The South African statesman Nelson Mandela was an icon of our era with a stature in global political history rivalling that of Mohandas Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. For countless people worldwide, Mandela symbolises the virtues of an indefatigable struggle against the evils of racism and oppression. Rising above discords, bigotries and inequalities – those of his own country and of others – he became a unifying figure inspiring and eliciting our common humanity. Mandela, we feel, belongs to no one nation or political creed, but to us all. This will be his most enduring legacy and will easily survive the dismaying exertions of South Africa’s governing African National Congress (ANC) to manipulate the meanings of his prolonged passing. Indeed, since at least his appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 football World Cup – an event that otherwise marked a peak in the mood music of South Africa since apartheid – Mandela has been a portrait of pathos. It was not always so.
Called Rolihlahla (‘troublemaker’) at his birth on 18 July 1918 in what remains today a rural part of Eastern Cape province, Mandela acquired the name Nelson at the first of two Methodist missionary schools he attended. These institutions reinforced the ‘straight and stately posture’ he said he inherited from his father, an aristocrat of the Madiba, the clan title by which Mandela is also affectionately known. Mandela continued his education at Fort Hare University College, the alma mater of many of Southern Africa’s black nationalist leaders, but was suspended for his political activities in 1940. The following year he also defied his royal relatives by departing for Johannesburg to evade an arranged marriage. In South Africa’s brash industrial and financial heartland, seething with the discontent of the hundreds of thousands of his fellow blacks who had similarly migrated to wartime urban employment opportunities, he joined the ANC.
Mandela was one of a new generation of leaders who in 1944 formed the ANC Youth League, which converted the ANC from the timid reformism espoused since its creation in 1912 to the militant organisation that promoted mass civil disobedience against apartheid in the 1950s; conducted an underground sabotage campaign following its outlawing in 1960; through long decades of exile mobilised international opposition to apartheid; and then finally gained power in South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994. Mandela played a leading part in all these phases, for although a prisoner from 1962 to 1990, his conduct in court, particularly his 1964 statement from the dock during the trial of the underground leadership, enhanced the legendary status with which his political actions when free had endowed him, and made his release the logical focus of anti-apartheid campaigning.
Mandela faced his greatest test following his release from prison in February 1990. To the surprise and, increasingly, the admiration of many informed observers, he successfully negotiated the end of white minority government in a context beset by violent conflict. He did this without losing his credibility among his millions of followers at home and abroad.
Dr Keith Shear, Senior Lecturer in African Studies, University of Birmingham