The Great Man – Nelson Mandela

By Laurence Marks – National Guide

My parents emigrated from Northern Ireland to South Africa when I was barely 2 years old. Ironically, so that myself and my three sisters would not have to grow up with the problems that people faced in Northern Ireland. I ended up growing up in the heart of the apartheid era, I went to a whites only boarding school, studied agriculture at a predominately Afrikaans Technicon. I did my 2 years national service at a time when the so called “struggle” in 1985/86 was at its peak and I ended up 1st Class Lieutenant and Adjundant of Far North Command. However, it is hard to believe that I and many other young South Africans had never heard of Mr Nelson Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela until 11 February 1990 when he took the “long walk to freedom” out of the Drakenstein prison near Francshoek in the Western Cape Province. This gives you an idea how the old National Party and the South African government controlled the press and other media sources with an iron fist.

Mandela belongs to the Thembu dynasty, which reigns in the Transkei a territory of the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa. He was born in Mvezo, a small village located in the district of Umtata on the 18 July 1918. His given first name is Rolihlahla, which ironically means “troublemaker”. Mandela’s father served as chief of the town of Mvezo. However, he was stripped of his position after a dispute with the colonial authorities. The family then moved to a nearby town of Qunu. Unfortunately, Mandela’s father died shortly after the move when he was only nine years old and he was then sent to live with his uncle a paramount chief or regent of the Thembu tribe. Rolihlahla Mandela became the first member of his family to attend a school. On the first day of school his teacher gave him the English name “Nelson”. Nelson Mandela attended a Wesleyan mission school located next to the palace of the regent and later the Wesleyan college in Fort Beaufort where most of the Thembu royalty attended. The European teachers could not pronounce or remember the names of the black children and it was common practice throughout South Africa or colonial Africa, at these private schools or mission stations where they taught to give these children mainly Christian or common English names. Here Nelson Mandela excelled in academics, as well as in the sports of athletic and one of his later passions in life, boxing. As with all Thembu boys, Mandela had to attend initiation school at the age of sixteen, which is also still customary amongst the various black ethnic groups in South Africa today.

After enrolling at Fort Hare University, Mandela began to study for a Bachelor of Arts, it was also here where he met Oliver Tambo. Tambo and Mandela became lifelong friends, colleagues and comrades. Mandela also became close friends with his kinsman, Kaiser (“K.D.”) Matanzima, who as royal scion of the Thembu Right Hand House and who was in line for the throne of Transkei, a role that would later lead him to embrace Bantustan policies. His support of these policies placed him and Mandela on opposing political sides.

At the end of Nelson’s first year, he became involved in a Students’ Representative Council boycott against university policies, and was told to leave Fort Hare and not return unless he accepted election to the SRC. But, there was an even bigger surprise waiting for him and his cousin when they returned home for the Christmas holidays at the end of their first year. The uncle announced to Mandela and his son and heir to the throne Justice, that he had arranged marriages for both of them, which was customary and still is customary. These two educated young men were horrified at the idea and ran away to Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela initially found employment as a guard at a mine and later he started work as an article clerk at a Johannesburg law firm “Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman”, through connections with his friend and mentor Walter Sisulu. Mandela completed his B.A. degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) via correspondence whilst working at “Witkin, Sidelsky and Edelman”. He then began further law studies at the University of Witwatersrand and its was here where he befriended fellow students and future anti-apartheid political activists Joe Slovo, Harry Schwarz and Ruth First.

Nelson Mandela became actively involved in politics after the Afrikaner dominated National Party won the elections in 1948 under the leadership of Malan. The National Party supported the apartheid or racial segregation. Mandela was one of the leaders of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) 1952 Defiance Campaign and then the 1955 Congress of the People, when they adopted the Freedom Charter, which makes up today a large portion of South Africa’s constitution. During this period Mandela and fellow lawyer Oliver Tambo operated one of the few black only law firms “Mandela and Tambo” whom were very successful considering all the human rights issues at that stage in South Africa. Unfortunately, after continuous harassment from the security police they were forced to close their practice.

Although, Nelson Mandela was originally committed to a non-violence campaign, he was arrested with another 160 comrades in December 1955 and charged with treason. The marathon Treason Trial lasted 4 years from 1955-1959 following which they were all acquitted.

Anti-apartheid organizations including the ANC were banned when South Africa became a Republic on 31 May 1961 under the leadership of the National Party. The ANC’s then decided to form an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe – Spear of the Nation and Nelson Mandela was appointed commander. The move to an armed struggle was a last resort after years of increasing repression and violence from the state. The ANC felt that the years of non-violent protest against apartheid had not and could not achieve any progress.

The idea was to raise funds abroad and to arrange paramilitary training of the group. They would recruit young mainly non-white South Africans and train them in various countries that are still regarded today as terrorist harbouring countries. They would then infiltrate these comrades, freedom fighters or then they were regarded as terrorist of the state, across the borders back into South Africa. Once back in South Africa and under civilian cover, they could carry out their campaigns against military and government targets, making plans for a possible guerrilla war, if the sabotage failed to end apartheid. This so called war, was known to other South Africans as the “Border War” from 1969 – 1989, as the South African military felt it was more effective to protect the borders between South Africa / Namibia and all neighbouring countries against insurgence than trying to fight urban guerrilla warfare.

In 1962 Nelson Mandela was arrested, imprisoned in the Johannesburg Fort and charged three days later for leaving South Africa illegally. He was sentenced to five years in prison. While he was imprisoned, police arrested other prominent ANC leaders on 11 July 1963, at Liliesleaf Farm, Rivonia, north of Johannesburg. Mandela was brought in, and at the “Rivonia Trial” held at the Supreme Court in Pretoria, they were charged with the capital crimes of sabotage and treason. Two years later on 11 June 1964, a verdict was given. All except Rusty Bernstein were found guilty, but due to international pressure they escaped the death sentence by hanging and were sentenced to life imprisonment on 12 June 1964. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island where he remained for the next seventeen of his twenty-seven years in prison. Whilst in prison Mandela undertook study with the University of London by correspondence through its External Programme and received the degree of Bachelor of Laws. Mandela was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison near Constantia, where he spent 8 years and the last 2 years in the Victor Verster Prison (Drakenstein prison).

In 1985 President P.W. Botha offered Mandela conditional release in return for renouncing the armed struggle. Although, he was advised against doing so, saying that Mandela would never commit his organization to giving up the armed struggle in exchange for personal freedom. Mandela indeed turned down the offer, releasing a statement via his daughter Zindzi saying “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” Most people refer to Mandela being imprison for 27 years, but if you consider that he was in and out of prison for 4 years during the “Treason Trial” and again for 2 years during and until sentence was given in the Rivonia Trial” , he was really imprison for about 31 years.

In 1989 P W Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced as president by F W de Klerk. President FW de Klerk announced Mandela’s release, he took the “long walk to freedom” from the Victor Verster Prison (Drakenstein prison) on 11 February 1990. On the day of his release, Mandela made a speech to the nation. He declared his commitment to peace and reconciliation with the country’s white minority, but made it clear that the ANC’s armed struggle was not yet over:

“Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

He also said his main focus was to bring peace to the black majority and give them the right to vote in both national and local elections. Mandela’s leadership through the negotiations, as well as his relationship with President F.W. de Klerk, was recognized when they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in which full enfranchisement was granted were held on 27 April 1994. The ANC won 62% of the votes in the election, and Mandela, as leader of the ANC, was inaugurated on 10 May 1994 as the country’s first black President of the Republic of South Africa. He served one term of 5 years. Famous word from a great man:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. 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”.

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