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Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)
Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)

Obituary

Indelible global icon Nelson Mandela dies at 95 Add to ...

Other African countries have had visionary revolutionaries lead their people to freedom and serve as elected heads of state. But very few have been able to resist the temptation to cling to power. Mandela’s principled stand on equality, social justice and personal ambition set him apart.

A secular saint to his fervent admirers, he was an amalgam of all he had endured as an outcast, a revolutionary and a political prisoner. He had the wisdom to realize that apartheid oppressed all South Africans – black, white and coloured – and that freedom and justice must embrace tyrants as well as their victims. As president, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Constitutional Court, two essential instruments to ease South Africa from rogue state to democracy.

Despite his many accolades (in 2009 the United Nations designated his birthday as Mandela Day in recognition of his contribution to world freedom), his legacy has its rough spots. Preoccupied with the social, economic and political transition from apartheid to multi-racial democracy, and the need to assuage white South Africans in order to stave off civil war, he placated financial markets to prevent an economic collapse at home. In the process, he saddled his transitional government with onerous obligations to white landowners and rigid commitments to international economic organizations, all of which made land reform and income redistribution virtually impossible.

While president, he seemed blinkered to the savage reality that the infection rate for HIV-AIDS ballooned from 8 to 25 per cent. It was only in retirement and after his son Makgatho had died from the rampant virus in 2005, that he began to campaign openly for AIDS awareness and the use of anti-retroviral drugs to slow the spread of the disease.

Finally, as both a revolutionary leader and a political prisoner, Mandela was a distant father, a failing he acknowledged when he said that his greatest regret was that his children and those of his comrades had paid the price of their parents’ commitment.

In 1995, when Joe Slovo, the only white member of his cabinet, died of cancer, Mandela tried to comfort his old friend’s grieving children by acknowledging their sacrifice. He told them how one of his own daughters had flinched when he tried to hug her, complaining: “You are the father to all our people, but you have never had the time to be a father to me.” Yet, as journalist and author Gillian Slovo wrote in her memoir, Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country, “What else could they have done?”

CHILDHOOD AND EDUCATION

Mandela’s father, Henry, was a Thembu chief; his mother, Nosekeni Fanny, a Christian, was the third of Henry’s four wives, each of whom had a kraal or group of huts with its own livestock, fields and vegetable patch. The youngest of her three children, Mandela grew up barefoot and tending cattle in what he, as a member (however junior) of a royal family, always remembered as paradise.

At seven, he went to the local mission school, the first in his immediate family to receive a formal education, and was given his English name, probably in honour of Horatio Nelson, the legendary British naval hero of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Two years later, his father, realizing he was fatally ill with lung disease, asked his friend, Jongintaba, the regent of the Thembu’s young king, to become his son’s guardian as well. After his father died, little Nelson moved into his benefactor’s home and watched as he dispensed justice to the tribesman who came seeking his counsel, an experience in exercising power and balancing diverse views that he never forgot.

The regent sent him off to be educated at Methodist-run boarding schools and then Fort Hare University, the leading institution of higher learning for black Africans south of the equator. He flourished scholastically and in a variety of extra-curricular activities, ranging from boxing and cross-country running to acting and even ballroom dancing. His fellow students included Oliver Tambo, an outstanding scholar and keen debater who was to become a steadfast friend and colleague.

Mandela aspired to become a civil servant, but fate and his own rebellious nature intervened. He was expelled from Fort Hare after his second year for taking part in a student protest and, when he returned home, he rebelled again upon learning that the regent had arranged marriages both for Mandela and his own son. Rather than tie the knot, the two fled to Johannesburg, where Mandela found work as a guard in a gold mine.

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