South Africa and the world are mourning Nelson Mandela.
Like an old soldier, Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, quietly faded away in Johannesburg on Thursday. Nearly 20 years ago, he changed the future of his country by leading the African National Congress to a landslide victory in the first democratic elections in South African history.
Even though Mandela retired from active politics in 1999, he is still seen as the ideal leader – generous, forgiving, and self-critical – against which all other politicians must be measured. No matter how frail he became or how infrequent his public appearances, he remained the link between the horrific past and the difficult but hopeful future. His death will not be a shock, but it will be a visceral loss for a nation that must find a way to carry on without the benevolent presence of the hero who bound all South Africa – black, coloured and white.
Mandela’s declining health has been top of mind since he was hospitalized in January, 2011, with an acute respiratory infection. He had rarely been seen publicly since he made a brief appearance at the final match of the World Cup in Johannesburg in July, 2010. Wearing a fur hat, bundled against the winter chill and with a beatific smile illuminating his face, Mandela was wheeled around the football pitch in a golf cart to the joy of the steamed-up supporters of Holland and Spain. As a goodbye gesture, it was both poignant and symbolic.
Football and Mandela share a legacy dating from the refusal of prison officials to let him and his fellow inmates play the game on Robben Island during the direst days of apartheid. The decision to hold the World Cup in South Africa was largely a tribute to Mandela on the 20th anniversary of his release after nearly three decades of incarceration.
Mandela, who was 95, had been frail for some time. He had been under medical care at home since September after three months in hospital for a lung infection.
The liberator of his people and the first democratically elected president of his country, Mandela was a visionary and strategic hero for a multiracial age. The son of a village chieftain in the Eastern Cape’s Transkei region, he was born on July 18, 1918, while, half a world away, the Allies were mounting a huge counter-attack in the Second Battle of the Marne, the victory that helped to end the First World War.
He spent his early childhood tending cattle and living in a mud-floored hut, his middle years breaking rocks in the blistering sun in the Alcatraz of South Africa, and his final years basking in global accolades, including the Nobel Peace Prize, for his pivotal role in the emancipation of more than 30 million black South Africans – and avoiding a bloody revolution in process.
A man of many names, he was called Rolihlahla (“to pull a branch out of a tree”) by his parents, Nelson by the teachers at the Methodist missionary school he attended, the Black Pimpernel by the press after he went underground in the early 1960s and Mdala (old man) by his prison cadres on Robben Island. The one he preferred, especially in his old age, was Madiba, the name given him by his clan in the Xhosa-speaking Thembu people in honour of a legendary 18th-century chief.
No matter how many names he had, one thing never varied: He was a man of steadfast conviction and principle who remained loyal to the cause and to the friends and political allies who had helped in the struggle for social justice in South Africa.
In prison, cut off from family, friends and the media, he was supposed to fade from public interest, especially in South Africa where it was forbidden to mention the ANC or any of its leaders. And yet, incarceration was the making of Mandela as a political leader. Smart, determined and resilient, with a canny eye for the main chance and a resounding ability to evolve, he learned to curb his temper, his impatience and his arrogance. Most of all, he transcended rage and hatred, developed a long view of the struggle and underwent a spiritual honing that sweetened his bitterness with forgiveness and replaced the heady surge of revenge with the measured diplomacy of reconciliation.