· Roddy Bray's Story-Letters from Southern Africa
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|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 boy 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.
The 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 peoples 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
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.
Mandelas 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
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
lime 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 Mandelas release in February 1990
and negotiations toward full democracy. Mandela had helped break the deadlock.
Mandela was immediately flung into a bright spotlight in 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 Mandelas values as the way forward.
For the first time in history
an oppressive minority government gave up power voluntarily. They exchanged it
for Mandelas 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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