One of history’s most radical and influential leaders, Nelson Mandela, died on December 5th, 2013, leaving behind a legacy of fighting against forces of oppression and deprivation.
On July 18th, 1918 Nelson Mandela was born to Chief Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla and Nonqaphi Nosekeni in Mvezo, Transkei. Born into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe, he was expected to succeed his father in leadership.
Following his father’s death in 1930, Mandela became the ward of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, who intended on preparing Mandela for tribal leadership. However, choosing to digress from his future position as tribal leader, Mandela enrolled into the University of Fort Hare in 1939.
At the time, the university was the only Western-style schooling institute permitting South African blacks. After only one year of attendance, Mandela was expelled from the University of Fort Hare for participating in protests against the university’s policies.
These protests mark the beginning of his long and impassioned career in civil rights activism.
Following his expulsion, Mandela enrolled into the University of Witwatersrand, where he studied law and participated in the anti-racial discrimination movement. In 1944, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and became a prominent leader in the resistance against the National Party’s apartheid policy, which suppressed the civil rights of non-whites. The Congress planned to attain official citizenship for all South Africans through nonviolent protesting.
In 1952, Mandela led the ANC’s campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws and drafted the Freedom Charter, a manifesto later ratified by the Congress of the People in 1955.
Simultaneously, Mandela was elected as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign in 1952. Soon after, he was sentenced to nine months hard labor under the Suppression of Communism Act for the campaign’s practice of civil disobedience.
This would be the first of several arrests, and only a small component of an accumulation of 27 years spent in prison.
In 1961, when the South African government responded to Mandela’s peaceful protests with violence, Mandela retaliated by founding an armed wing of the ANC known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation.” He justified his adoption of violent action,
[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.
Although Mandela did resort to fighting injustice with violence, he never countered prejudice with more prejudice. Instead, he strived to build a “Government of National Unity.”
In 1963, Mandela was arrested yet again alongside many other ANC members for their attempts to overthrow the government with force. Mandela’s defense statement resonated throughout the country, and proved to be one of the most compelling speeches of the twentieth century.
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.
On June 12, 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, which he served in the labor camps of Robben Island Prison and Pollsmoor Prison. Despite the brutality of his confinement, Mandela earned his bachelor degree in law from the University of London, and drafted his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” all the while inspiring those who had been oppressed by the apartheid policy to act upon will rather than hate.
During the entirety of his sentence, Mandela rejected multiple compromises for his release in return for his renouncement of violence and submission to Transkei Bantustan, a policy that divided the South African population according to ethnicity. He was finally released on February 11th, 1990.
On May 10th, 1994, Mandela was elected as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Soon after being elected president, he adopted the nickname Tata, or “father”, and reclaimed his Xhosa tribe name, Madiba (in primary school, Mandela was given the “Christian” name Nelson, as it was custom for school children ).
In efforts to reunite the country from the hostility that followed after the end of apartheid, Mandela encouraged the country to unite and support the predominantly Afrikaner national rugby team, the Springboks, in the 1995 World Cup.
Throughout his lifetime, Mandela was awarded more than 250 honors, amongst them being the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2009, the United Nations officiated July 18th as “Nelson Mandela International Day.”
Following his presidency, Mandela became one of the leading advocates for AIDS awareness after the disease killed his son, and continued to work towards diminishing racism and degrading global suffering.
Meanwhile, although he did not allow it to falter his devotion to leadership, Mandela was fighting a battle with his own health. In 1988, he had been taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After twenty-five years, he passed away at the age of 95 from a lung infection on December 5th, 2013.
Although Mandela’s name now bears profound respect and pride, he was considered a terrorist by most for the greater part of his career. During the Reagan presidency, Mandela was added to the United State’s terrorist watch list, where he remained until 2008.
In response to his opposition to the 1986 bill that called for Mandela’s freedom, retired GOP congressmen Dick Cheney recently stated, “I don’t have any problems at all with the vote I cast 20 years ago.” In fact, he furthered his sentiment in saying that if he could vote again, he would still object to Mandela’s release.
These remarks exemplify an ignorant misjudgement of the line between extremist violence and the will of the radically oppressed to overcome the oppressor. Nelson Mandela undoubtedly embodies the latter. Although he faced brutal ignorance for the entirety of his career, Mandela never faltered in his commitment to the people, and was never reduced as anything less than a figure of hope.
A character such as Mandela cannot be condensed into the simple definition of a terrorist, but perhaps he can best be described by the words that Barack Obama offered at Mandela’s memorial on December 10th:
Mandela taught us the power of action, but also ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those you agree with, but those who you don’t. He understood that ideas cannot be contained by prison walls, or extinguished by a sniper’s bullet… Finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit… that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.
Mandela’s image as a father of South Africa illustrates him as one of the primary architects of peaceful circumstances today. His life will be revered for generations.
Contributions by Natalie Osuna ’17