By Rafiu Ajakaye
By Rafiu Ajakaye
JOHANNESBURG – Numerous factors contributed to his legend.
But what made Nelson Mandela a rare gem were qualities of greatness such as perseverance, patience, humility, and, above all, a rare spirit of forgiveness manifested in how he dealt with his political foes, who kept him behind bars for nearly three decades.
Mandela, who died late Thursday at the age of 95, was born in 1918 in South Africa’s southern Transkei region.
A trained lawyer and a boxer, he combined law with political activism.
At one point in the fight against the apartheid regime, Mandela was a leading campaigner for armed struggle, a decision forced upon him by the intolerance and indiscriminate violence of the apartheid regime.
In 1961, he was named a commander-in-chief of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the then-outlawed African National Congress (ANC), which trained in Algeria and Ethiopia.
Mandela was arrested in South Africa in 1962 and sentenced to five years in prison.
In 1964, he was again charged with sabotage and sentenced to life in prison at Johannesburg’s infamous Rivonia trial.
While in court, thumping his signatory fist, Mandela gave a speech that came to codify the message of the anti-apartheid struggle.
“During my lifetime,” he bellowed to the cheers of supporters who were kept at bay by the apartheid police, “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.”
He went on to say: “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideals of a democratic and free society. It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela, with inmate number 46664, was taken to Robben Island, where he spent 18 years mobilizing support for his struggle and sending secret letters back home to supporters and family, according to his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”
Authorities got wind of his antics and transferred him in 1982 to Cape Town’s Pollsmoore Prison and later to Victor Veriter Prison in Paarl.
Mandela’s struggle, alongside his membership in the ANC, drew world attention, and at some point split the international community down the middle.
Most world capitals, though less powerful, backed calls for new sanctions against the apartheid regime and for existing sanctions to be toughened.
But until 2008, the US had designated him a “terrorist,” given his support for violence against the apartheid regime.
But global support for Mandela’s cause became more obvious in 1988 at a concert in Wembley Stadium in London, when tens of thousands gathered to chant “Free Nelson Mandela” while several millions more were glued to their TV screens across the world to watch.
The decision of the white minority-led government of South Africa to free Mandela on February 11, 1990 was a fait accompli.
The apartheid regime was no longer sustainable amid mounting international calls for freedom in South Africa.
Mandela’s release therefore was non-negotiable; in fact, for the government of WF de Klerk, it was a bid for credibility and acceptance in a new world.
After 27 years behind bars, Mandela was freed to lead the ANC in negotiations with the white minority rulers, culminating in South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Rather than pursue a vendetta as demanded by ANC hawks, he chose the path of peace and reconciliation for the good of his troubled nation, even as he wielded power as the country’s first black democratically-elected president.
In spite of criticism that he was a weak leader who watched his ANC comrades commit a number of “atrocities” – an allegation later found to be false – Mandela loomed large in racist society for building a “rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”He tried to unite the white minority with the black majority, urging both sides to forget their traditional antipathies.
But Mandela did something much more shocking: at a time in which Africa was governed by sit-tight leaders, Mandela broke the jinx by opting out of power after serving for only one four-year term in office – despite pleas for him to run for another term.
That singular act raised Mandela’s stature as a world leader and the “conscience” of black Africa.
The man not only relinquished power, but he also avoided competing with his successor, Thabo Mbeki.
Losing his son Makgatho to AIDS, Mandela launched a spirited campaign to enlighten the people about the danger of AIDS and the futility of thinking it was curable through local practices.
He dedicated the rest of his life to campaigning for good governance, equality, and freedom in Africa and around the world.
Mandela was a fierce critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and he will also be remembered for opposing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.
His Nelson Mandela Foundation continues to do extensive works to support people with terminal diseases.
Several humanitarian causes have been named after him, including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.
He retired from public life in 2004.
Mandela, also known as Madiba, is a prince from South Africa’s Xhosa tribe, a recipient of at least 250 honors, and a winner in 1993 of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he won alongside de Klerk for their roles in ending the South Africa crisis.
He is survived by three daughters, 18 grandchildren, nine great grandchildren and three step-grandchildren.
His extraordinary life story, quirky sense of humor and lack of bitterness towards his former oppressors have all earned Mandela a global appeal verging on sainthood.