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 Graça 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.

The Group Areas Act, the very essence of Apartheid, according to Malan, created separate urban areas for Blacks, Whites, Indians and "coloureds."

Not surprisingly, educated Africans such as Mandela and Tambo, who set up a law firm in Johannesburg in 1952, were repelled by such a regime. Many of the National Party’s members had openly supported Hitler in the recent war and seemed prepared to introduce their own version of Nazism in their native land.

Nelson Mandela quickly became politicised in the ferment of reaction to the apartheid laws in Johannesburg the country's largest and most multi-racial city. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) where his leadership qualities were recognised. He was an important force in a "defiance campaign" of civil disobedience that severely damaged the regime's image abroad.

The response to this took place under one of the more bizarre, but extremely effective pieces of repressive legislation, the 1950 “Suppression of Communism Act.” This law defined Communism as “any effort to bring about any political, industrial, social or economic change…by the promotion of disturbances or disorder”.

Nelson Mandela and his political associate Walter Sisulu were formally declared "Communists" at a time when the term, particularly in the United States, ensured relegation to the status of a pariah. In South Africa itself, however, it led toclose co-operation between real Communists and those declared to be so under the ludicrous terms of the Act.

The National Party regime, for its part had no compunction in taking a leaf from the Soviet book by deciding in 1956 to hold a show trial of all the major leaders of the opposition to apartheid. This stage version of justice allowed Nelson Mandela to come to the very forefront of the government’s political opponents. In police swoops, 150 people of all races and communities were arrested and charged with treason.

The idea for the trial had come from Oswald Pirow, a former Nazi who later became Minister for Justice, and it was intended to be a major propaganda coup for the regime. The five-year court case however, degenerated into farce as the world looked on. The result was that the dignified ANC leader Albert Luthuli became a hero in western eyes and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961.

Nelson Mandela, whose legal brain was shown to be of far greater acuity than any of the government lawyers, began to gain respect in western circles. After the treason-trialists were found not guilty, the Government had the option of recognising black grievances or taking a more ruthless stance. It opted for the latter and Mandela went on the run to become known as the “Black Pimpernel.”

By now Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, were regarded as moderates in the context of the anti-apartheid struggle and were under pressure inside the ANC. It was a time of appalling repression with blacks being shunted from their homes to make way for Afrikaners. The vibrant Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, for example, was cleared in such a way and, with appalling arrogance, renamed Triomf.

More radical members of the ANC led by Robert Sobukwe left to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). On March 21st 1960 police opened fire on a PAC demonstration in the township of Sharpeville. Sixty nine people, most of them shot in the back while running away, were killed. The killings and the Government's unwavering defence of the police action helped push the ANC towards a more radical stance.

Continuing repressive legislation, culminating in the abolition of habeas corpus, the very basis of all human and political rights, moved the ANC closer to violent action. The choice of orthodox political opposition had been denied them and the policy of passive resistance was having little or no effect against a determinedly racist government now under the direction of Dutch-born Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd.

Nelson Mandela argued for a limited campaign of sabotage against vital government installations. Despite opposition from within the ANC it was agreed that an independent body be set up to involve itself in a strictly-controlled campaign. Damage to Government property was permitted but injury and death to individuals was to be avoided. The new organisation, Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation) was placed under the charge of Mandela and the Communist Party's Joe Slovo.

In his own words the strategy was “to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table.”

As preparations for this campaign got under way Mandela was elected as head of a "National Action Council" in 1961 and was sent on an international tour to drum up support for the anti-apartheid cause. In the main the trip was devoted to meeting political leaders in the UK and at the Pan-Africa Freedom Conference in Addis Ababa where he met leaders such as Senegal's poet-philosopher president Léopold Senghor, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Sékou Touré of Guinea and Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia. But he also spent three weeks in Ethiopia learning military tactics and practicing firearms drill.

On his return to South Africa it was not long before his presence was noticed. He was arrested near Pietermaritzburg in Natal in August 1962 following a clandestine visit to Chief Albert Luthuli who was still the leader of the ANC. Mandela was sentenced to three years for inciting industrial unrest and two years for leaving the country without a passport.

After a short spell in prison on the mainland Mandela was transferred to Robben Island. He and his fellow prisoners were taken across from Cape Town in an old wooden ferry. “A small porthole above,” he wrote,“was the only source of light and air. The porthole served another purpose as well: the warders enjoyed urinating on us from above. It was still light when we were led on deck and we saw the island for the first time. Green and beautiful, it looked at first more like a resort than a prison.”

Prison life was to be Mandela's fate for 27 years for, having been moved back to jail at Pretoria Local, he was greeted one morning by the chilling sight of Thomas Mashifane who had been the foreman at Lillisleaf Farm in the white northern Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia where the ANC had set up a bomb-making factory. He later saw Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki the father of the former South African President, and many others.

It later emerged that the South African Special Branch and the CIA had infiltrated the organisation. A raid on July 11th had failed to find arms but the plans for Operation Mayibuye which advocated guerrilla war in South Africa had been found at Lillisleaf.

The entire High Command of Umkhonto We Sizwe had been arrested and charged with sabotage. It was a major coup for the government in the short term but the absence of an older more moderate leadership in the ANC led in the longer term to a period of political chaos which in the end spelled disaster for the National Party.

For Mandela the capture of his comrades at Rivonia resulted in his being sentenced to prison for life and his return to Robben Island the country’s highest security prison.

He was tried with his comrades and brought further attention to their cause with a three-hour statement from the dock which remains one of the most stirring pieces of courtoom rhetoric. He ended his speech by stating he was ready to die for his cause:

“Africans,” he said, “want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the Government declares them to be capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work, and not to be obliged to live in rented houses which they can never call their own.

“Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes. African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the Reserves. Africans want to be allowed out after eleven o’clock at night and not to be confined to their rooms like little children.

Africans want to be allowed to travel in their own country and to seek work where they want to and not where the Labour Bureau tells them to. Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society.

“Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

“But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

“This then is what the ANC is fighting for. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

“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 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.”

At the conclusion of the trial on June 11th 1964, Mandela and seven others: Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, André Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada, and Denis Goldberg were convicted. All were sentenced to life imprisonment.

At Robben Island Mandela was quickly elected head of the ANC’s prison committee known as High Organ dealing with local issues and methods to make life easier for the prisoners. He was to spend almost two decades on the island working in the quarry and later as a gardener. He was refused leave to attend the funerals of his mother and of a son by his first marriage who had been killed in a car crash.

He also saw the arrival of a younger more militant band of prisoners taken there after the uprising of June uprising in 1976. These young men were more aggressive in their stance towards their warders than were the older prisoners but Mandela refused a request from the authorities who wanted him to speak to the new men in an effort to get them to be more co-operative. Mandela was subsequently removed to Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison near Cape Town.

Back in Pretoria Johannes Balthazar Vorster, a corrupt former Nazi sympathiser, who had become prime minister upon the murder of Verwoerd by a crazed parliamentary messenger, was deposed in 1978 followed revelations of the misuse of state funds. He was replaced by P W Botha, known to his colleagues in Afrikaans as Die Groot Krokodil.

Irascible and at times utterly illogical, Botha, despite rhetorical statements that white South Africa must adapt or die, had not the slightest intention of permitting majority rule. He did, however, in 1985 publicly offer Mandela his freedom on condition that he gave “a full commitment that he will not make himself guilty of planning, instigating or committing acts of violence for the furtherance of political objectives but will conduct himself in such a way that he will not again have to be arrested.”

In the past the leaders of the apartheid regime had made the mistake of isolating Mandela, by his imprisonment, by keeping him insulated from the later excesses of Umkhonto we Sizwe by separating him from the behaviour of his then wife Winnie Mandela, by keeping him apart from the capitulation of his cousin Kaiser Matanzima who accepted the creation of the Bantustan of Transkei, and by separating him from the compromises of Chief Buthelezi in Kwa-Zulu-Natal.

Now, the “Great Crocodile” gave Mandela the opportunity to dismiss the offer of release from prison in a magisterial response that boosted the ANC’s international image and seriously diminished Botha’s credibility.

“What freedom am I being offered,” Mandela wrote, “when the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfordt? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected? Only free men can negotiate ... I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.”

Botha’s political star declined and a surprising new leader was selected by the National Party. F W de Klerk came from a strong National Party background. On the other hand he was from a minority religious tradition as a “dopper”, a member of one of the smaller branches of the Dutch Reformed Church, which stressed the paramountcy of Konsekwent- the conscience of the individual.

Botha's conscience was informed not only by Christian goodwill but also by political and economic pragmatism. Despite the efforts of President Ronald Reagan to bolster the apartheid regime, the US Congress overruled its president's veto and brought in an anti-apartheid pact by huge majorities in both houses. The regime found itself in deep trouble. The oil crises of the 1970s had squeezed a country rich in almost every natural resource except oil. At the same time the international price of gold, the commodity in which South Africa was richest, slumped. On top of this came international sanctions now supported by the US congress if not its president.

It was time for compromise if not capitulation. After protracted negotiations Nelson Mandela now in the Viktor Verster open prison, following the early detection and cure of tuberculosis, was released in February 1990.

Negotiations between the ANC and the National Party led to the first genuinely democratic elections in South Africa’s history in April 1994. Nelson Mandela was overwhelmingly elected the leader of his people. He moved immediately to heal the divisions between black and white, between the different tribes of the black community and to give confidence to the mixed-race “coloureds” who in the past had been the butt of offensive actions by blacks and whites.

His inauguration ceremony in Pretoria was a triumph for the new South Africa as world leaders as disparate as Fidel Castro and US vice-president Al Gore gathered to pay homage. The climax was a fly-past of South African Air Force jets which blacks, for the first time, recognised as part of their own armed forces.

But there was a looming disaster hidden in the euphoria of freedom. South Africa, unknown to those taking power, was to become the greatest victim of a modern plague. AIDS at the time of the inauguration was believed to have avoided South Africa. But its precursor, HIV positive, was there in abundance and known to the Department of Health of the old regime if not the international media gathered to welcome South Africa's new dawn. As the 10-year development process from HIV to full-blown AIDS unfolded, the country found itself facing 200,000 deaths per year.

Latger after continued controversy, anti-retroviral drugs were made available, too late admittedly to save many lives, but, to a large extent, due to Mandela’s opposition to the health policy of the administration which succeeded his own. In this respect alone he had once again done his country a great service.

Although criticising Robert Mugable as "overstaying his welcome" in Zimbabwe as early as 2000, Mandela has been accused of being soft on the Zimbabwean leader. In a rare statement during his latter period of retirement he called on Mugabe in 2007 to resign with "a modicum of dignity" before was forced out of office. A year later he condemned Mugabe's "tragic failure of leadership." He had earlier been openly critical of the US and UK's invasion of Iraq on the grounds that it undermined the authority of the United Nations but in more recent years as he approached his 90s he has been silent on most international issues.

A former boxer Nelson Mandela kept himself extremely fit throughout most of his life. He was diagnosed and successfully treated for prostate cancer in 2001.

His exposure to tuberculosis in prison, however, left him vulnerable to respiratory ailments. He became ill with pneumonia during his visit to Dublin in 1990 and there was widespread concern for his safety when he was admitted to hospital in Johannesburg in January 2011. He was tobe confiened to hospital, again with lung infections, in 2013.

In the course of his political life he received numerous awards including the Nobel and Lenin peace prizes and he became the first living person to be awarded honorary Canadian citizenship. Mr Mandela was awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin in 1988 while in prison and arrived to accept the award two years later. He was given an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1996 and received numerous honorary degrees including Doctorates in Law from Trinity College Dublin and NUI Galway.

Nelson Rolihlala Mandela: born July 18th, 1918;died December 5th, 2013.

Seamus Martin

Seamus Martin

Seamus Martin is a former international editor and Moscow correspondent for The Irish Times