher who found his African name difficult to pronounce. That name, Rohlihlahla, means “troublemaker”.

After his father was stripped of his chieftainship following a dispute with a local magistrate, Mandela and his mother moved to the small village of Qunu. In 1927, when Mandela was nine, his father died, and the boy became the ward of the Tembu regent, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He was to be groomed to assume high office but, influenced by the cases that came before the chief’s court, decided to become a lawyer.

In 1939, after he had matriculated from school, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare for a bachelor of arts degree. But the following year, after being suspended from college for joining in a protest boycott and fleeing an arranged marriage, he moved to South Africa’s principal city, Johannesburg.

Arriving in Alexandra township in the north of the city, he found work as a guard at one of Johannesburg’s many gold mines, and later as an articled clerk at a law firm. He completed his degree by correspondence at the University of South Africa, and began to study law at the University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1942 Mandela entered politics by joining the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s major liberation movement and today the country’s ruling party. It was during this time that he and a small group of mainly young members of the ANC embarked on a mission to transform the party into a mass movement.

In 1944 he, Anton Lembede and Mandela’s lifelong friends and comrades Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu founded the ANC Youth League (ANCYL). That year he also married his first wife, Evelyn Mase. In 1947 he was elected president of the ANCYL.

The year 1948 was a dark one in South Africa, with the election of the racist National Party, voted into government by a white electorate on the platform of apartheid. In response, in 1949, the ANC adopted its Programme of Action, inspired by the Youth League, which advocated the weapons of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authority. The programme aimed at the attainment of full citizenship and direct parliamentary representation for all South Africans. In policy documents co-written by Mandela, the ANCYL paid special attention to the redistribution of the land, trade union rights, free and compulsory education for all children, and mass education for adults.

During the Campaign for Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, Mandela was elected the ANC’s national volunteer-in-chief and travelled the country organising resistance to discriminatory laws. He was charged and brought to trial for his role in the campaign and given a suspended prison sentence.

Mandela and Tambo attorneys

In recognition of his contribution to the defiance campaign, Mandela was elected president of both the Youth League and the Transvaal region of the ANC at the end of 1952. He subsequently became the deputy president of the ANC.

Soon after the defiance campaign, Mandela passed his attorney’s admission examination and was admitted to the profession. In 1952 he and Oliver Tambo opened a law firm in downtown Johannesburg.

Tambo, the chairperson of the ANC at the time of his death in April 1993, wrote of their practice: “To reach our desks each morning Nelson and I ran the gauntlet of patient queues of people overflowing from the chairs in the waiting room into the corridors … Our buff office files carried thousands of these stories and if, when we started our law partnership, we had not been rebels against apartheid, our experiences in our offices would have remedied the deficiency. We had risen to professional status in our community, but every case in court, every visit to the prisons to interview clients, reminded us of the humiliation and suffering burning into our people.”

The 1950s turned out to be a time of strife and tribulation for Mandela – he was banned, arrested and imprisoned. His personal life was also in some turmoil, with him divorcing Evelyn to marry Winnie Madikizela. He was also one of the accused in the historic Treason Trial that ended in 1961, with the state dropping all charges.

The Black Pimpernel

In 1960 police opened fire on a group of protesters in the township of Sharpeville, killing 69 people. The reaction was immediate, with demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and riots across South Africa. On March 30 1960, the government declared a state of emergency, detaining more than 18 000 people, and banning the ANC and other liberation movements.

With the banning, the ANC leadership went underground and Mandela was forced to live away from his family. He was a master of disguise and managed to evade the police, a feat which earned him the nickname in the media as the Black Pimpernel.

The banning also forced the ANC to move from nonviolent to violent means of opposing apartheid. Umkhonto we Sizwe, the movement’s armed wing, was formed in 1961, with Mandela as commander-in-chief. After travelling abroad for several months, he was arrested in 1962 on his return to South Africa for unlawfully exiting the country and for incitement to strike. Convicted, he was sentenced to five years on Robben Island, the notorious political prison off the coast near Cape Town.

While serving this sentence, he was charged with sabotage in the infamous Rivonia Trial. In 1964 Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Eighteen of Mandela’s 27 years in jail were spent on Robben island, where he carried out hard labour in a lime quarry. As a D-group prisoner, the lowest classification, he was allowed only one visitor and one letter every six months. While in prison Mandela studied by correspondence with the University of London, earning a Bachelor of Laws degree. In 1984 he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, and in December of that year he was moved to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl in the Western Cape.

President of South Africa

Over the years, South Africa slowly descended into near-chaos, with almost constant unrest inside the country, armed insurgency from without, and steadily increasing international pressure from the international community to end apartheid. On 2 February 1990 the country’s National Party president, FW de Klerk, made a remarkable announcement: a negotiated settlement would end apartheid, all liberation movements would be unbanned, and all political prisoners released – including Nelson Mandela.

Nine days later Mandela walked out of Victor Verster prison, his wife Winnie on his arm and his fist raised in the liberation movement salute.

In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after its decades-long banning, Mandela was elected president of the party. His long-time friend, Tambo, became national chairperson. In 1993 he and FW de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their different roles in the peaceful end of apartheid.

In 1994, after South Africa’s first democratic elections, Mandela became president of the Republic of South Africa. That year he published his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which he started writing in prison.

After serving a five-year term as president of the country, Mandela ceded the ANC presidency to Thabo Mbeki. He retired from public life in June 1999, though not from the public eye. He built himself a home in his birthplace in Qunu, which he visits as often as he can.

Friendships

Known affectionately by his clan name of Madiba, Mandela has friends across the world – Bill Clinton, Bono of U2, Naomi Campbell. His friendships go back in some cases 60 years, as with Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Ahmed Kathrada.

In his autobiography Memoirs, Kathrada recounts that he and Mandela affectionately called one another madala, isiZulu for old man.

“Charming and charismatic, he has both a magnetic personality and a commanding presence,” writes Kathrada. “An uncommon amalgam of peasant and aristocrat, he is a living paradox: a democrat par excellence, with just a touch of the autocrat; at once proud but simple; soft yet tenacious; obstinate and flexible; vain one moment and humble the next; infinitely tolerant but also impatient.”

Kathrada and Mandela spent 18 years together on Robben Island and a further seven in Pollsmoor Prison, along with Sisulu.

“For all the public exposure and media attention Madiba remains an enigma to all but his most intimate circle,” concludes Kathrada.

He recounts an incident with a terminally ill girl, Michelle Britz, that is typical of Mandela. She wanted to meet Madiba, and when she met Kathrada on Robben Island, he got to know of her wish. Kathrada passed on her wish to the then president, who sprang into action immediately.

“The president of South Africa, a universally respected statesman with one of the busiest schedules on earth, flew to the Mpumalanga town of Secunda by helicopter, bearing gifts for a sick child.

“The emotional meeting between Madiba and Michelle was shown on national television, and as she clasped her little arms around his neck and kissed him, the eyes of millions must have filled with tears, just as mine did.”

In his honour

Nelson Mandela has the freedom of 45 cities around the world, and honorary citizenship of 11 cities.

In Johannesburg, Madiba’s image is cast in a 6m high bronze statue and stands preserved in his famous jive in Nelson Mandela Square.

Speaking at the statue’s unveiling in April 2004, Ndileka Mandela, Madiba’s eldest granddaughter, said: “This is a very happy statue. The dancing stance pays tribute to the spirit of joy and celebration inherent in the people of South Africa.”

The countless tributes to him around the world are without precedent. He has 23 schools, universities and institutions named after him; 25 halls, buildings, monuments and housing developments; 13 stadiums, squares, plazas, parks and gardens; 91 streets, roads, boulevards and parks; 32 bursaries and scholarships, foundations and lectures. Thirteen statues, sculptures and artworks carry his name.

Madiba had collected dozens of accolades from around the world: 18 sports-related honours and awards, and 115 other awards.

He has a range of strange items named after him: a landfill site, a spider, a seaslug, a protea, a tea, an orchid, a rescue dog, and a racehorse.

Marriage, children and old age

Mandela and Winnie divorced in 1996. In 1998 he married Graca Machel, widow of Samora Machel, the president of Mozambique until his death in 1986.

The 18th of July 2010 will not only be Mandela’s 92nd birthday; it is also the 12th anniversary of his marriage to Machel. In a 2008 interview with Mike Hanna on the Al Jazeera television network, she describes how lonely Mandela was when she first met him.

“After 27 years in jail, what he most longed for was not the glory of political life, but to have a family life,” she said. “It was a meeting of minds and a meeting of hearts.” Although she hadn’t wanted another marriage after Samora Machel’s death, she decided that her gift to Mandela on his 80th birthday would be to marry him.

“Madiba has allowed me to continue to be myself. He has always respected my space. We have a deep sense of sharing, but at the same time we respect each other’s identities.

“For a man of his age, a man who has gone through those kinds of experiences, he could have become extremely possessive. He’s not. Maybe that’s what love really means. We have found a balanced and respectful way of relating.”

Today Mandela and Machel spend most of their time at their home in the upmarket suburb of Houghton, in Johannesburg. His greatest pleasure of his old age, he says, is watching the sun set, with the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky playing in the background.

A short distance from the tranquil surrounds of Houghton, his famous words from the Rivonia Trial echo on the walls of the Drill Hall in central Johannesburg:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 for which I hope to live and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”