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TThe late former South African president, Rolihlahla Mandela, was born on 18 July 1918 in a small village in the Transkei – the area designated the ‘homeland’ of the Xhosa people in segregated South Africa – called Mvezo. Later he was sent to school in the small town of Qunu, where a teacher gave him the name Nelson when he was baptised as a Methodist.
Although of royal lineage, Mandela was the only member of his family to receive formal education, so from a very young age, he was unwittingly preparing for the great task that lay ahead.
In 1939, he enrolled at Fort Hare (the only black university in South Africa at the time) where he forged lifelong friendships with many of those who fought the struggle for freedom with him. He was suspended from university a year later for his political activities and left for Johannesburg, but he would complete his bachelor degree through UNISA, and later study law at the University of the Witwatersrand.
From 1942 onwards he became increasingly active within the African National Congress whilst working as an apprentice at a legal firm in Johannesburg and furthering his studies, eventually qualifying as an attorney and being admitted to the profession in 1952. He started South Africa’s first black legal firm, Mandela and Tambo Attorneys, with friend and fellow activist Oliver Tambo in 1953.
During this time, Mandela’s natural authority and strategic mind saw him start to emerge as one of the ANC’s leaders and top strategists – a role that led to several arrests and brushes with the law during the 1950s Defiance Campaign, until apartheid government intransigence eventually saw him become a proponent of the armed struggle.
But Mandela’s luck finally ran out on 5 August 1962, when he was arrested outside the town of Howick (in what was then the province of Natal; now KwaZulu-Natal), at a site on the R103 that now hosts a national monument and museum. At the time of his apprehension, he was disguised as a chauffeur, having paid a secret visit to ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli, who was living in Groutville under house arrest.
Mandela had been on the run for 17 months and had just returned from a trip through Africa, where he had received military training, and to London, where he had sought support for the ANC.
A 27-year incarceration followed, during which he would become the most famous political prisoner in the world and emerge as the future president of South Africa. Initially, he was sentenced to 5 years for ‘leaving the country illegally’ and ‘incitement’, but then came the Rivonia Treason Trial, after which he was sentenced to life imprisonment, starting his incarceration on Robben Island on 13 June 1964.
At the close of the Rivonia trial, Nelson Mandela uttered a famous declaration on behalf of his co-accused: ‘During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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.’
When he emerged from prison in 1990, his most remarkable feat was that he was able to lead the country without bitterness, living out his ideal of creating a non-racial country where everybody was treated with the same dignity. His term as president, and his decision to step down after a single term, set an example of democratic, accountable, collective leadership for Africa and the world.
And that is why, decades after South Africa’s first democratic election and the discovery that reconciliation requires more than simply declaring ourselves ‘a rainbow nation’, South Africans and freedom lovers around the world continue to revere the legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, or (to use his clan name that became a beloved universal nickname): Madiba.