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South Africa: Biography of Nelson Mandela

Photo: BuaNews
Nelson Mandela.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born in Mvezo, a village near Mthatha in the Transkei, on July 18, 1918, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Henry Mgadla Mandela. His father was the principal councillor to the Acting Paramount Chief of the Thembu royal house.

Rolihlahla literally means "pulling the branch of a tree". After his father's death in 1927, the young Rolihlahla became the ward of Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the Paramount Chief, to be groomed to assume high office.

Hearing the elder's stories of his ancestor's valour during the wars of resistance, he dreamed also of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people.

After receiving a primary education at a local mission school, where he was given the name Nelson, he was sent to the Clarkebury Boarding Institute for his Junior Certificate and then to Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school of some repute, where he matriculated.

He then enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare for the Bachelor of Arts Degree where he was elected onto the Students' Representative Council. He was suspended from college for joining in a protest boycott, along with Oliver Tambo.

He and his cousin Justice ran away to Johannesburg to avoid arranged marriages and for a short period he worked as a mine policeman.

Mandela was introduced to Walter Sisulu in 1941 and it was Sisulu who arranged for him to do his articles at Lazar Sidelsky's law firm.

Completing his BA through the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 1942, he commenced study for his LLB shortly afterwards (though he left the University of the Witwatersrand without graduating in 1948).

He entered politics in earnest while studying, and joined the African National Congress in 1943.

Despite his increasing political awareness and activities, Mr Mandela also had time for other things. "It was in the lounge of the Sisulu's home that I met Evelyn Mase ... She was a quiet, pretty girl from the countryside who did not seem over-awed by the comings and goings ... . Within a few months I had asked her to marry me, and she accepted."

They married in a civil ceremony at the Native Commissioner's Court in Johannesburg, "for we could not afford a traditional wedding or feast". Evelyn and Nelson went on to have four children: Thembikile (1946), Makaziwe (1947), who died at nine months), Makgatho (1951) and Makaziwe (1954). The couple was divorced in 1958.

At the height of the Second World War, in 1944, a small group of young Africans who were members of the African National Congress, banded together under the leadership of Anton Lembede.

Among them were William Nkomo, Walter Sisulu, Oliver R Tambo, Ashby P Mda and Nelson Mandela. Starting out with 60 members, all of whom were residing around the Witwatersrand, these young people set themselves the formidable task of transforming the ANC into a more radical mass movement.

Their chief contention was that the political tactics of the "old guard" leadership of the ANC, reared in the tradition of constitutionalism and polite petitioning of the government of the day, were proving inadequate to the tasks of national emancipation.

In opposition to the old guard, Lembede and his colleagues espoused a radical African nationalism grounded in the principle of national self-determination. In September 1944 they came together to found the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL).

Mandela soon impressed his peers by his disciplined work and consistent effort and was elected as the league's National Secretary in 1948.

By painstaking work, campaigning at the grass-roots and through its mouthpiece Inyaniso(Truth) the ANCYL was able to canvass support for its policies amongst the ANC membership.

Emerging as Leader

Spurred on by the victory of the National Party which won the 1948 all-white elections on the platform of apartheid, at the 1949 Annual Conference the Programme of Action, inspired by the Youth League, which advocated the weapons of boycott, strike, civil disobedience and non-co-operation, was accepted as official ANC policy.

The Programme of Action had been drawn up by a sub-committee of the ANCYL composed of David Bopape, Ashby Mda, Nelson Mandela, James Njongwe, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.

To ensure its implementation the membership replaced older leaders with a number of younger men. Dr Walter Sisulu, a founding member of the Youth League, was elected secretary-general. The conservative Dr AB Xuma lost the presidency to Dr JS Moroka, a man with a reputation for greater militancy.

In December Mandela himself was elected to the NEC at the National Conference.

When the ANC launched its Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws in 1952, Mandela, by then President of the Youth League, was elected National Volunteer-in-Chief.

The Defiance Campaign was conceived as a mass civil disobedience campaign that would snowball from a core of selected volunteers to involve more and more ordinary people, culminating in mass defiance.

Fulfilling his responsibility as Volunteer-in-Chief, Mandela travelled the country organising resistance to discriminatory legislation.

Charged, with Moroka, Sisulu and 17 others, and brought to trial for his role in the campaign, the court found that Mandela and his co-accused had consistently advised their followers to adopt a peaceful course of action and to avoid all violence.

For his part in the Defiance Campaign, Mandela was convicted of contravening the Suppression of Communism Act and given a suspended prison sentence.

Shortly after the campaign ended, he was also prohibited from attending gatherings and confined to Johannesburg for six months.

During this period of restrictions, Mandela wrote the attorneys admission examination and was admitted to the profession.

He opened a practice in Johannesburg in August 1952, and in December, in partnership with Oliver Tambo, opened South Africa's first black law firm in central Johannesburg.

He says of himself during that time: "As an attorney, I could be rather flamboyant in court. I did not act as though I were a black man in a white man's court, but as if everyone else - white and black - was a guest in my court.

When presenting a case, I often made sweeping gestures and used high-flown language... . (and) used unorthodox tactics with witnesses."

Their professional status didn't earn Mandela and Tambo any personal immunity from the brutal apartheid laws.

They fell foul of the land segregation legislation, and the authorities demanded that they move their practice from the city to the back of beyond, as Mandela later put it, "miles away from where clients could reach us during working hours.

This was tantamount to asking us to abandon our legal practice, to give up the legal service of our people ... No attorney worth his salt would easily agree to do that." The partnership resolved to defy the law.

In 1953 Nelson Mandela was given the responsibility to prepare a plan that would enable the leadership of the movement to maintain dynamic contact with its membership without recourse to public meetings.

The objective was to prepare for the possibility that the ANC would, like the Communist Party, be declared illegal and to ensure that the organisation would be able to operate from underground.

This was the M-Plan, named after him. "The plan was conceived with the best of intentions but it was instituted with only modest success and its adoption was never widespread."

During the early fifties Mandela played an important part in leading the resistance to the Western Areas removals, and to the introduction of Bantu Education.

He also played a significant role in popularising the Freedom Charter, adopted by the Congress of the People in 1955.

Having been banned again for 2 years in 1953, neither Mandela nor Sisulu were able to attend but "we found a place at the edge of the crowd where we could observe without mixing in or being seen".

During the whole of the fifties, Mandela was the victim of various forms of repression. He was banned, arrested and imprisoned.

A five year banning order was enforced against him in March 1956. "(But) this time my attitude towards my bans had changed radically.

When I was first banned, I abided by the rules and regulations of my persecutors. I had now developed contempt for these restrictions. ... To allow my activities to be circumscribed my opponent was a form of defeat, and I resolved not to become my own jailer."

Although Nelson and Evelyn had effectively separated in 1955, it wasn't until 1958 that they formally divorced - and shortly afterwards, in June, he was married to Nomzamo Winnie Mandela.

Their fist date was at an Indian restaurant near Nelson's office and he recalls that she was "dazzling, and even the fact that she had never before tasted curry and drank glass after glass of water to cool her palate only added to her charm... . Winnie has laughingly told people that I never proposed to her, but I always told her that I asked her on our very first date and that I simply took it for granted from that day forward."

Unlike his first marriage, the couple observed most of the traditional requirements, including payment of 'lobola', and were married in a local church in Bizana on the 14th of June.

There was no time (or money) for a honeymoon - Nelson had to appear in court for the continuing Treason Trial and anyway his banning order had only been relaxed for 6 days.

The Trials

In fact for much of the latter half of the decade, he was one of the 156 accused in the mammoth Treason Trial, at great cost to his legal practice and his political work, though he recalls that, during his incarceration in the Fort, the communal cell "became a kind of convention for far-flung freedom fighters."

After the Sharpeville Massacre on 21st March 1960, the ANC was outlawed, and Mandela, still on trial, was detained, along with hundreds of others.

The Treason Trial collapsed in 1961 as South Africa was being steered towards the adoption of the republic constitution.

With the ANC now illegal the leadership picked up the threads from its underground headquarters and Nelson Mandela emerged at this time as the leading figure in this new phase of struggle.

Under the ANC's inspiration, 1,400 delegates came together at an All-in African Conference in Pietermaritzburg during March 1961.

Mandela was the keynote speaker. In an electrifying address he challenged the apartheid regime to convene a national convention, representative of all South Africans to thrash out a new constitution based on democratic principles.

Failure to comply, he warned, would compel the majority (Blacks) to observe the forthcoming inauguration of the Republic with a mass general strike.

He immediately went underground to lead the campaign. Although fewer answered the call than Mandela had hoped, it attracted considerable support throughout the country.

The government responded with the largest military mobilisation since the war, and the Republic was born in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension.

Forced to live apart from his family (and he and Winnie by now had 2 daughters, Zenani born in 1959 and Zindzi, born 1960) moving from place to place to evade detection by the government's ubiquitous informers and police spies, Mandela had to adopt a number of disguises. Sometimes dressed as a labourer, at other times as a chauffeur, his successful evasion of the police earned him the title of the Black Pimpernel.

He managed to travel around the country and stayed with numerous sympathisers - a family in Market Street central Johannesburg, in his comrade Wolfie Kodesh's flat (where he insisted on running on-the-spot every day), in the servant's quarters of a doctor's house where he pretended to be a gardener, and on a sugar plantation in Natal.

It was during this time that he, together with other leaders of the ANC, constituted a new section of the liberation movement, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), as an armed nucleus with a view to preparing for armed struggle, with Mandela as its commander in chief.

At the Rivonia trial, Mandela explained: "At the beginning of June 1961, after long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.

It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle, and to form Umkhonto we Sizwe ... the Government had left us no other choice."

In 1962 Mandela left the country, as 'David Motsamayi', and travelled abroad for several months. In Ethiopia he addressed the Conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa, and was warmly received by senior political leaders in several countries including Tanganyika, Senegal, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

He also spent time in London where he managed to find time, with Oliver Tambo, to see the sights as well as to spend time with many exiled comrades. During this trip Mandela met up with the first group of 21 MK recruits on their way to Addis Ababa for guerrilla training.

Prisoner 46664

Not long after his return to South Africa Mandela was arrested, on August 5th, and charged with illegal exit from the country, and incitement to strike.

He was in Natal at the time, passing through Howick on his way back to Johannesburg, posing again as David Motsamayi, now the driver of a white theatre director and MK member, Cecil Williams.

Since he considered the prosecution a trial of the aspirations of the African people, Mandela decided to conduct his own defence.

He applied for the recusal of the magistrate, on the ground that in such a prosecution a judiciary controlled entirely by whites was an interested party and therefore could not be impartial, and on the ground that he owed no duty to obey the laws of a white parliament, in which he was not represented.

Mandela prefaced this challenge with the affirmation: "I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man."

Mandela was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was transferred to Robben Island in May 1963 only to be brought back to Pretoria again in July.

The authorities issued a statement to the press that this had been done to protect Mandela from assault by PAC prisoners.

"This was patently false; they had brought me back to Pretoria for their own motives, which soon became clear."

Not long afterwards he encountered Thomas Mashifane, the foreman from Liliesleaf Farm in Rivionia where MK had set up their HQ. He knew then that their hide-out had been discovered. A few days later he and 10 others were charged with sabotage.

The Rivonia Trial, as it came to be known, lasted eight months. Most of the accused stood up well to the prosecution, having made a collective decision that this was a political trial and that they would take the opportunity to make public their political beliefs.

Three of the accused, Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki also decided that, if they were given the death sentence, they would not appeal.

Mandela's statement in court during the trial is a classic in the history of the resistance to apartheid, and has been an inspiration to all who have opposed it. He ended with these words:

"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."

All but two of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12, 1964. The black prisoners were flown secretly to Robben Island immediately the trial was over to begin serving their sentences.

Nelson Mandela's time in prison, which amounted to almost 27 years, was marked by many small and large events which played a crucial part in shaping the personality and attitudes of the man who was to become the first President of a democratic South Africa.

Many fellow prisoners and warders influenced him and he, in his turn, influenced them. While he was in jail his mother and son died, his wife was banned and subjected to continuous arrest and harassment, and the liberation movement was reduced to isolated groups of activists.

In March 1982, after 18 years, he was suddenly transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town (with Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba and Andrew Mlangeni) and in December 1988 he was moved to the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl, from where he was eventually released.

While in prison, Mandela flatly rejected offers made by his jailers for remission of sentence in exchange for accepting the bantustan policy by recognising the independence of the Transkei and agreeing to settle there.

Again in the eighties Mandela and others rejected an offer of release on condition that he renounce violence.

Prisoners cannot enter into contracts - only free men can negotiate, he said.

Nevertheless Mandela did initiate talks with the apartheid regime in 1985, when he wrote to Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee.

They first met later that year when Mandela was hospitalised for prostate surgery.

Shortly after this he was moved to a single cell at Pollsmoor and this gave Mandela the chance to start a dialogue with the government - which took the form of 'talks about talks'.

Throughout this process, he was adamant that negotiations could only be carried out by the full ANC leadership. In time, a secret channel of communication would be set up whereby he could get messages to the ANC in Lusaka, but at the beginning he said: "I chose to tell no-one what I was about to do.

There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people in the right direction."

Released on February 11, 1990, Mandela plunged wholeheartedly into his life's work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier.

In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa after being banned for decades, Nelson Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organisation's National Chairperson.

Negotiating Peace

In a life that symbolises the triumph of the human spirit, Nelson Mandela accepted the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize (along with FW de Klerk) on behalf of all South Africans who suffered and sacrificed so much to bring peace to our land.

The era of apartheid formally came to an end on the April 27, 1994, when Nelson Mandela voted for the first time in his life - along with his people.

However, long before that date it had become clear, even before the start of negotiations at the World Trade Centre in Kempton Park, that the ANC was increasingly charting the future of South Africa.

Rolihlahla Nelson Dalibunga Mandela was inaugurated as President of a democratic South Africa on May 10, 1994.

In his inauguration speech he said:

"We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free.

"Their dreams have become reality. Freedom is their reward.

"We are both humbled and elevated by the honour and privilege that you, the people of South Africa, have bestowed on us, as the first President of a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist government.

"We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all.

"Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfil themselves.

"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign."

Mandela stepped down in 1999 after one term as President - but for him there has been no real retirement.

He set up three foundations bearing his name: The Nelson Mandela Foundation, The Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and The Mandela-Rhodes Foundation.

Until very recently his schedule has been relentless. But during this period he has had the love and support of his large family - including his wife Graça Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday in 1998.

In April 2007 Mandla Mandela, grandson of Nelson and son of Makgatho Mandela who died in 2005, was installed as head of the Mvezo Traditional Council at an 'ubeko' (anointment) ceremony at the Mvezo Great Place, the seat of the Madiba clan.

Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and learning.

Despite terrible provocation, he has never answered racism with racism. His life has been an inspiration, in South Africa and throughout the world, to all who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.

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