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Nelson Mandela

In July, Nelson Mandela will celebrate his 90th birthday. His retirement home is in Qunu, a remote Transkei village close to where he was born in 1918. Little has changed on those gentle hills, but the nation beyond has been revolutionised by the spirit of that small boyNelson Mandela in traditional dress who grew up in a round mud hut, tending cattle on the green slopes

His father was Chief Henry Mandela, senior advisor to the King of the Thembu Tribe. Nelson grew up listening to the debates of the elders, absorbing a tradition in which discussion continues until unity is achieved. Nelson was sent to a missionary school, and his determination took him to the University of the Witswatersrand, where he graduated in law in 1942, later opening the first black law practise in South Africa.

In his late twenties Mandela was a tall, handsome young professional in lively Johannesburg, an amateur boxer, with sharp suits and a car, a dashing figure in the vibrant townships that swung to the rhythm of African Jazz. He was noticed by the girls, but also by the leadership of the opposition African National Congress (ANC), which he joined in 1944, becoming a popular speaker at anti-discrimination rallies around the country.

In 1948 formal ‘Apartheid’ was introduced. Nelson Mandela the LawyerThe oppression of black people became more savage. In court, Mandela defended those charged under petty racist laws designed to control and pacify the black population. Much of his work was ‘pro bono’ and he was seen as a people’s champion and an eloquent political leader of growing stature. His message was simple: a call for non-racialism, equal rights and democracy. In 1956 he was put on trial for ‘treason’ but after five years defending the justice of his cause he was acquitted.

New laws suppressed activists and Mandela went ‘underground’. Despairing of peaceful protest he led the formation of an ANC military wing to commit limited acts of sabotage. After a year on the run, a celebrated ‘black pimpernel’, he was finally arrested and again put on trial in 1962. With new sweeping laws stacked against him and capital punishment expected, he concluded his bold defence thus:

‘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 which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’.

The judge spared the gallows and sentenced him to hard labour on Robben Island for the rest of his life.

Mandela’s image and voice were banned by the government. He would remain in prison for the rest of his 40s, 50s and 60s, only returning to society at the age of 72. He was cut off from his young family and his leadership role, confined to a tiny cell on a windswept barren island in the Atlantic.

Robben Island was a sinister place, designed to break the spirit of black political leaders. The guards were the hardest racists. The prisoners had little protection from them, nor the cold flagstones on which they slept, nor the brightness of the Robben Islandlime quarry where they were forced to work with shovels, watched over by armed guards and German Shepherds. This relentless, harsh regime, with its callous petty rules, cruelties and restrictions, that forbade almost all contact with family or the outside world, was a system designed to torment and cauterise hope.

Yet, Mandela and his colleagues kept their minds sharp and their spirits alive. They studied, debated, helped one another and found joy in winning small victories. Mandela did not regard himself as cut off from the ‘Struggle’ but at its sharpest point. He set about winning over the guards, the hardest of opponents. Mandela learned Afrikaans and Afrikaner history. In their own language, with reference to their own culture, Mandela reasoned with the guards. He sought to understand their hidden fears and honed his persuasion. He practised his charm. With alarm, the authorities noticed guards softening, and they were replaced regularly.

Mandela had an unquenchable passion for the rightness of his cause, and saw in it liberation for all – black and white – and the salvation of a nation headed for disaster. His was not a fight for power, but for values, his way was never domination, but respect. His weapons were those of persuasion not of guns and bolts. He was not a revolutionary bent upon seizing power, his ambition was higher, to convince all South Africans to embrace reconciliation, fairness and learn to live in harmony.

By the mid-1980s South Africa had degenerated into a vortex of conflict. Mandela took a difficult decision, to defy ANC policy and request secret negotiations with the government. Sporadic private talks with the ‘Great Crocodile’, President P.W. Botha, followed, and these paved the way to the surprise announcement of Mandela’s release in February 1990 and negotiations toward full democracy. Mandela had helped break the deadlock.

Mandela was immediately flung into a bright spotlight inTime Cover of Mandela the modern world. Soon he was appointed leader of the disjointed, diverse liberation movement. For four years he led troubled negotiations with a two-faced government in a dangerously violent country slipping into civil war.

For almost everyone in South Africa, Mandela became a living symbol of hope in a nightmarish conflict. He was an African, a leader of royal blood, highly skilled in the ways of consensus leadership. He had the highest credentials of a Struggle leader, a lifetime of dedication to the cause, with years of suffering on Robben Island. At the same time he won the confidence of whites. They had been told he was a dangerous terrorist. Now he was free and they expected bitterness, angry demands and violent threats. But they were steadily won over by the judicious lawyer, his good sense and eloquence had grown into a towering statesmanship, his easy warmth and smile, his stylish shirts and love of life, his conciliatory hand to even the most violent opponents, gave white's confidence and disarmed their fears. He offered them a future in partnership and, ultimately, even those leaders with the most narrow of interests saw Mandela’s values as the way forward.

Nelson Mandela For the first time in history an oppressive minority government gave up power voluntarily. They exchanged it for Mandela’s vision of reconciliation, democracy, the rule of law, a Bill of Rights and the protection of property. Free elections in April 1994 brought Mandela to power with 66% of the vote. In 1996 his liberal values were enshrined in a highly praised constitution. His Presidency was characterised by nation building, reconciliation and peace efforts around the world. And unlike dictators and so many populist Presidents, he left office after only one term. He showed no love of power, only a fearless commitment to the most noble of values, which he celebrated even in the most terrible of times.


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