A statesman par excellence. A leader who led by example. An anti-apartheid revolutionary and a philanthropist. Nelson Mandela took on many different roles in his lifetime, and excelled in each one of them, before finally saying goodbye on December 5, 2014. He was 95.
“Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation has departed. He is now resting,” said South African President Jacob Zuma, adding, “He is now at peace.” While the announcement dazed millions across the globe, it soon gave way to celebrations for his remarkable life. Now, as the ‘miracle maker’ is laid to rest in the country he transformed into a ‘rainbow nation,’ we chronicle the ups and downs of his extraordinary life.
Birth of a legend
Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in the village of Mvezo in the rural Transkei area of South Africa. At the age of seven, Mandela went to a local Methodist school, where he was given the English forename ‘Nelson’ by his schoolteacher. For further education, he went to the black university college of Fort Hare. When he turned 22, Mandela sold two cows to buy a ticket to Johannesburg, and went on to study law part-time at the University of the Witwatersrand. It was his life and time in Johannesburg that paved the way for Mandela’s extraordinary career.
Man on a mission
At the university, Mandela became interested in militant politics and joined the African National Congress (ANC). In 1944, he, along with his two friends, Tambo and Walter Sisulu (another activist), formed a Congress Youth League to work against the discrimination and oppression of blacks. It was in 1948, when the National Party came to power and enforced their apartheid policy, that Mandela’s views became more radicalized. He held demonstrations against the regime and later launched a military wing. Soon he was put behind bars on the charges of treason. At the opening of his trial, he said, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
The formative years
Though Mandela was charged with capital offence, the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment and he was taken to Robben Island in 1963. It was during his time in incarceration that Mandela worked on enhancing his inner strength and political knowledge, using his time in jail to study Afrikaans, the complete works of Shakespeare and Churchill’s War Memoirs. He even earned himself a Bachelor of Law degree through correspondence.
As the years passed, a global anti-apartheid movement started gaining power. All this drew more attention to Mandela’s incarceration and the shouts for his release started strengthening. In 1988, a Free Mandela concert was held at London’s Wembley Stadium that was watched by 600 million people.
Rise to power
Even when he was jailed, Mandela was awarded honorary degrees and citizenships, with streets and buildings being named after him. Finally, it was in 1990 when a 71 year old Mandela took his Walk to Freedom out from the prison and waved before a jubilant crowd in Cape Town. Addressing the crowd he said, “We have waited too long for our freedom.”
Over the next two years, Mandela worked toward pushing South Africa on the road to its first multi-racial elections, and in April 1994, Mandela became the first black President of South Africa. In the process, Mandela was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in 1993.
Though Mandela chose to serve only one five year term, from 1994-1999, he had become synonymous with revolution, resistance to inequality and triumph over racial isolation.
Life in retirement
After Mandela relinquished his presidency, he concentrated on his philanthropic agendas by setting up various charitable foundations. He even began speaking out on AIDS, which was considered a taboo subject in Africa, after his son Makgatho died because of it. Though Mandela had retired from a public life, he was unable to show signs of slowing down. For his 90th birthday, Mandela even managed to travel to London and participate in his birthday concert in Hyde Park.
Though Mandela was out of the public eye, his being still worked as a unifying force, and the father of the South African nation continued to inspire a generation of activists all over the world. His presence and charisma left celebrities and world leaders star-struck, and now that he has left for his heavenly abode, his spirit continues to live on in our hearts.
What is your favourite quote by Mandela?