Obituary: Freedom fighter turned premier
Great statesman whose lack of vindictiveness made him unique on world stage
Nelson Rolihlala Mandela was arguably the most respected statesman the world has seen since the end of the second World War. His dignity, his determination to achieve democracy for his country and his lack of vindictiveness, when in power, to those who had kept him in prison for 27 years, made him unique in international politics.
The dignity stemmed from his privileged background. He was born into a family closely related to the Thembu Royal House in Transkei, and his determination was engendered by the appallingly racist conditions under which he grew up. The absence of vindictiveness was a much more complex matter. He showed little or no animosity towards the white South Africans whose policies adversely dominated his life. Despite appalling violence between urban Zulus loyal to the ANC and the traditional tribal members who supported the Inkatha Freedom Movement, Mandela worked well with Inkatha’s leader Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi as his Home Affairs Minister.
Not many political leaders have had fewer personal flaws than Mandela, but he was human and by definition fell short of perfection. If he had one true fault, it was his unswerving loyalty to those at home and abroad who had aided the anti-apartheid cause. His respect and support went not only to reputable politicians such as a succession of Swedish Prime ministers and to Sir Sonny Ramphal, a secretary general of the Commonwealth, but also to Colonel Muamar Gadafy of Libya.
On the other hand, hardly surprisingly, his famous magnanimity did not extend to US vice-president Dick Cheney. In 1986 Cheney voted against a motion in the House calling for Mandela’s release from prison and continued to attempt to justify this many years later. It is likely that his feeling towards Cheney and others in the US administration caused Mandela to be “unavailable” during President Bush’s visit to South Africa in 2003.
Largely Nelson Mandela’s character developed with and reflected the four distinct periods in his life. There was a struggle for freedom, a long period of imprisonment, an arrival to and wielding of political power from his release from prison in 1990 to the end of his presidential term in 1999, and finally a term of relaxed and obviously happy retirement. In those latter days his political interventions were rare but of great moral force. His open opposition to President Mbeki’s pronouncements on AIDS eventually, if belatedly, had their effect.
His personal life, like many of those who dedicated themselves unstintingly to political objectives, was difficult. His first marriage as a young man to Evelyn Mase in 1946, ended in failure. At one stage, Mandela gained a reputation as something of a playboy with a penchant for sharp suits, fast cars and good-looking women. His marriage to Nomzamo Winifred Madikisela, known to the world as Winnie Mandela, in 1958 was cut short by 27 years of imprisonment and ended in separation and divorce not long after his release in 1990.
Winnie’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour was, at first, the subject of his remarkable lack of rancour but it was not long before the marriage became impossible. They had not simply grown apart. She, during his time in jail, had a political leadership thrust upon her for which she was totally unsuited psychologically and, in the end, morally.
His release was a bittersweet experience in which he gained immense international recognition but effectively kept him aloof from his family. His daughters Zindzi and Zenani wrote: “We thought we had a father and one day he’d come back. But to our dismay, our father came back and he left us alone because he has now become the father of the nation.” Only towards the end of his life did he settle into a happy domestic life when he married GraÃ§a Machel the widow of President Samora Machel of Mozambique. What had been a turbulent life led, deservedly if somewhat surprisingly, to a serene and tranquil old age.
Mandela’s very early experiences were those of the average young rural African of his time. His family rank, however, later assured him a third-level education rare for a member of the majority population in the “colour bar” conditions which preceded the introduction of apartheid.
At his birth in the village of Mvezo near Umtata in the Transkei on July 18th, 1918, the Union of South Africa was just eight years old. Its creation resulted from an attempt to resolve the conflict that had led to war between the British and the Boers at the turn of the 19th century. The Act of Union, designed to bring harmony amongst the previously warring factions, was based, however, on racial discrimination if not, indeed, on racism.
In London, the Commons debate gave a flavour of the attitudes of the day. Arthur Balfour, one of the most mediocre of British Prime Ministers and historically insignificant compared to Nelson Mandela, proclaimed that “to suppose that the races of Africa are in any sense the equals of men of European descent ... is really, I think, an absurdity.”
The British High Commissioner in South Africa, Lord Selborne, supported a plan through which a black could be allowed a vote at age 31 by passing a “civilisation test”. This vote, however, would have one-tenth the value of a white vote. The black man’s son could qualify at age 30 for a vote worth one fifth that of a white man. After some generations, therefore, a black male university professor could get a vote equal to that of an uneducated white labourer. Votes for women of any colour did not come into the equation.
It was into a society shaped by such primitive attitudes that Nelson Mandela was born.
Political power in the new Commonwealth dominion was to be the preserve of the English and Afrikaans speaking white populations. Liberals from the Cape Colony made feeble protests that were easily put down by the Afrikaners of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State as well as by more polished English- speaking racists in Natal.
A legacy of race-based government was established leading inexorably to the Afrikaner National Party’s assumption of power in the minority elections of 1948.
Political powerlessness and geographical segregation bad, as they were, made way for the most evil regime seen in the west since the defeat of Hitler and Mussolini.
As South Africa was descending into the abyss of institutional racism, Nelson Mandela was on the move from traditional African village life. He had worked as a herd boy and had gone through the Xhosa ritual of circumcision to mark his arrival to manhood. “At dawn we were escorted to the river to bathe,” he wrote in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.” “Circumcision is a trial of bravery and stoicism; a man must suffer in silence. I felt as if fire was shooting through my veins; the pain was so intense that I buried my chin in my chest ... we lived in our two huts while our wounds healed. Outside we were covered in blankets, for we were not allowed to be seen by women. It was a period of quietude, a kind of spiritual preparation for the trials of manhood that lay ahead.”
Most of his young companions in the circumcision ceremony went to work as near slaves in the gold mines of the Reef in Johannesburg but Mandela’s noble birth ensured further education. He attended the Clarkebury Institute, a secondary school for boys of the Thembu tribe of the Xhosa nation.
>From there, at 19, he went on to Healdtown a Wesleyan missionary
>college in preparation for his studies in Law at the University of Fort
>Hare, the only
residential centre of higher education for blacks in South Africa.
A mere 150 students attended Fort Hare at the time and one of them was to become Mandela’s friend and partner professionally and politically. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo met in circumstances that confound the “communist” tag attached to them by the ultra right at home in South Africa as well as in Britain and the United States.
Both young men were members of the Student Christian Association and they taught Bible classes together in neighbouring villages at weekends. They were talented and ambitious but they were rising in the world at a time when the door of opportunity was to be slammed in their faces.
The ill-framed Union constitution permitted a weighting towards rural constituencies against urban areas. The result was that in the 1948 general election the National Party of Dr D F Malan found itself with a majority of seats in parliament despite having polled less than 40 per cent of the white vote. It was to hold sway for almost half a century.
Within weeks of coming to power, Malan announced the end of the extremely limited franchise for those of mixed race, Indians and indigenous Africans. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages act was introduced in 1949 and was followed by the Immorality Act that forbade sexual relations between the races and led to government officials spying through the keyholes of hotel bedrooms. The Population and Registration Act compelled South Africans to register their racial origin.