Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013: 'An Ideal for Which I Am Prepared to Die'

“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.” 

- Nelson Mandela, speech from the dock, Rivonia Trial, Pretoria, South Africa, April 20, 1964

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, former president of South Africa and one of the most revered leaders of his time, has passed away at the age of 95 in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

To black South Africans, Mandela was a liberator. To white South Africans, he was a symbol of reconciliation. To the world, he was a moral example--both of the courage to fight for freedom, and the wisdom to make compromises for the sake of lasting peace.

Mandela was born in Mvezo, in the Xhosa tribal hinterland of the Eastern Cape, in 1918, into a family that cultivated its sons as advisors to the local chief. He grew up steeped in the decorous ritual of that pastoral culture, and his clan name, Madiba, is affectionately used to refer to him by South Africans of all backgrounds. He attended mission schools and studied briefly at Fort Hare, alongside many of the country’s future black leaders.

Life in South Africa’s booming industrial metropolis, Johannesburg--eGoli, or City of Gold, in Xhosa--attracted the young Mandela, and after a few abortive efforts in the mining industry he found his way to the legal profession. Together with O.R. Tambo, Mandela formed the first black law firm in South Africa. 

Both would later lead the African National Congress (ANC), the movement that is South Africa’s ruling party today.

Mandela became involved in politics through the ANC’s Youth League, which spurned the ANC’s then-reformist culture and urged a more aggressive campaign for full racial equality. Along the way he befriended many of the major cultural figures of his time, and became acquainted with whites who shared his goal of equality. Though many of the latter were communists, Mandela never embraced communism as a political philosophy.

After the rise of apartheid in 1948, the ANC and other organizations launched the non-violent Defiance Campaign, similar to the civil rights movement in the United States. Mandela, together with dozens of other leaders, was rounded up and prosecuted in the infamous Treason Trial, and eventually acquitted. But with the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, the ANC’s leaders became convinced that non-violence would not be effective.

Mandela and other ANC leaders then launched a military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), which carried out a sabotage campaign. In 1962, Mandela and several other leaders were arrested and, after the Rivonia Trial, sentenced to prison on Robben Island in 1964. 

The ANC remained banned in the country, but its military wing continued to operate within Southern Africa, with assistance from the Soviet Union. The decision to align with the Soviet Union would later haunt the ANC, as it alienated the United States and Great Britain, which were otherwise inclined to support the anti-apartheid movement (and did so, albeit in limited fashion). While Mandela was in prison, the Soviet-trained leaders of the ANC's army committed human rights abuses in military camps outside the country, and used terror attacks on civilians inside South Africa.

Though some parliamentary opposition to apartheid remained, notably in Helen Suzman’s Progressive Party (the antecedent of today’s leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance), political opposition to apartheid was suppressed until the Soweto riots of June 1976. New movements started, such as the United Democratic Front, and as international sanctions and protests mounted, the regime began negotiating quietly with Mandela.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, then-President F. W. de Klerk made a surprise announcement in February 1990 that Mandela would be released. Following his jubilant march from the Pollsmoor prison gates to the chaos of Cape Town City Hall, Mandela and the ANC began a long negotiating process with the government as well as other political parties, including newly “unbanned” ones.

Early on, Mandela agreed to suspend the ANC's “armed struggle.” That did not end political violence--which became worse--but the decision helped strip violence of its political legitimacy. White voters soon approved the talks in a 1992 referendum, and the country’s first democratic election took place on April 27, 1994, electing Mandela as president and de Klerk as his deputy. Both had shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

Mandela’s five-year term in office was moderately successful. The country approved a new constitution, and embarked on a painful reckoning with its past through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The ANC reluctantly agreed to a fiscally conservative, market-oriented economic strategy--yet also passed strict labor laws and affirmative action policies, leading to weakly positive growth but also persistently high unemployment.

While in office, Mandela took pains to honor the letter and spirit of the new constitution, and embodied the country’s new “Rainbow Nation” self-image. He accepted famously donned a Springbok jersey--once a symbol of apartheid--during the 1995 Rugby World Cup. And by serving only a single term, Mandela sought to send a signal about the strength of South Africa’s new democracy, as well as to set an example for other African leaders.

However, Mandela’s term was marked by a dramatic rise in violent crime, which has only subsided slightly since. He also--as he later admitted--ignored the emergence of HIV/Aids. His former wife Winnie, already implicated in human rights abuses, became embroiled in corruption. Mandela also approved a controversial arms deal that kicked off an era of cronyism, while the ANC-dominated parliament refused to investigate. 

In retirement, Mandela remained active in the country’s political and cultural life. He retained his good health partly due to an abstemious physical regime he had adopted during his imprisonment, and was frequently seen taking walks along public thoroughfares. His comfortable home in Houghton, an upscale neighborhood of Johannesburg, rapidly became a pilgrimage site for Hollywood celebrities and international sports stars.

Mandela cultivated friendships with opposition leaders, though he remained a party man to the last. He was reluctant to criticize his successor, Thabo Mbeki, but increasingly opposed Mbeki’s denialist policies on HIV/Aids. 

Mandela also continued to play an international role, supporting the early stages of the U.S.-led war against terror but later criticizing the Iraq War, suggesting that the U.S. had treated the UN with disdain because of racism. His remarks on the latter conflict, during which Mandela used the word "holocaust" to describe American ambitions in Iraq, drew wide criticism. Mandela had, however, supported the U.S. in Afghanistan, saying at the White House in November 2001 that the war should not end until allied forces had "flushed out the terrorists." Those remarks provoked criticism and concern among South Africa's largely anti-American, left-wing ruling elite.

Mandela continued to maintain controversial allegiances to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, to Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi, and to Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, rewarding them for their support of the ANC during its exile. A peace-maker at home, Mandela failed to broker an end to civil war in Zaire/Congo, and neither he nor his successors managed to convince Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to leave office.

In his last days, Mandela's illness was accompanied by public fighting and legal wrangles among his family members about where he would be buried--whether at his childhood home in the small village of Qunu, or at a site in Mvezo chosen by his grandson Mandla. The controversy amplified family disputes that had plagued Mandela throughout his public life, particularly as colleagues and relatives sought to profit from his name and stature.

Yet Mandela’s legacy remains a profoundly positive and inspirational one. He brought his country to democracy without the civil war that was once considered inevitable. And whereas South Africans once feared the chaos that would result once Mandela left the political scene, the country--though still troubled by labor unrest, poverty and crime--had long since stabilized to the point where it had anticipated Mandela’s death with grace.

Mandela leaves behind a world that will remain fascinated by his example. He also leaves many who remember him dearly, as a caring friend with a gentle wit. As his former parliamentary opponent, Tony Leon, said in a 2008 tribute, Mandela “wore his power, and immense moral authority, very lightly.” 

He touched the lives of individuals as well as nations. He will be missed; with any luck, he will be imitated. Farewell, Madiba.


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