For South Africans exhausted by the struggle against one another, Nelson Mandela filled the need for a unifying figure who could give them a vision of nationhood

Nelson Mandela has surely been venerated by more millions in his lifetime than any political figure in history. In working to free his country from racial division, he led an essentially peaceful revolution, culminating in his release from prison in 1990 and the post-apartheid election of 1994, which saw him elected as the first president of a democratic South Africa. The world responded to the qualities it perceived in the man, as well as to the scale of his achievement.

Was he born to it, this child of royal descent? His uncompromising defiance of a cruelly repressive government — as commander of Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the Spear of the Nation — spoke loud. Was he a great general, or a great politician, this herdsboy who became a president and more? Was he a great orator? Or was his statesmanship what mattered, bringing peace to a nation that seemed destined for bloody racial war? Curiously, Mandela’s greatness seems to have lain in all these things, and yet in none of them.

Early life

His birth, into the royal house of the Thembu people, was central to the man. But as royalty goes, his place in Xhosa tribal society was barely of the high-born. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a descendant of a 19th-century tribal monarch, Ngubengcuka, but through the so-called “left-hand house,” which did not stand in the direct line of succession. His mother, Nosekeni Fanny, was the third of four wives, and Rolihlahla “pulling the branch of a tree” or, more colloquially, “troublemaker” was the youngest of his father’s four sons.

A child’s world is bounded by what they see. When Mandela was born at Mvezo, near Umtata, 120 miles north-east of East London, in the native reserve of the Transkei in the Eastern Cape, he was an aristocrat in his small world, even if his first duty, aged five, after the family moved to nearby Qunu, was as a shepherd. At the age of seven, he went to school, the first of his family to do so. On that first day he was given the name of Nelson to answer to; each child had to have an English as well as an indigenous name.

In the family tradition, he was groomed to become a counsellor to the future king, Sabata. He was sent to a Methodist mission school, Clarkebury, 25 miles south-west of Umtata. At 19, he moved to another Methodist school, Healdtown, in Fort Beaufort, 175 miles south-west of Umtata, and then to nearby Fort Hare University College, at the time South Africa’s only black university.

Mandela greatly enjoyed university, particularly boxing and athletics, and nursed an ambition to become a civil servant and interpreter about as high a position as a black man might aspire to in those days. But his ambition seemed to be crushed when, in 1940, in his second year, as a member of the student representative council he was expelled for his part in a rebellion over poor quality food. He returned to Mqhekezweni to find another potential disaster — an arranged marriage was being planned for him.

To escape the nuptials, in 1941 he ran away to Johannesburg, where he landed a job as a nightwatchman guarding the compound entrance of a gold mine.

By this time Mandela had abandoned his dream of becoming an interpreter in favour of a career in the law. A cousin introduced him to the future ANC leader Walter Sisulu, then running an estate agency in central Johannesburg who took him to a local law firm.

At the office and at Sisulu’s home, he began mixing with more radical members of black society. He also met his first wife, Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Sisulu. She was a trainee nurse from the Transkei, four years younger than her future husband. They married in 1944 and had two sons and two daughters, both called Makaziwe, since the first died in infancy. The marriage broke up in 1956 after Evelyn, reputedly demanded that Mandela choose between her and the ANC, and divorce followed in 1958.

Political foray

His first appearance on the political stage came in 1944, with the launch of the ANC Youth League, a ginger group determined to radicalise, or replace, the staid leadership of the ANC. Mandela was a founder executive member.

Then, in 1948, the exclusively Afrikaner Nationalist party won the whites-only general election, and began to institute its policy of apartheid across South Africa. In response, the ANC started looking for alliances with communist and Asian groups to organise civil disobedience campaigns. By then, thanks in large part to the youth league, the ANC had been rejuvenated. Chief Albert Luthuli was president, Mandela his deputy. A measure of his new prominence was that he got his first banning order.

In August of that year, Mandela, having abandoned his LLB but now qualified as an attorney, set up a law partnership with the man who would stand in for him during the long years of imprisonment, Oliver Tambo.

But while the two attorneys used their legal know-how to promote their political ends, the failure of conventional campaigning to stop the removal of the black population of the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown in February 1955 convinced Mandela that the ANC had no alternative but to take up armed resistance: “A freedom fighter learns the hard way that it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle, and the oppressed is often left no recourse but to use methods that mirror those of the oppressor.” The political objectives of this new urgency were defined in the Freedom Charter, drawn up over two days in June 1955 by an ANC-led rainbow alliance known as the Congress of the People.

The government, however, pre-empted further action when, in December 1956, it arrested Mandela and 155 other activists for high treason, on the grounds that the charter implied communist revolution.

While the hearing had a disastrous effect on his law firm, Mandela had the consolation during it of meeting Nomzamo Winifred “Winnie” Madi- kizela. They got married in June 1958, and in August he was back in court. The prosecution was struggling to demonstrate violent intent and the trial was still dragging on when, on March 26, 1960, 69 Africans demonstrating against the pass laws were shot dead by the police in Sharpeville, 35 miles south of Johannesburg. By the time the trial ended a year later, with the remaining 29 defendants acquitted, it had become a platform for the declaration of ANC ideals.

Straight after the verdict, Mandela went underground, earning himself a reputation as the “black pimpernel” as he stayed one step ahead of the authorities. In June 1961, he persuaded the ANC leadership to pursue a course of violence, with himself as the head of MK, and immediately recruited Sisulu and the white communist Joe Slovo to lead a force whose cutting edge was a small group of explosives experts.

Reluctant to cause loss of life, MK first made its presence felt through explosions at government installations in December 1961.

In the new year, Mandela got his first taste of the world outside South Africa, when he went on a whirlwind tour of the continent.

Returning home, he was finally captured in August 1962, masquerading as a chauffeur. He was sentenced to three years for incitement, and another two years for leaving the country without a passport. Then, in October 1963, he was brought to court again as the “number one accused” in the Rivonia trial, alongside those ANC leaders arrested at the farm that July, and charged with sabotage.

Looking back, it seems inconceivable that those accused of treason at Rivonia could have been hanged, but such an outcome was entirely plausible. A member of the Johannesburg bench privately claims that he saved them by persuading the trial judge, Quartus De Wet, to change his mind over a cup of tea in the judicial common room, just before he returned to court for sentencing. De Wet, it seems, had been set on hanging.

Mandela’s determination to show dignity in the face of the gallows almost invited the attentions of the hangman. The draft of his now famous defence statement was returned to him by apprehensive lawyers. They begged him to excise the last paragraph, arguing that it was likely to antagonise the judge. But he refused.

The reading of the statement took four hours. It denied foreign influence or recklessness in settling on a programme of sabotage, and emphasised the ANC's desire for a non-racial democracy. Mandela spoke the last paragraph from memory, looking straight at De Wet: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this 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.” He was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Release

Released on February 11, 1990, the following year he was still struggling to keep the mask on — hands dug into a trench coat in the public gallery of the Rand supreme court, staring impassively as his wife Winnie was pilloried on kidnapping and assault charges. A six-year jail sentence was reduced on appeal to a fine. It was not until his appearance before the same court — for his divorce in 1996 — that it became apparent that the reservoirs of love had finally run out.

Soon after the divorce, he was travelling in the company of Graca Machel, widow of the Mozambican president and ANC ally Samora Machel, who had died in an air crash 15 years earlier. Marriage followed in 1998, on Mandela’s 80th birthday. Graca, too, survives him, as do 17 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.

Sometimes Mandela was like a stage magician, forced to perform by his followers’ passionate belief that he was the real thing. Perhaps this need to demonstrate charisma explained his attachment to the glamour of the very rich. In speeches, he often used to boast of his ability to milk wealthy businessmen for good causes. But, at times, there was suspicion as to how “good” — or, more specifically, how independent of his own interests — the causes were.

In the second half of the 20th century, South Africans, exhausted by the struggle with themselves and against one another, had need of a unifying figure to give them a vision of nationhood. Mandela saw the need, donned the mask that the role demanded and gave his life for his people. There lies his greatness, and hence the tears that flow at his death, in a much beloved country.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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