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Liberator of a torn South Africa

Mandela: ‘Hating clouds the mind... leaders can’t afford to hate’.

Written by New York Times | Published: December 7, 2013 1:27:05 am

The question most often asked about Nelson Mandela was how,after whites had systematically humiliated his people,tortured and murdered many of his friends,and cast him into prison for 27 years,he could be so evidently free of spite.

The explanation for his absence of rancour,at least in part,is that Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman,comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.

When the question was put to Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment,how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.

Rise of a ‘Troublemaker’

Mandela was deep into a life prison term when he caught the notice of the world as a symbol of the opposition to apartheid. Around 1980,“Free Nelson Mandela”,already a liberation chant within South Africa,became a pop-chart anthem in Britain,and Mandela’s face bloomed on placards at student rallies in America aimed at mustering trade sanctions against the apartheid regime.

Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography,“Long Walk to Freedom”,that this congregation made him the world’s best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was. Probably it was just his impish humour,but he claimed to have been told that when posters went up in London,many young supporters thought Free was his Christian name.

He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18,1918,in Mvezo,a tiny village of cows,corn and mud huts in the rolling hills of the Transkei,a former British protectorate in the south. His given name,he enjoyed pointing out,translates colloquially as “troublemaker”. He received his more familiar English name from a teacher when he began school at age 7. His father,Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa,was a chief of the Thembu people,a subdivision of the Xhosa nation.

In his autobiography,Mandela recalled eavesdropping on the endless consensus-seeking deliberations of the tribal council and noticing that the chief worked “like a shepherd”.

“He stays behind the flock,” he continued,“letting the most nimble go out ahead,whereupon the others follow,not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind”.

That would often be his own style as leader and president.

Joining a Movement

Studying law at the University College of Fort Hare,Mandela fell in with Oliver Tambo,another leader-to-be of the liberation movement. Later,the two met Walter Sisulu,who ran a real estate business in Soweto,and was a spark plug in the African National Congress.

Mandela soon impressed the activists with his ability to win over doubters. “His starting point is that ‘I am going to persuade this person no matter what,’ “ Sisulu said. “That is his gift. He will go to anybody,anywhere,with that confidence. Even when he does not have a strong case,he convinces himself that he has.”

Impatient with the seeming impotence of their elders in the African National Congress,Mandela,Tambo,Sisulu and other militants organized the ANC Youth League. Africanism versus non-racialism: that was the great divide in liberation thinking. Mandela was attracted to the doctrine of self-sufficiency.

“I was angry at the white man,not at racism,” he wrote in his autobiography. “While I was not prepared to hurl the white man into the sea,I would have been perfectly happy if he climbed aboard his steamships and left the continent of his own volition.”

During his years as a young lawyer in Soweto,Mandela married a nurse,Evelyn Ntoko Mase,and they had four children,including a daughter who died at 9 months. After the marriage grew cold and ended with abruptness,a friend introduced him to Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela,a medical social worker 16 years his junior. This second marriage would be tumultuous,producing two daughters and a national drama of forced separation,devotion,remorse and acrimony.

A Shift to Militancy

In 1961,with the patience of the liberation movement stretched to the snapping point by the police killing of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville township the previous year,Mandela led the African National Congress onto a new road of armed insurrection.

It was an abrupt shift for a man who,not many weeks earlier,had proclaimed non-violence an inviolable principle of the ANC. He later explained that forswearing violence “was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon”.

Taking as his text Che Guevara’s “Guerrilla Warfare”,Mandela became the first commander of a motley liberation army,grandly named Umkhonto we Sizwe,or Spear of the Nation. Although he denied it throughout his life,there is persuasive evidence that about this time Mandela briefly joined the South African Communist Party,the ANC’s partner in opening the armed resistance.

During Trial,a Legend Grows

In 1956,he and scores of other dissidents were arrested on charges of treason. The state botched the prosecution,and after the acquittal Mandela went underground. Upon his capture he was charged with inciting a strike and leaving the country without a passport. His legend grew when,on the first day of that trial,he entered the courtroom wearing a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cape to underscore that he was an African entering a white man’s jurisdiction.

That trial resulted in a three-year sentence,but it was just a warm-up for the main event. Next Mandela and eight other ANC leaders were charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state — capital crimes. It was called the Rivonia trial,and at Mandela’s suggestion,the defendants,certain of conviction,set out to turn it into a moral drama that would vindicate them in the court of world opinion.

The four-hour speech with which Mandela opened the defence’s case was one of the most eloquent of his life,and — in the view of his authorized biographer,Anthony Sampson — it established him as the leader not only of the ANC but also of the international movement against apartheid.

Mandela described his personal evolution from the temptations of black nationalism to the politics of multiracialism. He acknowledged that he was the commander of Spear of the Nation,but asserted that he had turned to violence only after non-violent resistance had been foreclosed. He conceded that he had made alliances with communists — a powerful current in the prosecution case in those Cold War days — but likened this to Churchill’s cooperation with Stalin against Hitler.

An Education in Prison

Mandela was 44 when he was manacled and put on a ferry to the Robben Island prison. He would be 71 when he was released.

For Mandela and others,Robben Island was a university. Mandela learned Afrikaans,the language of the dominant whites,and urged other prisoners to do the same.

He honed his skills as a leader,negotiator and proselytizer,and not only the factions among the prisoners but also some of the white administrators found his charm and iron will irresistible. He credited his prison experience with teaching him the tactics and strategy that would make him president.

During his time on the island,a new generation of political inmates arose,defiant veterans of a national student uprising who at first resisted the authority of the elders but gradually came under their tutelage. Years later Mandela recalled the young hotheads with a measure of exasperation: “When you say,‘What are you going to do?’ they say,‘We will attack and destroy them!’ I say: ‘All right,have you analyzed how strong they are,the enemy? Have you compared their strength to your strength?’ They say,‘No,we will just attack!’”

The Negotiations Begin

Mandela’s decision to begin negotiations with the white government was made like an autocrat,without consulting his comrades,knowing full well that they would resist.

“My comrades did not have the advantages that I had of brushing shoulders with the VIPs who came here,the judges,the minister of justice,the commissioner of prisons,and I had come to overcome my own prejudice towards them,” he recalled. “So I decided to present my colleagues with a fait accompli.”

In the last months of his imprisonment,as the negotiations gathered force,he was relocated to Victor Verster Prison outside Cape Town,where the government could meet with him conveniently and monitor his health. Mandela seated his visitors at a table and patiently explained his view that the enemy was morally and politically defeated,with nothing left but the army,the country ungovernable. His strategy,he said,was to give the white rulers every chance to retreat in an orderly way. He was preparing to meet de Klerk,who had just taken over from Botha.

Free in a Changed World

In February 1990,Mandela walked out of prison into a world that he knew little,and that knew him less. The African National Congress was now torn by factions — the prison veterans,those who had spent the years of struggle working legally in labour unions,and the exiles who had spent them in foreign capitals. The white government was also split,with some committed to negotiating an honest new order while others fomented factional violence.

Over the next four years Mandela would be embroiled in a laborious negotiation,not only with the white government but also with his own fractious alliance.

While Mandela had languished in prison,a campaign of civil disobedience was under way. Winnie Mandela was tormented by the police,jailed and banished with her children to a remote Afrikaner town,Brandfort. After her release in 1984,she surrounded herself with young thugs who terrorized,kidnapped and killed blacks she deemed hostile to the cause.

In 1995 Mandela filed for divorce,which was granted the next year after an emotionally wrenching public hearing. He later fell publicly in love with Graça Machel,widow of the former president of Mozambique,and they married on Mandela’s 80th birthday. She survives him,as do his two daughters by Winnie Mandela,Zenani and Zindziswa; a daughter,Makaziwe,by his first wife; 17 grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.

A Deal for Majority Rule

Two years after Mandela’s release from prison,black and white leaders met for negotiations that would lead,fitfully,to an end of white rule. While out in the country extremists black and white used violence to try to tilt the outcome their way,Mandela and the white president,de Klerk,argued and maneuvered toward a peaceful transfer of power.

Eventually,Mandela and his negotiating team,led by the former labour leader Cyril Ramaphosa,found their way to the grand bargain that assured free elections in exchange for promising opposition parties a share of power and a guarantee that whites would not be subjected to reprisals.

During the elections in April 1994,voters lined up in some places for miles. The African National Congress won 62 per cent of the vote,earning 252 of the 400 seats in Parliament’s National Assembly and ensuring that Mandela,as party leader,would be named president when Parliament convened.

Limitations as a President

As president,Mandela exhibited a genius for the grand gesture of reconciliation. Few in South Africa,whatever their race,were unmoved in June 1995 when the South African rugby team,long a symbol of white arrogance,defeated New Zealand in a World Cup final,a moment dramatized in the 2009 film “Invictus”. Mandela strode onto the field wearing the team’s green jersey,and 80,000 fans,mostly Afrikaners,erupted in a chant of “Nel-son! Nel-son!” There was a limit,though,to how much Mandela could paper over the gulf between white privilege and black privation. In his term,he made only modest progress in fulfilling the modest goals he had set for housing,education and jobs.


Excerpted from a longer obituary published in The New York Times

What you might not have known about Nelson Mandela


Mandela’s last public appearance was in 2010. Bundled up against the cold,he smiled broadly and waved to the crowd at the Soccer City stadium during the closing ceremony of the World Cup,an event that allowed his country to take the world spotlight.


Mandela was born the son of a tribal chief in Transkei,a Xhosa homeland. Many South Africans of all races call him by his clan name,Madiba,which means “reconciler,’’ as a token of affection and respect.


When black journalists mildly criticised his government,he painted them as stooges of the whites who owned the media. Whites with complaints were sometimes dismissed as pining for their old privileges. To critics of his closeness to Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi,Mandela insisted he wouldn’t forsake supporters of the anti-apartheid struggle.


In 1995,Mandela strode onto the field at the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg wearing South African colors and bringing the overwhelmingly white crowd of more than 60,000 to its feet. Mandela’s decision to wear the Springbok emblem,the symbol once hated by blacks,conveyed the message that rugby,so long shunned by the black population,was now for all South Africans.

INMATE 46664

Mandela was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town for most of his time behind bars. He and others quarried limestone there,working seven hours a day nearly every day for 12 years,until forced labour was abolished on the island. In secret,Mandela – inmate No 46664 – wrote at night in his tiny concrete-floored cell.


Nelson Mandela divorced Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1996,ending a powerful political partnership that had lasted through decades of struggle. They had grown apart politically by the time he emerged from prison.

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