The man the world knows as Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, almost 95 years ago, in Transkei, South Africa. His name at birth was Rolihlahla Mandela, not Nelson Mandela. Nelson became his name when he entered the British educational system as the first of his family to enroll in school and was informed by his teacher that from that point on he would be called Nelson.
When Mandela was an infant, his father was on track to become a chief, but a dispute with “the local colonial magistrate” forced the family to resettle in the tiny village of Qunu, where they lived in huts in a grassy valley, far way from the few privileges they had once enjoyed.
According to a report on the television program Bio, “when Mandela was 9 years old, his father died of lung disease, causing his life to change dramatically. He was adopted by Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembo people—a gesture of favor to Mandela’s father, who, years earlier, had recommended Jongintaba be made chief. Mandela subsequently left the carefree life he knew in Qunu, fearing that he would never see his village again,” but he soon realized that his life in the chief’s residence was far better.
In the Xhosa language, one meaning of the name Rolihlahla is troublemaker, and some would argue that Mandela has certainly lived up to his name. But if there is a more beloved leader in the world, he or she has probably not emerged from the political shadows as yet.
In 1993, Mandela and then-South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in dismantling apartheid. A few months later he replaced de Klerk as president.
Now 94, Mandela, has been ailing of late and has been hospitalized twice in the past few months in Pretoria, South Africa. The Nobel laureate and former South African president has suffered from lung infection since his days as a political prisoner of some 27 years under the dismantled apartheid regime. A week ago, much of South Africa and the world feared they were losing the great leader, but the crisis passed as Mandela began responding to treatment.
He’s still fighting—this time for his life—just as his friend Bishop Desmond Tutu fought years earlier in sounding the death knell for colonial oppression in their homeland.
There are unique similarities between Mandela and some American civil rights icons. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela was jailed during his African National Congress (ANC) campaign to stamp out racial bigotry in his homeland. Both men, who were married with families, were in the prime of their lives when they were jailed, and each knew of the fateful “knock at midnight” when the cell door could suddenly open and their bodies could be easily found the next morning lying in a ditch.
Mandela may have been concerned about such a scenario … but he was not afraid. “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear,” he wrote in his 1995 autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.” His life’s work has demonstrated to the Western world how the biblical notion of divine care has never been defeated no matter how dire the circumstances may appear.
Mandela never accepted his 1962 life sentence for treason as the end of a noble campaign for liberty, although usually Robben Island in South Africa was a place where Black men often went and never returned.
King might have related to Mandela’s plight during his time in the Birmingham jail where he wrote his famous letter, although King’s incarceration only lasted a few days. Much like Saint Paul in the New Testament, they wrote to refute their critics and encourage their followers. Neither man festered in hate. Each knew that their good work would not succeed if shackled by anger and bitterness.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela said. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
One of the most famous cases of forgiveness triumphing over brutality is that of Georgia Rep. John Lewis, whose life could also be compared to Mandela’s. In 1963, Lewis was beaten to within an inch of his life during a civil rights march in Rock Hill, S.C. The perpetrator was Edwin Wilson. In 2009, Wilson went to Lewis’ Washington, D.C., office to apologize. Both men were much older and were tired of the past. They embraced one another … and then cried.
“This man and I don’t want to go back; we want to move forward,” Lewis told an audience at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., recalling the bloody and unsteady days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Mandela once echoed a similar sentiment on a segment of “Larry King Live,” stating triumphantly: “I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies.” Forgiveness has been a difficult choice since the dawn of man, but what makes Mandela’s saga so intriguing is his unwavering faith in providence and the courage of his conviction. Some would say Mandela has the “Strength to Love,” as outlined in King’s famous 1963 book, and that he has a “tough mind and a tender heart.” This was demonstrated when he was released from prison in 1990 and, instead of encouraging Black South Africans to take arms and slay the White oppressive minority, Mandela urged the new generation that had grown up while he was behind bars to seek the path of nonviolence and follow the teachings of Jesus, as well as the practical measures of Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi and King.
“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find ways in which you yourself have altered,” Mandela said shortly after his release. Prior to this, South Africa was on the “… verge of a bloodbath,” Bishop Tutu said in a 1978 speech before the Royal African Society in reference to the growing anger and frustration among Soweto youth at what was then called “Bantu Education” (a law enacted in 1953 to separate Black children from the education system) and other forms of social privation. Over the next 12 years, the “bloodbath” did not occur.
While imprisoned, Mandela’s “glory and hope,” as he mentioned in his 1994 inauguration speech, seized the day, this when the fortunes of Black citizenry there had not effectively changed since apartheid was adopted in 1948.
Mandela was there when voting, housing, educational and employment rights were taken away from Black citizens. In 1952, he and the late Oliver Tambo had opened the first Black law firm in South Africa dedicated to restoring rights and privileges lost by providing free or low-cost counsel to many persons who would otherwise have been without legal representation. Mandela was arrested first in 1962 for terrorism and sedition, and joined thousands of other Black men and women as a political prisoner. He soon went on the run, but was captured again in 1964 and convicted of sabotage and treason. The well-educated and articulate Mandela was now among the disenfranchised men and women who had their property seized, had their businesses and churches fire-bombed, had family members arrested and mysteriously lynched … but never lost faith in themselves or their nation to overcome injustice.
Mandela left prison on Feb. 11, 1990, offering forgiveness and reconciliation.
“A new society cannot be created by reproducing the repugnant past, however refined or enticingly repackaged,” Mandela said during his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1993. In short order, South Africa, with Mandela at the helm, would return to the world community, seemingly bigger and stronger.
In April 1994, Black South Africans could vote in free elections for the first time and overwhelmingly elected Mandela as its first Black president. That year, the ANC won 252 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly. The vote didn’t surprise Blacks on the continent of Africa, in the Caribbean or in the United States because there was a generation in practically every nation with a large Black population that studied and emulated the sociopolitical struggles African Americans had endured since the first slaves stepped ashore in 1619 and, effectively, became the first abolitionists in the New World.
“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people,” Mandela said during his 1994 inauguration speech. “We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both Black and White, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity—a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
The concept of forgiveness was examined earlier this month in an article written by Janice Harper, Ph.D., for Psychology Today. In “Beyond Bullying,” Harper explained how the world took note of Mandela’s “powerful heart and mind” when the industrialized world saw the dark years of apartheid near its end. “Forgiveness requires compassion, which is to say, remembering the humanity in each person—whether we respect or like them is irrevelant,” Harper wrote. “When anger and pain overpower a person’s ability to forgive, perhaps it is not forgiving one must focus on, but on forgetting. Clearly, there are historical events such as apartheid or the Holocaust that one must never forget. We must learn not to relive the event again and again in our hearts and minds. In ‘forgetting,’ we make room to forgive.”
Speaking of Mandela’s advanced age and recent bushes with death, South African President Jacob Zuma said, “The truth of the matter is a simple one. Madiba (a pet name for the beloved Mandela) is a fighter and at his age, as long as he is fighting, he’ll be fine.”
“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb,” Mandela once said. That statement may have foretold the immediate aftermath of the swift change to majority rule in South Africa. Early on so-called “revenge” crimes against Whites had begun to infest the nation, with nearly every White-owned residence protected by high-tech security systems, guard dogs, and brick walls topped with razor wire and metal spikes.
Within the Black community, rape has become so widespread that police stations are said to face a shortage of rape kits. There are even reports of White farmers and their families being slaughtered by marauding gangs of Black youth. The disenfranchised Black youth there, according to Mandela’s philosophy, still have to accept reconciliation with Whites who had oppressed them. Not all of South Africans are as generous in spirit, but at least in his lifetime they have accepted his approach. “People normally take their cue from the leadership,” Mandela has been quoted as saying.
Mandela’s foes once branded him a “dangerous arch-Marxist.” This during the time when former South African President Pierre Botha offered to release him from prison (February 1985), provided he “unconditionally resist violence as a political weapon.” Mandela released a statement through his daughter, Zindi, which read: “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”
He was denied direct talks with Botha. Instead, Mandela began to meet secretly in 1987 with Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee and over three years the two discussed possible release of political prisoners and the legalization of the ANC, provided it would renounce violence, sever ties with the Communist Party and not insist on majority rule.
Mandela rejected these conditions, as well, insisting that the ANC would only end the armed struggle for democracy when the South African government itself renounced violence. By 1988, Mandela has become a global figure, but he faced publicity problems when ANC leaders informed him that his wife, Winnie, had set herself up as the leader of a criminal gang, the “Mandela United Football Club,” which had been responsible for torturing and killing opponents—including children—in Soweto. A pivotal moment in Mandela’s life may have been in 1989 when Botha suffered a stroke. Botha and Mandela met for tea that July, and it was revealed that the presidency would be handed over to de Klerk, who had long held that the apartheid regime was unsustainable. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall that year, de Klerk called his cabinet together to discuss legalizing the ANC and releasing Mandela. There was obvious skepticism at the idea, but de Klerk won the day and Mandela was released unconditionally from Victor Verster Prison on Feb. 2, 1990.
“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. That advice resonated with former President Bill Clinton who, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, sought Mandela’s counsel. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became a close friend of Mandela’s, hailing the “discipline” that he demonstrated, she was quoted after a rare invitation to his home for lunch in 2012. She said her admiration was “not only for him personally, but for South Africa and the world.” In 2009, Hillary Clinton praised the influence Mandela had on her life, noting “… [it] inspires in me an even greater admiration for his public work, but an even greater affection for the man.”
Today, many political scientists and commentators have said that, within nations plagued by sectarian violence, citizens will say to them: “If we only had a Mandela.”
“The leadership of the ANC, many of whom spent many years in exile or went underground or were in prison, have no time for revenge,” Mandela said in a 2000 interview the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They know they pass through life only once and want to use [their time] to solve the problems of their country. That is why we avoided bloodshed and confounded the prophets of doom. We had the ability to resolve the confrontation between our emotions and our brains, which said, ‘Why slaughter each other when we can sit down and negotiate?’”
Mandela said years ago that it was “tragic” to spend the best years in prison, “… but prison has certain advantages,” he told the Inquirer. “In single cells, you have the opportunity to think [that] we don’t have outside. You are able to mold your own emotions … your own morality. But I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to jail [for this].”
For the past 20 years, world leaders from Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, to former United Nations Secretary-general Kofi Anan, to former U.S. presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush and a who’s who among movie stars and rock icons have praised Mandela’s methods of governance and his wisdom.
Six years ago, on his birthday, Mandela convened a group of world leaders, an alliance of elite senior statesmen called “The Elders,” dedicated to solving the thorny global problems. Among them were former President Jimmy Carter, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus (of the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh), former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland and former Chinese Ambassador to the United States Li Zhaoxing. The group also included British billionaire Richard Branson and rock star Peter Gabriel. Mandela was chosen as the first leader. Mandela and Carter emphasized the group’s ability to talk to anyone without risk. “We will be able to risk failure in worthy causes, and we will not need to claim credit for any successes that might be achieved,” Carter said then.
Said Tutu on the occasion of his friend’s 94th birthday last year: “Mr. Mandela taught us to love ourselves, to love one another and to love our country,”