From Prisoner to President

By Massaquoi, Hans J. | Ebony, August 1994 | Go to article overview

From Prisoner to President

Massaquoi, Hans J., Ebony

When on Feb. 12,1990, Nelson Mandela stepped out of Victor Verster Prison after 27 years of imprisonment - unbroken by hard labor, physical and mental torture, life-threatening illness and separation from his family - he had pulled off a miracle few believed could be topped. The skeptics were wrong. Four years later, that same Nelson Mandela outdid himself by pulling Off another, even bigger miracle. Dealing a death blow to South Africa's long-discredited apartheid system, he became the country's first Black president following his overwhelming victory in a historic multiracial election based on one-person, one-vote.

Today, the world is poised for a third, perhaps still bigger Mandela miracle - the economic integration of South Africa's Black majority which had been forced to live in abject poverty under harsh White apartheid rule To accomplish this, President Mandela must convince the nation's White hardcore conservatives as well as his main Black rival, Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by joining him in his quest to unite the country and by becoming his partners in building a new state.

Inevitably, concerns have been voiced about placing so heavy a burden on the shoulders of a man who, were it not for his unique celebrity, would probably, be living in retirement. Most of those concerns fade, however, at the sight of the president's trim, youthful-looking frame. Thanks to the strict regimen of physical workouts he imposed on himself as a prisoner and as an amateur boxer before his incarceration, he is in much better health than one would expect from a 76-year-old man who spent more than one-third of his life behind bars. He still walks erect and, except for a hearing aid, exhibits no visible signs of infirmity. Mandela aides say that their boss can get by on as little as four hours sleep, and has been known to call them in the wee hours of the night to conduct business.

In addition to his remarkable stamina, the quality that has amazed most people about Nelson Mandela is his apparent lack of bitterness toward his former enemies. Close associates of his say there are two reasons for his willingness - no, eagerness - to let bygones be bygones: 1. Pragmatism: he considers feeling bitter and vengeful counterproductive and a waste of his valuable time. 2. Idealism; he truly believes in the concept of a nonracial society and doesn't look at things in terms of Black and White. Thus, he had no problem accepting a joint Nobel Peace Prize with then President F. W. de Klerk in Oslo, Norway, for their efforts to end apartheid in South Africa, although some of his followers felt that this was inappropriate.

The man who has taken on the daunting task of leveling the lopsided playing field for South Africa's Black majority was born on July 18, 1918, in a small village near Umtata in the Transkei, the son of a chief of the Tembu tribe. He was baptized in the Methodist Church and given the name Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibhunga Mandela. When the boy was nine years old, his father died and his education - aimed at preparing him for his father's post - was entrusted to a cousin, the acting paramount chief.

After attending a British missionary school, young Mandela, in 1939, enrolled at Fort Hare University where he met some of his future comrades in the African National Congress, including Oliver Tambo, and became interested in activist politics. Involvement in a student strike in 1940 got him and Tambo suspended, and forced him to return to his native village. When his tribe's elders tried to many him to a woman he found less than appealing, he said thanks-but-no-thanks to both his bride-to-be and his future as a tribal chief and headed for Soweto, Johannesburg's sprawling Black metropolis. There, he came to the attention of Walter Sisulu, the head of the local ANC. Impressed with the imposing, bright and articulate young man, Sisulu persuaded him to join the ANC and to complete undergraduate work at Fort Hare and to study law. …

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