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.
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.
Through a cousin he met Walter Sisulu, a mixed-race realtor also from the Transkei who would become a significant mentor, colleague and, eventually, cell mate. “It was the beginning of a partnership which would be crucial to Mandela’s political career,” British journalist Anthony Sampson writes in Mandela: The Authorized Biography.
Sisulu had left school at 16, but Mandela considered him his “intellectual superior, a mentor with an analytical mind.” Later, Sisulu said of Mandela, “I marked him at once as a man with great qualities, who was destined to play an important part.”
By now, Mandela had decided he wanted a legal career, so Sisulu introduced him to lawyer Lazar Sidelsky, who hired him as a clerk at his firm, loaned him £50 and gave him an old suit – which Mandela wore for the next five years.
The apprentice also went back to school, taking correspondence courses to finish his bachelor of arts degree and then, early in 1943, enrolling in law at the University of Witwatersrand, which was admitting a few black students (but not allowing them to use the sports facilities).
THE MAKING OF A REVOLUTIONARY
However, it was at Wits that he had his political awakening, meeting student activists such as left wingers Joe Slovo and his future wife, Ruth First, whose father had been a founding member of South Africa’s Communist Party in 1921.
After six years, Mandela left Wits without a degree, his studies undermined by discrimination, the pressure of his job and his growing interest in politics. As well as his student friends, he was influenced by Gaur Radebe, the law firm’s other black employee, who was a decade older and politically astute. He helped to organize a bus boycott when commuter fares into Johannesburg were raised 20 per cent. Joining the protest, which saw the fare hike reversed after nine days, was Mandela’s introduction to the African National Congress (ANC).
The congress had been formed in 1912 to protest against the creation two years earlier of the Union of South Africa, which had united the country’s four British and Afrikaner colonies but failed to give Africans any voice in how they were governed. After falling dormant in the 1930s, the ANC had been revived with the election of Alfred Xuma as president in 1940 and the arrival of new members such as Anton Lembede, a Zulu activist and a friend of Sisulu.
Still, the ANC balked when some of the new members, including Mandela, proposed taking a bolder approach, including mass boycotts. Nevertheless, they were allowed to establish the Youth League in 1944, with Lembede as president and Tambo, Mandela, now 26, and Sisulu on the executive committee. Holding a view of the universe as “an organic entity, progressively driving towards greater harmony and unity,” the Youth League quickly began to attract members.
The same year, Mandela, now 26, met and married the first of his three wives: Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Sisulu from the Transkei who’d come to Johannesburg to train as a nurse.
THE RISE OF APARTHEID
With the end of the Second World War, the Union Party government of Jan Smuts struck out against both the black and South Asian communities, crushing a strike of 70,000 mine workers seeking better pay and working conditions, and then banning the sale of land to anyone of South Asian descent.
Even those repressive actions didn’t satisfy rabid white supremacists. In 1948, voters handed power to the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, which was led by Daniel Malan and advocated apartheid, the policy of segregation and repression that would dominate the country for almost 50 years.
Two years later, the Malan government passed the Group Areas Act, which legally established separate residential and business sections for each race. The ANC combined forces with the Communist Party, which had been outlawed (less because of its Marxist ideology than its espousal of racial equality), and the South African Indian Congress to mount a civil-disobedience campaign. A rally in Johannesburg drew 10,000 protesters and a May Day strike kept half of the city’s black workers at home.
Afraid that outside groups would adulterate the ANC’s mission, Mandela was at first unwilling to involve the Youth League (of which he was now president) in the protests. But he was outraged when police in Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg opened fire during the May Day strike and killed 18 protesters. “That day,” he said later, “ was a turning point in my life ... in understanding, through first-hand experience, the ruthlessness of the police.”
He also came to see the strategic and moral significance of a broadly based opposition to apartheid, and endorsed forging a common front with the Indian Congress and the Communist Party, eventually adopting the multi-racial mandate that became the hallmark of the ANC.
By 1952, Mandela had finally qualified as a lawyer and opened the country’s first African law office in partnership with Oliver Tambo, his schoolmate from Fort Hare. Based in Johannesburg, the firm provided cheap legal advice to many blacks who otherwise would have had to appear before white judges without representation.
That year he also played a key role in the “defiance campaign,” a six-month national protest against six laws enacted by the Malan government. He was increasingly torn between his respect for the rule of law and a desire to denounce a regime that had banned him from holding public office (even in the ANC), making speeches or leaving town.
The defiance campaign was a mixed success. It increased the ANC’s profile and membership, but incurred reprisals from the Malan government and led to the arrests of Mandela and 20 of his colleagues from both the Indian Congress and the Communist Party.
More important, though, the brutal crackdown stiffened the resolve of key ANC figures to convene a national conference – open to all South Africans, irrespective of race or colour – to draw up a “freedom charter” for the truly democratic country they envisaged in the future. The Congress of the People was held June 26, 1955, at a private sports field near Soweto. Despite being one of the organizers, Mandela was under a police ban and not supposed to be there, so he could only watch, in disguise, from the sidelines as the charter was recited in three languages: “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white … no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.”
On the third day, armed police moved in to break up the meeting. Nevertheless, the multi-racial charter, with its mixture of lofty poetic phrases and strategic goals, became the manifesto of the liberation struggle. Today it is as iconic for South Africans as the Declaration of the Rights of Man is to the French and the Declaration of Independence is to Americans.
Six months after the Freedom Charter was proclaimed, the Malan government struck back, arresting and detaining Mandela and scores of other opposition leaders on charges of treason. After securing bail, Mandela returned home to find nobody there.
Evelyn had decamped with their children and household possessions. She had become increasingly opposed to his activism, partly because it kept him away from her and their children and partly because, as a Jehovah’s Witness, she didn’t believe in participating in politics. The year before she had given him an ultimatum to choose between her and the ANC.
He wasn’t alone for long. A few months later, as he was preparing to defend himself in what came to be known as the Treason Trial, he spotted Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela as he was passing a bus stop and was so struck by her beauty that he almost turned the car around. Serendipitously she appeared at his law office with her brother a few days later to consult Oliver Tambo.
Also from the Transkei, she had recently graduated as the country’s first black social worker. At 22, she was 16 years younger than Mandela, but they fell passionately in love, and married in 1958, after he and Evelyn had divorced. Daughter Zenani was born that year and her sister Zindzi, in 1960.
The same year that Mandela and Winnie married, Hendrik Verwoerd became prime minister. The Dutch-born psychologist and sociologist had entered politics to help poor South Africans, but not black ones. He is often called the architect of apartheid for the draconian legislation he introduced while minister of native affairs and for his racist pronouncements, such as: “There is no place for the Bantu [black person]in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour.”
Within a year of being sworn in as prime minister, he had imposed apartheid in universities and stripped institutions such as Fort Hare and Witwatersrand of their independence. He’d also established separate tribal homelands, called Bantustans, that had the appearance of self-rule, but were really designed to keep blacks separate from whites. One of them, Transkei, spanned the region where both Mandelas had grown up.
As the ANC was trying to confront the government’s increasingly severe restrictions, the ANC also came under attack from militant black nationalists who objected to its multiracial alliance. One group, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), was especially aggressive and organized a campaign against the notorious pass laws, which prevented non-whites from travelling without official permission and documentation.
On March 21, 1960, a crowd of about 10,000 gathered illegally without their pass books at the police station in Sharpeville, a township on the edge of Johannesburg. The police inside panicked and opened fire, killing 69 and injuring almost 200, in a pivotal massacre in the struggle against apartheid.
In the furious aftermath, Verwoerd declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial, and banning the ANC along with the PAC. Facing destruction, the ANC responded quickly. Six days after Sharpeville, Tambo made his way to England, and set up an office in exile in London that kept the ANC alive for the next three decades.
THE ROAD TO VIOLENCE
In 1961, a year after Sharpeville and five years after it had begun, the Treason Trial finally ended – with a not-guilty verdict. “It is impossible for this court to come to the conclusion,” the judge ruled, “that the ANC had acquired or adopted a policy to overthrow the state by violence” and replace it with a communist regime.
Yet Mandela believed the case marked the beginning of an increasingly brutal and illegal (but officially sanctioned) persecution of blacks – a change that coincided with the country’s willful isolation from its traditional allies. In October, 1960, the Verwoerd government had held a referendum, in which only whites could vote, on whether South Africa should become a republic. When the proposal passed, the government replaced the Queen and the governor-general with a state president, withdrew from the Commonwealth (which had endorsed racial equality, a move engineered by Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker) and on May 31, 1961, declared the Union of South Africa a thing of the past.
With his country moving inexorably toward totalitarianism, his law firm disbanded and his political organization outlawed, Mandela decided to go underground. Now closer to advocating violence than civil disobedience, he agreed to create a military wing for the ANC.
While in hiding and organizing the guerrilla force known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation (MK for short), he read voraciously, consuming books on military strategy, such as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s classic treatise On War. and liberation struggles written by Mao Zedong, Israel’s Menachem Begin and Filipino rebel hero Luis Taruc.
Early in 1962, Mandela secretly left the country in a bid to rouse support across Africa and in England, before undergoing six months of military training in Ethiopia – the first time he had held, let alone discharged, a firearm.
By July he was back in South Africa and living in a farmhouse in Rivonia, a semi-rural suburb of Johannesburg, that served as a safe house for both the ANC and the communists. He drove to Durban late that month to reconnoitre with some MK saboteurs and was stopped on the way home by police who’d been tipped off that the “Black Pimpernel” was disguised as a chauffeur.
After just 17 months, his escapades as a revolutionary were over. But the authorities didn’t know what he was really up to, and charged him with incitement to strike and leaving the country without a passport.
At his trial in November, 1962, he was found guilty on both charges, sentenced to five years in prison and sent to Robben Island, little suspecting it would be his home for most of the next quarter-century.
The following year, the police raided the ANC safe house in Rivonia, capturing Walter Sisulu and three other ANC saboteurs and seizing stacks of incriminating documents, including a six-page plan for an armed uprising called Operation Mayibuye and notes in Mandela’s handwriting. This time he and nine others were accused of sabotage, treason and plotting a foreign invasion – crimes that carried the death penalty.
THE RIVONIA TRIAL
The prospect of hanging is said to focus the mind, but in Mandela’s case it did something much more important: Even if it ended in execution, a show trial would give him a platform to plead his case and reach the international press. As a member of the defence team wrote later, “The heart and kernel of this case was not in this courtroom, but in the world outside.”
The trial opened in Pretoria in October, 1963, and concluded the following April with the case for the defence. The first of the accused, Mandela entered the courtroom thin and pale but flashed a huge smile and raised a clenched right fist as he boomed “Amandla,” or power. To which people in the observation gallery shouted “Ngawethu,” or to the people.
Rather than testifying, Mandela delivered a four-hour speech from the prisoners’ dock that concluded:
“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 with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to life for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The speech identified him publicly as the leader not just the ANC but the entire multiracial opposition to apartheid, and many people consider it the most effective of his career. “He spoke so powerfully and convincingly that it left little need for debate,” Ahmed Kathrada, another of the accused, wrote 25 years later in The Independent. “We accepted his lead and prepared ourselves for the worst.”
Three weeks later, on June 11, 1964, the judge dismissed the prosecution’s argument that the ANC had put its revolutionary plot into action, but concluded that it was a “communist-dominated organization,” and found all but one of the accused guilty of sabotage.
And so, in the same year that U.S. civil-rights leader Martin Luther King became, at 35, the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the leader of South Africa’s civil-rights movement was sentenced to life in prison at hard labour. He was 46.
THE INFAMOUS ISLAND
Used by the British to confine tribal leaders captured in the 19th century, Robben Island is five square kilometres of rock in the Atlantic. Although just off Cape Town, Mandela isolated from the rest of the world – his visitors restricted, his letters censored, his newspapers and magazines withheld. Forced to go without socks and to wear short pants, which he considered the humiliating garb of boys, he spent his days breaking rocks in a lime quarry under a blistering sun that permanently damaged his eyes.
Worst of all, he had no contact with Winnie and their two small daughters. At first he could write to her just twice a year. She was allowed to visit in August, 1964, a closely monitored half-hour session they spent shouting to each other through a window. Two years passed before she was allowed to return. Both his mother and his eldest son Thembi died in the early days of his incarceration, but he was allowed to attend neither funeral.
Fortunately, he was surrounded by friends and colleagues, such as Sisulu and senior ANC leaders Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, with whom he could discuss political philosophy and strategy. Even then he was taking a measured view of his imprisonment as merely another stage in a life-long campaign to win justice and dignity for his people.
From the beginning, he treated his guards as fellow human beings rather than enemies, seeing them as slaves of a system he despised. He was courteous, but refused to bow and scrape, as the more sadistic warders demanded, and steeled himself into a superficial equanimity, no matter the provocation, if only to deny them the satisfaction of seeing him lose control of his feelings.
Other prisoners said later that he was singled out for sadistic treatment and described one occasion when he was forced to dig a grave-sized trench, climb into it and lie in the dirt while his jailers urinated on him to show their contempt.
Two years after Mandela’s arrival on Robben Island, apartheid kingpin Hendrik Verwoerd was stabbed to death by a deranged parliamentary page, and succeeded as prime minister by Justice Minister Balthazar John Vorster. Once in office, Vorster expanded the powers of the police and the military under defence minister P.W. Botha, and created a ruthless secret service to counter rumours of an insurrection by MK-trained guerrillas.
Despite these reprisals, conditions began to improve for the ANC in the 1970s. A military coup led Portugal to withdraw from Angola and Mozambique, where the revolutionary government of Samora Machel raised ANC hopes of placing military bases on the South African border.
At the prison, Mandela complained to the authorities about the inmates’ “monotonous routine of either breaking stones [or]doing pick and shovel work” and eventually Robben Island’s brutal superintendent was replaced by Colonel Willie Willemse who, like Mandela, had been brought up in the Transkei. (Later, Willemse would play a critical role as a go-between in negotiating Mandela’s release.) The Red Cross became more vigilant on the prisoners’ behalf, and liberal white politicians such as Helen Suzman persuaded authorities to end the gruelling manual labour for the political prisoners and to allow them more study time and greater access to outside news.
To communicate with his jailers better, Mandela studied Afrikaners’ history and language. He also helped illiterate prisoners learn to read and write. In an atmosphere that blended fierce debate with political tolerance, prisoners drew inspiration from great literature. They read and recited passages from Shakespeare (a copy of the Bard’s collected works had been smuggled in disguised as religious texts), and Mandela was especially taken by a passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”
Immersed in Robben Island’s culture of comradeship, co-operation and self-improvement (some prisoners completed post-secondary degrees by correspondence), Mandela read widely and obsessively. (He was said to have devoured Leo Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece War and Peace in three days.) He also began to write a secret autobiography, which later became the basis for Long Walk to Freedom.
The world outside also changed over the years Mandela spent behind bars. The international obscurity in which he had languished began to fade, in part because of the rise of black consciousness, independence movements in other African countries, trade and sports sanctions, and worldwide outrage at the torture and murder of activist Steve Biko in police custody in 1977, which led to the UN imposing an embargo on all arms sales to South Africa.
Finally, in 1980, he was allowed to receive newspapers and resume studies for his law degree by correspondence from the University of London, where 7,000 of his fellow students voted to make him chancellor (he lost out to Princess Anne).
As the ANC marked the 25th anniversary of the Freedom Charter, a serious movement to free Mandela took root in South Africa and abroad – enveloping even the UN Security Council. Canada played a major role in exerting political pressure to impose sanctions on South Africa.
A corruption scandal had forced Vorster to resign in 1978, and he was replaced by Defence Minister Botha who, although widely known as the Big Crocodile, proved to be less rabid than his predecessor. Even so, he bolstered military reprisals against ANC operatives and found a way to drive a wedge into the anti-apartheid movement.
He also tried to restore links with the West by painting apartheid as a political bastion against the emerging African brand of communism in Angola and Mozambique – a seductive argument with such stalwart Cold Warriors as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
At the same time, he took a more conciliatory approach to his marquee political prisoners on Robben Island. In 1982, Mandela and four others were moved to the mainland and installed in more civilized – but still isolated – surroundings at Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town. Mandela was now allowed to send and receive 52 letters a year. All were subject to censorship but he took full advantage of this privilege by reaching out, especially to church leaders, to assure his supporters that he was alive – and so was the struggle.
Botha’s divide-and-conquer strategy was to change the constitution to allow Asian and coloured South Africans, but not blacks, to elect their own assemblies and control their own education, housing and welfare systems. White voters supported the move in a 1983 referendum but, instead of being split, the multi-racial opposition movement was strengthened and created a new organization called the United Democratic Front (UDF).
On Jan. 31, 1985, Botha dangled another carrot, offering Mandela his freedom provided that he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument.” The rebuttal came 10 days later in a carefully crafted speech smuggled out of Pollsmoor by Winnie Mandela and read aloud by daughter Zindzi at a huge rally in Soweto – the first time in more than 20 years that Mandela’s words were delivered directly to his supporters. He insisted that the government should be the one to renounce violence by dismantling apartheid and removing the ban on the ANC.
As both sides dug in, the country almost became ungovernable. Protests grew, as did violent reprisals – police killed 19 protesters at a rally marking the 25th anniversary of Sharpeville. At the same time, the unwieldy bureaucratic apparatus required to maintain apartheid was crumbling under its own weight in a rapidly urbanizing and industrializing society. The pass laws, designed to segregate black workers in rural areas, for example, were at odds with inexorable and inevitable urban demands for cheap labour.
In July, 1985, a state of emergency was declared, giving police free rein to detain and interrogate suspects. But the unrest so alarmed financial markets that foreign banks began to call South Africa’s loans and the rand began to plunge. A poll conducted the following month showed that 70 per cent of blacks and 30 per cent of whites were anticipating civil war.
In the middle of this, Mandela fell ill and required prostate surgery. Upon recovering, he was returned to Pollsmoor and put in solitary confinement. Even so, he found ways to communicate with other ANC leaders and decided to write a letter to Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee to “propose talks about talks” as he phrased it in Long Walk to Freedom. There was no response until early 1986, when the minister visited Mandela with the Eminent Persons Group, a seven-member Commonwealth delegation, including Anglican Archbishop Ted Scott from Canada, seeking a break in the impasse. Finally, the government lifted the state of emergency and abolished the pass laws, by this point almost impossible to enforce anyway.
Suddenly, Botha, wanting to release Mandela but not wanting to appear weak, ordered South African forces to attack ANC bases in neighbouring countries. He also cracked down again at home, imposing a state of emergency and sending troops to surround the townships, block main roads and search houses. In three weeks, more than 4,000 blacks were detained.
MANDELA MAKES HIS MOVE
“The most discouraging moments,” Mandela insisted in his autobiography, “are precisely the time to launch an initiative.”
In the frenzied atmosphere of state terror, he asked to see Willie Willemse, the former Robben Island commandant who’d become commissioner of prisons, and told him he wanted to see Botha. The president refused, but Coetsee, the justice minister, agreed to the first of what were to be many meetings that led to Mandela’s eventual release.
In October, 1987, the ANC released a formal document reiterating its determination to dismantle apartheid and transfer power “to all the people.” The following June in Britain, the BBC broadcast a huge rock concert at London’s Wembley Stadium to mark Mandela’s 70th birthday. It featured a filmed message from the guest of honour that had been smuggled out of jail, and drew 200 million viewers in 60 countries, prompting a furious South African government to threaten to expel the network.
Shortly after his birthday, an ailing Mandela was diagnosed with incipient tuberculosis. He underwent surgery and spent six weeks in hospital before being transferred to a luxurious clinic – the only black patient on the premises. Then in December he was sent back to jail, this time the Victor Verster minimum-security prison farm near Paarl, the famous vineyard town a half-hour from Cape Town, where he was installed in a warder’s house with spacious gardens, a swimming pool and a personal cook.
Although living in comfort, he was isolated from friends and supporters just as he was about to negotiate with the government, not for his freedom, but to establish the ANC’s right to bargain on behalf of all disenfranchised South Africans for the release of political prisoners, the end to violence and a transition to true majority rule. The process was agonizing, undermined both by the difficulty in communicating with other ANC leaders – and by the erratic and shameless actions of his wife.
During the early years of his imprisonment, Winnie’s antics had kept his name alive, but her behaviour had become rasher and more inflammatory as her own fame increased. In a 1985 speech she had endorsed necklacing (executing suspected informants by igniting gasoline-soaked tires draped around their necks); and then in late 1988 she was implicated in the torture and murder of a 14-year-old boy by members of the “football club” that acted as her security unit. In public, Mandela supported his wife; in private, he was ashamed.
In January, 1989, the 73-year-old Botha suffered a stroke and by summer had been elbowed out by his education minister, F.W. de Klerk, “a small man with bad skin and worse taste in clothes, who spoke English badly, smoked heavily, and seemed somehow shifty,” according to a description in the Financial Times.
Change was in the ether after the tumultuous crash of communist dictatorships, like the toppling of so many Iron Curtain dominos. Pressure from abroad, the deflation of a Marxist insurrection and the deepening sanction-plagued economic crisis at home forced de Klerk’s hand. At the opening of parliament on Feb. 2, 1990, he astonished observers by promising to legalize all political organizations, including the ANC and the Communist Party, to release all political prisoners who had not been found guilty of violent crimes, to suspend all executions and to release Mandela “unconditionally.”
Nine days later, almost 28 years after being captured in his chauffeur’s disguise, the 71-year old Black Pimpernel walked out of prison holding hands with Winnie. At City Hall in Cape Town, he made his first public speech since addressing the Rivonia Trial in 1964, carefully presenting himself as the servant rather than the master of either Africans or the ANC. “Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today,” he said. “I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
Prison had transformed Mandela from a revolutionary advocating armed rebellion into the wise man of Robben Island, a judicious and strategic leader. Everything else, including his former arrogance and defensiveness, seemed to have been stripped away, leaving a gentler, more relaxed human being, albeit one with an iron resolve, a moral authority and an implacable dignity. Old friends described him as “purified.” Novelist and friend Nadine Gordimer called him the “personification of the future.”
He basked in his celebrity and gloried in his ability to indulge a wanderlust that had been brutally suppressed. After a whirlwind tour, including a high-level visit to Canada in June, 1990, a personal appearance at another massive concert at Wembley Stadium, a private audience with Pope John Paul II and a rare address by a private citizen to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, he returned home to negotiate the transition to majority rule.
The stumbling blocks were massive. The ANC had to transform itself from a revolutionary and military organization into a political party able to run the country. During the traumatic struggle against apartheid, black students had studied philosophy, law and political science rather than more practical subjects such as engineering or commerce. Consequently, operational skills were in serious deficit when the ANC sat down to negotiate. And, of course, the white minority led by de Klerk had to be persuaded to share power, a problem made no easier by Mandela’s refusal to renounce violence or dismantle the MK guerrillas until democratic elections had been guaranteed.
Despite the barriers, the Convention for a Democratic South Africa opened in Johannesburg in December, 1991, with 228 delegates representing 19 political parties. The negotiations, which stretched over two years, were stained by bloodshed, especially in April, 1993, when a far-right Polish immigrant, armed with a pistol supplied by a Conservative Party MP, assassinated Chris Hani, the senior ANC member who had succeeded Joe Slovo as head of the Communist Party.
Alerted by a quick-thinking Afrikaner neighbour, the police soon captured the killer, but mass violence seemed inevitable. Delivering a speech that many saw as “presidential,” Mandela appealed for calm: “Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being,” he said. “A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who... wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for – the freedom of all of us.”
There were riots, but the killing seemed to spur the negotiators to achieve a workable compromise. By late 1993, the elections had been slated for the following April 27, although Mandela and de Klerk looked like “two exhausted heavyweight boxers at the end of a long title bout, both bloodied and badly bruised,” Anthony Sampson reported in The Guardian. The two men were barely speaking when they arrived in Oslo in December as joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
At 75, an age when most politicians have retired to play golf and build their personal libraries, Mandela became a first-time candidate for public office. As he cast his vote for the first time, he spoke of his dreams of racial harmony in “one nation,” as millions of newly enfranchised blacks waited patiently in lines that snaked back from the polling booths. “This is for all South Africans an unforgettable occasion,” he said. “It is the realization of their hopes and dreams that we have cherished for decades. We are starting a new era of hope, of reconciliation, of nation-building.”
When the votes were counted, the ANC had taken 62 per cent for a majority win. On May 10, 1994, Mandela became his country’s first black president, leading a Government of National Unity with the help of two deputies: de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki, the polished son of Govan Mbeki, his old friend and fellow prisoner on Robben Island.
Always the strategist, he saw the significance of including de Klerk in his government, despite their personal antipathies. In the same way he intuitively knew that supporting such a reviled symbol of apartheid as the overwhelmingly white national rugby team would build solidarity. After years of being banned from international competition, South Africa was in the media glare when it played host to the World Cup in June, 1995, and the under-dog Springboks made it to the finals against New Zealand’s All Blacks (whose name refers to the colour of their shirts, not their skin).
After South Africa won the hotly contested game in overtime, Mandela appeared on the field wearing a team shirt and cap to present the cup to victorious captain François Pienaar, while the predominately white crowd roared Nel-son! Nel-son! in approval.
Although not burdened with baggage like most politicians, Mandela felt obliged to support those who had helped in the struggle, including such rogues as Fidel Castro of Cuba and Moammar Gadhafi of Libya. He also lacked legislative experience, as did most of his cabinet, and found his principles softening under pressure from his wily opponents.
Before his release from prison, he had insisted that nationalizing South Africa’s mines, banks and major industries was ironclad ANC policy and that imposing state control of certain sectors of the economy was “unavoidable.”
Yet four years later, to head off violence and economic collapse, he changed his tune. His government agreed to assume the national debt incurred by the apartheid regime, to guarantee white civil servants their jobs, to protect private property (thus almost ruling out land reform) and to make the central bank independent of the government (thus insulating it from attempts to redistribute national wealth).
The ANC also agreed to sign on to GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which reassured financial markets, but made a radical overhaul of the country’s economic power base almost impossible.
Broken promises even plagued his personal life. Winnie’s flagrant philandering had prompted the couple to separate in 1992. When their divorce case was heard four years later, Mandela described his loneliness to the court, explaining that since his release, she had refused to discuss their personal problems and “not once has she ever entered my bedroom while I was awake.”
Also in 1996, the Mandela government launched something designed to be much more positive – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu, who’d stepped down as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. All who felt they had been victimized could air their grievances, and perpetrators could acknowledge their crimes and seek amnesty. The ANC considered the commission essential to the peaceful transition to full democracy, but critics condemned it, arguing that justice must be done before true reconciliation could occur.
The commission presented its report in October, 1998, and the following year, as promised, Mandela stepped down rather than seek a second term, handing power to Mbeki. “He served as an example to all those hungry for power by not standing for a second term,” his lawyer George Bizos said afterward. “He didn’t want South Africa to be known as a one-man state.”
In his later years, Mandela devoted himself to his children’s foundation and to fighting HIV-AIDs, which had spread rapidly while he was in office and preoccupied with other problems. “This is a war,” he said. “It has killed more people than has been the case in all previous wars and in all previous natural disasters. We must not continue to be debating, to be arguing, when people are dying.”
In his old age, this man who had been allowed only three visits with his children during the long years on Robben Island and who had been publicly humiliated, after his release, by Winnie’s blatant promiscuity, was given the gift of a passionate love affair. On his 80th birthday in 1998, he married Graça Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, the first president of post-independence Mozambique.
They connected after her husband died in a mysterious 1986 plane crash that many believe was ordered by the South African government. From his cell Mandela sent her a letter of condolence, to which she replied: “From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light into my hour of darkness.”
After Mandela retired from public life in 1999, the couple spent time with their various grandchildren, at her home in Mozambique and at the house on his ancestral property at Qunu in the Transkei. Looking frail except when his beatific smile brightened up his face, the man everybody loved to call Madiba, his clan name, usually walked with a cane.
His short-term memory was as faltering as his gait, but he still used his influence to focus international attention on intractable issues. For his 89th birthday in 2007, he brought a group of world leaders to Johannesburg to form The Elders, a consortium of wisdom, integrity and influence chaired by Tutu. With such founding members as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and U.S. president Jimmy Carter, he said, the group could work “freely and boldly to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
A month after that, he and Machel travelled to London to see his statue unveiled in the square across from the Houses of Parliament, near likenesses of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
He told the crowd how he had been to the site 45 years earlier while in London to visit Oliver Tambo after going underground. The two fugitives walked among the monuments to dead white men, including legendary Boer leader Jan Smuts who’d become South Africa’s prime minister, and said that one day there would be a statue honouring them, too, although they didn’t really think it would come to pass.
It did, but only because of a remarkable man and a monumental change in human and political values.