For most people who take international affairs seriously, it goes without saying that Nelson Mandela was one of the most admired and revered political leaders in the world over the last two decades.
No single living person has captured the world’s imagination in quite the same way as Nelson Mandela.
Born on July 18, 1918 into a branch of the Thembu dynasty (which reigns in the Transkei region of South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province) he was named Rolihlahla Mandela at birth and was only given the name Nelson by a teacher at age seven.
Like many Africans from the first half of the 20th Century, Mandela was the first person in his family to receive a western education.
His family homestead was in rural Qunu in the Eastern Cape Province district of Umtata.
From his birth in 1918 until 1941, Nelson Mandela lived in the rural Eastern Cape. The son of a Thembu chief (traditional leader), his primary influences as a young person were the customs of the Thembu people and the education he received at Christian mission schools.
Later in his life, especially during the 27 years he was in jail, Nelson Mandela would write and speak extensively about his background and childhood: whether about his experiences listening to adults solving problems or the two worlds he inhabited.
Mandela’s keen awareness of the tension between tradition and modernity, and his view that while he has learned from his rural background, he became a modern man is obvious from his writings.
He also wrote disparagingly about those who used their cultural mores to degrade others. He always urged that one respects tradition but that one should not allow it to determine one’s interaction with others.
Perhaps one of the most defining moments of the life of Nelson Mandela was the death of his father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa because it meant that he had to be separated from his beloved mother and move in with the Regent who took him as his own son.
His life at the Royal residence, the Great Place at Mqhekezweni with Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his son Justice, meant a life of privilege and opportunity. It meant that he would be educated at the best schools and enter university. It also meant that he was able to sit on the sidelines and watch as the Regent would meet with the community and listen to their problems before offering his own views.
These experiences made an enormous impact on the kind of man Nelson Mandela was to come. He opened his unpublished autobiographical manuscript with the death of his father.
Nelson Mandela underwent the traditional Xhosa rite of passage to manhood when he was 16 years of age. He was joined by 25 other youths for the process known as ‘initiation school’ on the banks of the river close to which he was born.
Initiation involved going away from home and living in the bush with the other youths. They received counselling and advice on becoming men and underwent circumcision to complete their transition.
During his Presidential years and beyond Mandela would take delight in shocking some of his overseas male visitors by describing his circumcision in wincing detail.
Between 1939 and 1941 he studied at the University of Fort Hare, a tertiary institution for black South Africans (and black students from other African countries), where he was first exposed to the politics of African nationalism.
Nelson Mandela began studying at university in 1939 at the University of Fort Hare where he graduated in 1942 with a BA.
In Johannesburg he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand and then when he was imprisoned in 1962 he started studying with London University. It was only in 1989, months before he was released from prison that he finally graduated – albeit in absentia – with an LLB degree.
But his time at Fort Hare was for him the most memorable. Here he was, a young man from the countryside getting the opportunity to study at what was then the most prestigious educational institutions for black people in Southern Africa.
He knew that studying there would help him to carve out a successful life despite the discrimination and hardships of b eing black in a race obsessed country.
He was disappointed to find, as he writes in his original autobiographical manuscript, that what he learned was not directly relevant to the South African situation.
In 1941 he left the Eastern Cape for the city of Johannesburg, where he was to be exposed more directly to the realities of state racism and where he was to find a political home in the African National Congress.
As a young lawyer in Johannesburg, Mandela became increasingly involved in the African National Congress, which sought to unite all black South Africans and restore their rights.
He was heavily involved in boycotts and mobilising citizens, eventually being accused of treason and sentenced to life in prison.
After nearly 30 years behind bars, Mandela was released and elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994.
It was Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta who coined the phrase ‘Suffering Without Bitterness’, but it was Nelson Mandela who became the living embodiment of that noble sentiment and all the world loved Madiba specifically for this.
As an international icon Nelson Mandela was sought out by the world’s rich and famous and he was surrounded by celebrity. But according to an article about him from the Mandela Archives, the mantle of celebrity never sat well on him, and he worked hard at making himself accessible to ‘ordinary people’.
He is never more comfortable than when he can escape the trappings of formality and relate to people on a person-to-person basis. For many, meeting him in this context has provided the experience of a lifetime.
Something that astounded even his closest comrades was Nelson Mandela’s position on becoming president of South Africa.
In the draft of the sequel to his autobiography, he writes about how the presidency -— which he assumed after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 — was “imposed” upon him and that he believed a younger person should take the responsibility.
What is equally remarkable is that it was before he was inaugurated as President that Mandela decided to only serve for one term. This decision on his part is perhaps one of the most often cited examples of how he differed from his counterparts in other African countries.
Throughout his term as President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, was open about his health. From the time of his early years in prison he became used to rumours about his ‘deteriorating’ health.
As President he confronted all health issues head on, whether it was issuing press statements or appearing in front of the media alongside his doctors, he was open about these challenges.
Mandela retired from political life in 1999, at which point he was succeeded by Thabo Mbeki in the South African presidency.
Nelson Mandela has retired more than once. He stepped down as President of South Africa in 1999 at the end of just one term of office.
Even in retirement he continued to be a force on numerous issues, including Aids, poverty and human rights.
In 2004, weeks before he turned 86, he made a speech in which he famously ‘retired from retirement’. From that day, June 1, his diary and activities were ‘severely and significantly reduced’.
He added: “I do not intend to hide away totally from the public, but hence forth I want to be in the position of calling you to ask whether I would be welcome, rather than being called upon to do things and participate in events. The appeal therefore is: don’t call me.”
There were many occasions in the following years when his staff had to remind the public that he was actually retired and needed space to enjoy it.
For his life’s work, Mandela received the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize among many other awards.
In keeping with Nelson Mandela’s desire that the younger generation do their bit to improve the lives of others, Mandela Day was launched on his birthday in 2009. Within months the United Nations declared his July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day.
It has become a day around the world in which individuals and organisations are encouraged to do good for those around them. A number of successful Mandela Days have been held and the call now is to “Make Every Day a Mandela Day”.
Madiba’s Kenyan connection
Kenyans will remember the Black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela when he cut short a visit to Ethiopia and flew to Kenya to seek treatment over pneumonia on July 12, 1990.
Mandela arrived on a charter flight with his wife, Winnie. According to AP news agency, the 71-year-old walked slowly down the airplane stairs to the runway and used both hands to clutch the stair rail and support himself.
After greeting President Daniel arap Moi and his Cabinet, and waving to a small crowd of airport workers and security officials, Mandela and Moi climbed into the president’s limousine and were driven away. Winnie Mandela left in a separate vehicle.
Mandela, who was in Ethiopia for the annual Organisation of African Unity summit, cut short that part of his trip by one day to fly to Nairobi.
Concerns about Mandela’s health had been raised as early as 1990 during his six-week tour of Europe, North America and Africa.
• When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.
• Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
• I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.
• A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.
• For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
• Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.
• Lead from the back — and let others believe they are in front.
• I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.