From Political Prisoner to a Statesman Who Inspired Whole World; NELSON MANDELA 1918-2013; the Courageous Life of a Great Leader

The Mirror (London, England), December 6, 2013 | Go to article overview

From Political Prisoner to a Statesman Who Inspired Whole World; NELSON MANDELA 1918-2013; the Courageous Life of a Great Leader


Byline: BRIAN READE

TEXTBOOKS teach us to view the world-changers through a very narrow prism. They tell us that the monarchs and politicians, philosophers and discoverers, scientists and generals were virtually all white and wealthy.

So how astonishing that one of the greatest heroes of the past century should be a black man born in a mud hut who spent much of his adult life in captivity, suffering the most oppressive form of intellectual and economic deprivation.

But then Nelson Mandela was simply an astonishing human being. A colossus who didn't merely give a voice to his own dispossessed people, or ensure their right to exist as equals with other races, he gave the possibility of a better life to everyone not born into privilege.

The First World War was nearing its end when Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in the small village of Mvezo in July 1918. He was the first member of his family ever to be educated, after his mother converted to Methodism and sent him to mission school, where pupils were renamed after British imperial heroes. He drew Admiral Nelson.

But after witnessing the brutality of racial segregation in Johannesberg, the trainee lawyer took the first tentative steps to becoming a historical figure of even greater stature than his namesake. In 1944 he helped launch the Youth League of the African National Congress (ANC) soon becoming the head of an organisation whose prime aim was to dismantle apartheid.

Originally inspired by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi and committed to non-violent activism, Mandela changed his mind after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when police gunned down 69 peaceful black South African protesters.

The increasingly inhumane suppression of his people by the white supremacist Boers convinced Mandela armed resistance was the only way forward and he became commander of a new c military organisation known as "Spear of The Nation."

In the early 1960s, as violence spread across South Africa, the ANC was banned and Mandela went into hiding, sacrificing time with wife Winnie and their two daughters.Years later, she confessed: "I didn't know him at all."

In July 1963, he was arrested and charged with 221 acts of sabotage designed to "ferment violent revolution". In court Mandela gave a spine-tingling, four-hour speech, which gave a foretaste of the courage, decency and vision that would enable him to unite his nation: "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 to die."

The 46-year-old was found guilty on four charges of sabotage and sentenced to life in South Africa's equivalent of Alcatraz, Robben Island, a bleak, former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town. Overnight he became a martyred hero, his plight used by activists and politi-cians around the world to highlight the evil of apartheid.

Meanwhile Mandela would spend the next 18 years in an 8ft by 7ft stone cell, where he slept beneath a light bulb left burning all night, doing hard labour by day. The conditions left his eyes permanently damaged, but his brain and soul remained defiantly intact. The more his jailers tried to shrink him as a man, the more his moral authority grew.

After mounting international pressure Mandela was transferred in 1982 to a softer prison near Cape Town where he began to reach out to the wider world.

With trade sanctions imposed by most nations (but not Margaret Thatcher's Britain who he would privately vent his anger on when freed) President PW Botha offered Mandela his freedom if he rejected violence. He famously replied: "only free men can negotiate. …

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