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Remembering Nelson Mandela

Despite enduring many hardships and injustices, Nelson Mandela emerged as a world leader all could look up to.

By Ettagale Blauer
Nelson Mandela
Photo: REUTERS/Mike Hutchings
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in Cape Town on February 11, 1990, his appearance was electrifying. Not only had he survived all the injustice and ill treatment the South African government hurled at him, he emerged on a morally high plane that invalidated the very idea of apartheid. Four years later, on April 27, 1994, Mandela was elected as South Africa’s first black president in the first election in which all the people of South Africa could vote. He took office on May 10, 1994, and chose to step down after one five-year term. He spent the next decades lending his considerable moral influence to three interlinked foundations he founded that were dedicated to developing future leaders in South Africa, building a children’s hospital in the country and promoting dialogue on important social issues. He even allowed the use of his prisoner number, 46664, as a logo for his causes.
   Mandela died at the age of 95 in his Johannesburg home on December 5, 2013, following a lengthy illness. Throughout the long years of his imprisonment, Mandela was considered the father of his country. He nurtured the hopes of the disenfranchised blacks, Indians and mixed-race people of South Africa through the treacherous apartheid years, emerging from prison as a healing force, never expressing a bitter thought at the enormous injustice he was forced to endure.
   Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, into a royal tribal household, a clan of the Xhosa people, South Africa’s second-largest ethnic group. He grew up in Qunu, a rural village in the Eastern Cape. The white minority government had divided the country into “white” and “black” areas. Mandela’s academic ability was recognized early and he enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the country’s only institution of higher learning for blacks. When his family tried to push him into an arranged marriage, he fled to Johannesburg and ultimately earned his college degree by correspondence, later earning a law degree from the University of London, also by correspondence, while incarcerated.
   From his law office in Johannesburg, Mandela, a member of the African National Congress (ANC), embarked on a decades-long nonviolent campaign to secure equal rights for his fellow South Africans. Eventually, as he began to believe that armed struggle was the way to achieve change, he cofounded an armed offshoot of the ANC. Those activities, along with his leadership of a 1961 three-day national workers’ strike, led to his 1962 arrest and a sentence of life in prison. In 1964, he began serving his term. Eighteen years of his imprisonment were served on Robben Island, South Africa’s notorious prison off the coast of Cape Town. The prison is now a World Heritage Site and a museum dedicated to preserving and explaining the apartheid years in South Africa. After Mandela contracted tuberculosis and it was feared that he would die in prison, he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison near Cape Town in 1982.
   By the 1990s, South Africa was feeling the pinch of economic sanctions placed on the country by the international community. F. W. de Klerk, a somewhat more enlightened white president, initiated talks between Mandela and other ANC leaders and the white minority government, and arranged for Mandela’s release. When Mandela became president, he appointed de Klerk as his first deputy to ease the transition to black majority rule. The two shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 in Oslo, Norway, and were awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal by President Bill Clinton in Philadelphia on July 4, 1993. Mandela’s vice-president, Thabo Mbeki, became president in 1999. In Mandela’s final years, as age and severe arthritis hobbled him, he returned to his home in Qunu. There he enjoyed a quiet life with his third wife, Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambican President Samora Machel, as well as frequent visits from his daughters and grandchildren and a steady stream of world leaders. 

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2014. To subscribe click here.

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