Saturday, 14 December 2013 00:00
By Dr. Sulakshi Thelikorala
The definition of a “freedom fighter” is made confusing in the contemporary world. It is often argued that one person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist. Yet, the best examples of freedom fighters came from an era of post-colonialism, with the rise of nationalism and patriotic movements in Asia and Africa led by renowned world leaders fighting for the right of land against the imperial powers. Amongst them stood Nelson Mandela, a real freedom fighter, and one of the best of our times.
Nelson Mandela was the pioneer in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, protecting curtailed rights of the majority black population in South Africa. Mandela passed away today at the age of 95 years. Mandela has been seriously ill over a couple of months and has been treated continuously, being hospitalised several times. The South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed the demise of this great leader declaring, “He passed on peacefully in the company of his family; Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
Mandela’s epic struggle
The legend has devoted his lifetime to fulfil the obligations of his country and people, becoming one of the very few great political leaders in history. The greatest transformation in South Africa’s history was the breakdown of the apartheid system in 1994 as a result of Mandela’s epic struggle. He served 27 years in prison and became the first black President in South Africa, elected by the country’s foremost democratic multiracial election.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 marking the end of World War I in Mvezo, a land of fertile valleys and rolling green hills. Mvezo is the capital of Transeki which is the largest territorial division of South Africa. Almost eight decades later, it was the same small village where he decided to build his retirement house. Mandela descends from the Thembu Dynasty of the South African Royalty whose patrilineal great grandfather has been the King of the tribe. His traits of power would have been rooted to his understanding of the tribal leadership since he was brought up to be an adviser but not an heir to the Thembu throne.
His first name “Rolihlahla” resembling “troublemaker” was bestowed upon him by his father, Glada Henry Mphkanyiswa who was the Mvezo Chief. Young Mandela always believed that the centre of his existence was his mother, Noseneni Fanny. He was the youngest of the four boys in a family of 13 and has always shown an abiding connection to his roots and the Thembu throne.
In the early years, Mandela and his mother were forced to leave his birthplace Mvezo to mitigate strained circumstances. Qunu becomes Mandela’s new home for nearly a decade where he has spent the happiest days of his childhood. At Qunu, he acquires the initial knowledge through observation and imitation based on a life of custom, rituals and taboo.
Mandela was the first member in his family to attend school. He attended a Wesleyan Missionary school after being baptised as a Methodist. His well renowned name “Nelson” resembling the great British Sea Captain Lord Nelson was bestowed upon him on the very first day at school by his English teacher Miss Mdlingane.
Change of destiny
Young Mandela’s destiny changed when his father faced a tragic death from tuberculosis. Since then, the regent Jongintaba becomes Mandela’s guardian, making him part of the regent’s family.
It was the era of racial segregation in South Africa that Mandela was brought up amidst royal prerogative and the traditional upbringing sharpened the traits of his character.
Mandela has always exhibited his interest in learning and proved to be an excellent student. He completed his Junior Certificate in two years, instead of the usual period of three years. He completed only two years of the Bachelor of Arts Degree at the Fort Hare University before deciding to leave for Johannesburg to avoid a marriage arranged by his guardian.
The rights of the majority black population in South Africa were curtailed under the Apartheid system, a legal racial segregation coordination enforced by the South African National Party in 1948. Mandela became an active political figure in the Anti Apartheid movement, leading prominently in the African National Congress. The young freedom fighter together with his colleagues Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo formed the ANC youth league to continue the anti-Apartheid campaign with non violent resistance.
The most significant memoir of the leading anti-Apartheid campaigner lies during his 27 years of imprisonment, making the transformation into a mature political leader. In 1964, Mandela was charged with sabotage and treason as an anti-Apartheid attempt to violently overthrow the Government. He fortunately escapes execution, nevertheless gets life imprisonment.
27 years in prison
From the 27 years of solitude in prison, 18 painstaking years were spent in Robben Island. It has been the loathsome shelter to many political prisoners who had spent decades of imprisonment alongside Mandela and the current South African President Jacob Zuma. The rest of the imprisonment was spent in the Pollsmoor Prison and the Victor Vester Prison.
Life at Robben Island has been years of persecution confined to a small cell with the floor imitating a bed. The prisoners were segregated by race where the black prisoners received fewer rations and harsh labour.
He was forced to attend hard labour at a lime quarry and his communication with the external world was restricted to one visitor and one letter for six months. While held in custody, he was neither allowed to attend his mother’s nor his 25 year old elder son’s funeral. Proving his keen interest towards learning from childhood, Mandela undertook the degree of Bachelor of Law externally in correspondence with the London University while in prison.
Mandela’s reputation grew steadily over the last few years in prison when local and international pressure mounted on the South African authorities to free the Nobel Laureate under the slogan of “Free Nelson Mandela”. Moreover, the US Senator, Edward Kennedy visited South Africa to extend his anti-Apartheid view hosted by Bishop Desmond Tutu, the third South African to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Thus, the greatest freedom fighter of our time was released on 11 February 1990 from the Victor Vester Prison amidst the celebrations of thousands clamouring in the streets of Cape Town.
On his release, Mandela declared his commitment to peace stating “our march to freedom is irreversible”.
This was the very first instance Mandela was shown speaking on television. The legend’s release from 27 years in prison led to further changes in the political system of South Africa such as relaxation of Apartheid laws, including lifting the bans on leading black rights.
Following his release from prison he returned to the African National Congress leadership who led the party for multi party negotiations which resulted in South Africa’s first multiracial elections.
In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first black President to be elected in a full representative democratic election. Mandela served as President for five years when Mandela’s advocacy in national and international reconciliation gained high international recognition.
The Nobel Laureate retired in 1999 and went on to become an advocate for human rights organisations. He has become a famous public figure in charity since retirement. The legend became the first South African to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, sharing it with Frederik Willem de Klerk, the last state President of the Apartheid South Africa.
Mandela married three times to Evelyn Ntoko Mase, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Graca Machel. Winnie Mandela was a political activist whom he met in Johannesburg, where she was the city’s first black social worker. She played an active political role, parallel to Mandela’s journey for an Apartheid free South Africa. Mandela is the father of six and a grandfather of 20 grandchildren with a growing number of great grandchildren.
‘Long Walk to Freedom’
‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ the autobiographical manuscript by Nelson Mandela was published in 1995 by Little Brown and Company. The book profiles his boyhood, education, political ascension and imprisonment giving much needed emphasis to South Africa’s anti-Apartheid movement. This book remains one of the most treasured autobiographies in the modern times.
The Nobel Laureate won the Alan Paton Award in 1995 for his admirable autobiography.
Nelson Mandela has been the greatest freedom fighter of the 20th Century, undergoing protracted trials to establish freedom in South Africa. He was a man of victory, an inspiration to many and will be a memory worth a lifetime.
(The writer can be reached via [email protected])