Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela, anti-apartheid activist, joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and the first President of South Africa to be elected by a truly democratic election, died peacefully and surrounded by his family members at his Johannesburg home on Thursday evening, local time. He was 95.
His life, more than any other, has come to symbolise the struggle for racial equality and self-determination of the diverse peoples of South Africa and the African continent: beginning with his early childhood in the remote region of the Transkie, his gradual entry into politics as a young lawyer, the 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of white supremacists, and his triumphant return to freedom as a man who, in his own words, sought the middle ground between “white fears and black hopes” in one of the most segregated modern societies in the world.
Born on July 18, 1918, Mandela was named Rohlihlahla, or “troublemaker,” by his father, a chief of the Thembu people of the Xhosa nation. On his first day of school the teacher gave each child an English name, and the troublemaker was disguised as “Nelson”. Mandela left his village Qunu at the age of nine after his father died, and studied at Clarkebury Boarding Institute, the Wesleyan College at Fort Beaufort and the University College of Fort Hare. Then he ran away to Johannesburg in 1941 to escape the prospect of a forced marriage.
A few years after his arrival in Johannesburg, the far-right Afrikaner nationalist party won the 1948 election, in which only Whites were allowed to vote, on the platform of implementing a racial segregation policy called apartheid, or "apartness."
For Africans, apartheid, as Mandela describes it in his memoir Long Walk to Freedom, meant it was “a crime to walk through a Whites Only door, a crime to ride a Whites Only bus, a crime to use a Whites Only drinking fountain, a crime to walk on a Whites Only beach, a crime to be on the streets past 11 p.m., a crime not to have a pass book and a crime to have a wrong signature in that book, a crime to be unemployed and a crime to be employed in the wrong place, a crime to live in certain places and a crime to have no place to live.”
As a young man, Mandela writes, he was wary of politics and worried that speaking out could affect his professional prospects. There was no single moment of epiphany that drew him into the anti-Apartheid movement, just “a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, [that] produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people.”
He joined the African National Congress (ANC), a venerable organisation that was established in 1912 and had since lost its way, and in 1944 helped found the ANC’s more militant Youth League. He initially opposed alliances with other groups like the Indians and White Communists, fearing that they would hijack the ANC, but gradually evolved a broad-based politics that embraced all those opposed to apartheid.
While he was influenced by Mohandas Gandhi’s satyagraha movement, he saw non-violence as a tactical decision rather than as the moral choice described by Gandhi. In the early days, Mandela notes, “the state was far more powerful than we… This made non-violence a practical necessity rather than an option.” By the end of the 1950s,
he was increasingly convinced that calculated acts of sabotage and attacks on government and military targets were the only way to force the hand of the state.
In 1961, Mandela was tasked with setting up Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, a guerilla organisation that would serve as the ANC’s armed wing. He vanished underground and travelled across Africa to drum up financial and logistical support for the fledgling army. In August 1962 he was caught as he made his way back into South Africa and sentenced to life imprisonment along with Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mahlaba, and Elias Motsoaledi. He was 44 years old and the father of six young children.
“This is the Island, here you will die,” shouted the guards as Mandela and his fellow prisoners were led to their cells in Robben Island, the isolated outcrop just off the coast near Cape Town. His incarceration, most of it on Robben Island, would last 27 years; when he finally walked free in February 1990, his young son had died in a car accident, one of his daughters was married, his mother had died of old age, he was 71 years old.
In the meantime, the ANC was driven into exile, the Spear of the Nation grew in strength and sophistication, and Mandela became an international cause celebre. By the 1980s, the country experienced significant violence as the ANC stepped up its pressure and the government responded with force.
Writing in 1986, writer J.M. Coetzee described how the myth of Mandela had grown even as the man himself vanished into the penal system. “There is no doubt that the imprisonment of Mandela failed entirely to erase him from popular awareness in South Africa,” Coetzee wrote in his essay, ‘Waiting for Mandela’, “His face, on posters and T¬shirts, was everywhere to be seen in the uprisings of 1985; the slogan “Free Mandela” was daubed on the walls of power. Yet the great majority of the young people who took to the streets in his name had never seen him in the flesh, never heard his voice.”
He emerged from prison both aware of the new world around him, yet shielded from the ravages of time. “He was like an African liberator from another era — the era of Léopold Senghor and Julius Nyerere, the era of unlimited African hope,” wrote William Finnegan in his 1995 review of Long Walk to Freedom, “His ten thousand days in prison preserved him, in important ways, in political aspic.”
In hindsight, the transition that he oversaw achieved significant political goals even as it failed to address fundamental economic issues. In 1994, white commercial farming accounted for 87 per cent of agricultural land in South Africa with black farmers granted communal rights to the remaining 13 per cent. Rather than redistribute the land, the ANC offered to buy the land at market rates – a policy that proved prohibitively expensive. Since then, the ANC succeeded in redistributing a mere 7 per cent of the land.
Mandela’s supporters explain the “Willing Buyer – Willing Seller” policy as a pragmatic compromise that was necessary to overthrow the apartheid regime. “Come 1994, the command structure of the army is largely white, the police – the same, ownership of the economy – the same,” explained Mandela’s successor Thabo Mbeki, who served as President from 1999 to 2008, “We had to be very careful. You reach a compromise in which you say the interests of the majority have got to protect and advanced, but you need to also address the concerns of the minority because that minority had every possibility to destabilise the transition to democracy.”
Having shepherded his country to relative stability, Mandela retired from active politics, leaving it to his successors to reverse the incredible consolidation of wealth engendered by centuries of colonisation. Mbeki’s government unveiled the “Black Economic Empowerment” Policy in which private sector companies were told to meet specific targets for black ownership. Yet, the policy suffered the same fate as the land distribution policy. By 2009, black-controlled groups accounted for only 8 per cent of South African businesses by market capitalisation.
Further, unions and political parties – including the ANC – launched their own investment vehicles to take advantage of these deals. The ANC’s company is called Chancellor House Holdings, a reference to the building where Mandela and Oliver Tambo set up their law practice.
The wealth generated by companies such as Chancellor House have helped the ANC establish itself as the premier political force in the country, even as it has co-opted rather than transformed the economic legacy apartheid. The local papers are rife with allegations that senior ANC figures have used the country’s assets for personal enrichment. President Zuma, Mr. Mbeki’s successor, stands accused of spending $27 million on refurbishing his private residence in Zululand, even as Julius Malema, a disgraced former ANC member has set up the Economic Freedom Fighters to demand real change. In 2012, the country was convulsed by harrowing footage of policemen firing into a crowd of protesting mine workers in Marikana, killing 44 and prompting memories of apartheid era massacres.
“We are now at the furthest point from where Nelson Mandela left his nation when he went into retirement,” columnist Rajeni Munusamy wrote at the time, “we are willing to leave our fellow citizens face down in the dust of the prized platinum belt, their blood spilt in vain.”
Yet, Mandela’s greatest legacy is perhaps his commitment to the redemptive powers of hope and struggle. “The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself,” he wrote in a 1975 letter from prison, “Never forget that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Rohlihlahla the troublemaker’s long walk may have ended, but his country’s has just begun.