AT THIS time it seems entirely appropriate to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, one of the huge icons of the Twentieth Century.
Along with Mahatma Gandhi he could be seen as one of the most influential people of the century during which the results of colonialisation were redressed and the attitudes of millions of ordinary people were changed.
Mandela was born on 18th July, 1918 in a country founded by the colonialist British. His ultimate achievement of becoming the first non-white South African to be elected as President of his country cannot be over-stated. He was elected in the first ever fully representative, multiracial election.
After 27 years in prison, finally convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, after a series of charges against him had been overthrown, he emerged a whole person, unbroken and unbent by the decades of mistreatment.
He was born into the royal family of the Thembu, a Xhosa clan, and became known after his election, by the people of South Africa as ‘Tata’ (father). He became a member of the African National Congress (ANC) and was president of the Congress from 1991 – 1997.
The government he led focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid (where ‘Whites’ ‘Coloureds’ and ‘Blacks’ were obliged to live separately and, for the ‘Blacks’ without voting rights). They tackled the racism, poverty and inequality that underpinned every aspect of South African life, while doing what seemed the impossible, fostering racial reconciliation.
Mandela was both an African nationalist and a democratic socialist, and was the Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.
As a young man he, before the changes that would have prevented this, attended Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand, studying law. In Johannesburg he became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the ANC and being a founding member of its Youth League.
In 1948 the Afrikaner National Party came to power in South Africa, and began to implement the policy of apartheid, which robbed Africans of any civil rights they had enjoyed.
In his work as a lawyer he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and was prosecuted for treason in a trial that ran for five years, but in which he was found not guilty.
In 1961 he co-founded the miltant ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe’ leading a bombing campaign, and was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.
For many years an international campaign supported by large numbers of people throughout the world fought to free him.
Finally his release was secured, though President FW de Klerk, at the time President of South Africa, elected by the minority ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ electorate was instrumental in the final decision. His work, with Mandela after his release in 1990, led to the abolition of apartheid and the first multiracial elections.
The Government of National Unity that he formed was an attempt to defuse ethnic tensions in South Africa and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed to investigate past human rights abuses was instrumental in preventing the terrible bloodbath that most people at the time had feared would follow the changes.
Mandela’s administration introduced measures to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services, measures that continue, though it will take decades to redress the balance of society.
He declined to run for President for a second term and handed on the mantle to Thabo Mbeki, taking the opportunity to become an elder statesman and to focus his attention on charitable work to combat poverty and HIV/AIDs through the Nelson Mandela Foundation
In 1993 he was jointly, with FW De Klerk, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and is held in deep respect within South Africa, where he is often described as ‘the father of the nation’.
He is reported as having no fear of death. Perhaps there could be little worse than that part of his life he lived, all 27 years of it, in prison.
Nelson Mandela has been a true influence for good, in a century that saw many to deplore of. The love that so many people feel for this man, is evidence of his greatness, his generosity and his power to prevail against all odds. We salute him.
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