the world's most famous prisoner and, now, his country's leader,
he exemplifies a moral integrity that shines far beyond South Africa
Mandela as the avid young boxer; R, Mandela votes for the first
In a recent television
broadcast BBC commentator Brian Walden argued that Nelson Mandela,
"perhaps the most generally admired figure of our age, falls
short of the giants of the past." Mandela himself argues that
"I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a
leader because of extraordinary circumstances." Clearly, a
changing world demands redefinition of old concepts.
the revolution led by Mandela to transform a model of racial division
and oppression into an open democracy, he demonstrated that he didn't
flinch from taking up arms, but his real qualities came to the fore
after his time as an activist--during his 27 years in prison and
in the eight years since his release, when he had to negotiate the
challenge of turning a myth into a man.
Rolihlahla Mandela was born deep
in the black homeland of Transkei on July 18, 1918. His first name
could be interpreted, prophetically, as "troublemaker."
The Nelson was added later, by a primary school teacher with delusions
of imperial splendor.
boyhood was peaceful enough, spent on cattle herding and other rural
pursuits, until the death of his father landed him in the care of
a powerful relative, the acting regent of the Thembu people. But
it was only after he left the missionary College of Fort Hare, where
he had become involved in student protests against the white colonial
rule of the institution, that he set out on the long walk toward
personal and national liberation.
run away from his guardian to avoid an arranged marriage, he joined
a law firm in Johannesburg as an apprentice. Years of daily exposure
to the inhumanities of apartheid, where being black reduced one
to the status of a nonperson, kindled in him a kind of absurd courage
to change the world. It meant that instead of the easy life in a
rural setting he'd been brought up for, or even a modest measure
of success as a lawyer, his only future certainties would be sacrifice
and suffering, with little hope of success in a country in which
centuries of colonial rule had concentrated all political and military
power, all access to education, and most of the wealth in the hands
of the white minority. The classic conditions for a successful revolution
were almost wholly absent: the great mass of have-nots had been
humbled into docile collusion, the geographic expanse of the country
hampered communication and mobility, and the prospects of a race
war were not only unrealistic but also horrendous.
these circumstances Mandela opted for nonviolence as a strategy.
He joined the Youth League of the African National Congress and
became involved in programs of passive resistance against the laws
that forced blacks to carry passes and kept them in a position of
Exasperated, the government mounted
a massive treason trial against its main opponents, Mandela among
them. It dragged on for five years, until 1961, ending in the acquittal
of all 156 accused. But by that time the country had been convulsed
by the massacre of peaceful black demonstrators at Sharpeville in
March 1960, and the government was intent on crushing all opposition.
Most liberation movements, including the A.N.C., were banned. Earning
a reputation as the Black Pimpernel, Mandela went underground for
more than a year and traveled abroad to enlist support for the A.N.C.
after his return, he was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment
on Robben Island for five years; within months practically all the
leaders of the A.N.C. were arrested. Mandela was hauled from prison
to face with them an almost certain death sentence. His statement
from the dock was destined to smolder in the homes and servant quarters,
the shacks and shebeens and huts and hovels of the oppressed, and
to burn in the conscience of the world: "During my lifetime
I have dedicated myself to the 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
any attempt to find a legal way out, Mandela assumed his full responsibility.
This conferred a new status of moral dignity on his leadership,
which became evident from the moment he was returned to Robben Island.
Even on his first arrival, two years before, he had set an example
by refusing to obey an order to jog from the harbor, where the ferry
docked, to the prison gates. The warden in charge warned him bluntly
that unless he started obeying, he might quite simply be killed
and that no one on the mainland would ever be the wiser. Whereupon
Mandela quietly retorted, "If you so much as lay a hand on
me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I
finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse." Amazingly,
the warden backed off. "Any man or institution that tries to
rob me of my dignity will lose," Mandela later wrote in notes
smuggled out by friends
Robbens Island where Mandela was imprisoned; R, His first wife,
His major response to the indignities
of the prison was a creative denial of victimhood, expressed most
remarkably by a system of self-education, which earned the prison
the appellation of "Island University." As the prisoners
left their cells in the morning to toil in the extremes of summer
and winter, buffeted by the merciless southeaster or broiled by
the African sun (whose glare in the limestone quarry permanently
impaired Mandela's vision), each team was assigned an instructor--in
history, economics, politics, philosophy, whatever. Previously barren
recreation hours were filled with cultural activities, and Mandela
recalls with pride his acting in the role of Creon in Sophocles'
more than two decades in prison, confident that on some crucial
issues a leader must make decisions on his own, Mandela decided
on a new approach. And after painstaking preliminaries, the most
famous prisoner in the world was escorted, in the greatest secrecy,
to the State President's office to start negotiating not only his
own release but also the nation's transition from apartheid to democracy.
On Feb. 2, 1990, President F.W. de Klerk lifted the ban on the A.N.C.
and announced Mandela's imminent release.
began the real test. Every inch of the way, Mandela had to win the
support of his own followers. More difficult still was the process
of allaying white fears. But the patience, the wisdom, the visionary
quality Mandela brought to his struggle, and above all the moral
integrity with which he set about to unify a divided people, resulted
in the country's first democratic elections and his selection as
road since then has not been easy. Tormented by the scandals that
pursued his wife Winnie, from whom he finally parted; plagued by
corruption among his followers; dogged by worries about delivering
on programs of job creation and housing in a country devastated
by white greed, he has become a sadder, wiser man.
the process he has undeniably made mistakes, based on a stubborn
belief in himself. Yet his stature and integrity remain such that
these failings tend to enhance rather than diminish his humanity.
Camus once said one man's chains imply that we are all enslaved;
Mandela proves through his own example that faith, hope and charity
are qualities attainable by humanity as a whole. Through his willingness
to walk the road of sacrifice, he has reaffirmed our common potential
to move toward a new age.
he is not deluded by the adulation of the world. Asked to comment
on the BBC's unflattering verdict on his performance as a leader,
Mandela said with a smile, "It helps to make you human."
[Editor’s Note: All credits to André Brink, a professor at the
University of Cape Town, who is also the author of A Dry White