Over a week ago former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela died at his home in Johannesburg. President Jacob Zuma delivered the news to his country who was stricken with grief and sadness, but later turned to joy celebrating the life of the founder of their modern country. In a statement from the White House Press Room, President Barack Obama stated that "(Mandela) does not belong to us. He belongs to the ages." American politicians on both sides of the aisle gave praise to a man who led his country on a path towards reconciliation after many years under apartheid which in some ways mirrors our own system of segregation. Today was the state funeral for the first president of the modern South Africa.
Mandela, or affectionately called Madiba by his closest confidants, was born in Mvezo, Cape Province in South Africa. His name given at birth was Rolihlahla which means "trouble-maker" in Xhosa. Upon attending school, he was given the name Nelson and wondered why he was given that name. Mandela received his education at Clarkebury Boarding Institute which was one of the largest schools for black Africans in the country and then pursued a bachelor of arts education at another elite black institution at the University of Fort Hare but did not receive his degree because of one his earliest bouts of activism involved him protesting the school's food quality. Besides activism, Mandela took up sports such as long-distance running and boxing.
In the 1940s Mandela began law school at the University of Witwaerand. It was at this time Mandela became involved with the African National Congress (ANC) and became one of their youth leaders. The ANC had strong anti-colonial views and believed that black Africans should an independent entity in determining their political wellbeing.
The galvanizing moment was the South African General Election in 1948 where the Reunited National Party won and began to institute the system called apartheid which means apartness. In some ways it was similar to the American style of segregation that took place in the 19th and into the mid 20th century in the south such as laws prohibiting marriages by people of different races and separate facilities for blacks and whites, but their system included that blacks had to carry identification on their persons at all times and were forced into slums.
Mandela and the ANC's methods to challenge the apartheid strayed away from peaceful means to more militant methods. The shift was due to the ANC being inspired to the Cuban revolution that happened in 1959. Though Mandela continued to practiced law, his involvement with the ANC and then with a more radicalized organization, the Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation", MK) forced him underground. In an interview with British ITN in 1961, the interviewer had to partake in a system of misdirection and deception to get to him.
MK launched a military-style offensive in 1961 to force the white-ruling government into discussing governmental reforms. Beginning in December 1961 on a South African holiday, the organization launched bombing attacks against various targets, sabotage of equipment, and burning of crops. When Mandela and other co-conspirators were arrested in 1963 for their involvement with MK in 1963, they were charged with 193 acts of sabotage among them being recruiting people for use in violent revolution, furthering the communist revolution, and accepting funds from foreign nations. A trial began in October 1963 and rendered a guilty verdict for 8 of the 10 charged. Though the death penalty was an option in this case, the international community condemned the idea and in some instances called for acquittal. During the trial, Mandela delivered his "I am prepared to die" speech.
In June 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor at Robben Island for the next 18 years confined to a concrete cell measuring 8 feet by 7 feet. He was assigned the number 46664 (Prisoner #466 in the year 1964). Even though he continued his education it was restrictive and at times was found with smuggled newspaper clipping that resulted with him ending in solitary confinement. Mandela was classified as a Class D prisoner, meaning he was allowed one visit and one letter every 6 months. During this time Mandela's mother and his first born son died in a car accident, but Mandela was not allowed to attend either funeral. No photography of Mandela was allowed. Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. It is believed that the reason why he was sent there was because of he was influencing other prisoners at Robben Island.
Mandela's plight and the South African government's apartheid policy received attention from the international community starting in the late 1970s and gaining momentum in the 1980s, primarily from citizens in Western Europe and especially the United States. Again, the apartheid system shares some similarities with America's sad experiment of segregation and Jim Crow. Though there was public pressure calling on the release of Mandela, South Africa relied heavily on the fellow Cold Warrior leaders US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who considered Mandela a communist.
Many musicians took a stand against the South African government by vowing to not play at Sun City, a well known resort in that country. The 1980s also saw renewed acts of violence between black and white South Africans. In 1986 Congress passed economic sanctions on South Africa. Proposed sanctions were introduced as far back as 1972 by former Congressman and Oakland mayor Ron Dellums. The sanctions bill was vetoed by President Reagan calling such proposals as "economic warfare" though Congress had enough votes in both the House and Senate to override the veto.
Rising tensions between the majority black population with the minority white population seemed like the country was heading towards war. Then came the sudden stroke of South African President Pieter Willem (P.W.) Botha in January 1989. While he could have stayed in office until his term expired in 1990, Botha chose to step down and it elevated Frederik Willem (F.W.) de Klerk to the position in September 1989.
The fall of the Berlin Wall played a role in South Africa's apartheid system. It moved President de Klerk to begin negotiations with Mandela and his activist network. De Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and allowed them to participate in the political process. On 11 February 1990, Mandela for the first time in nearly 26 years was a free man. Mandela then pivoted to engage the de Klerk government in ending South Africa's apartheid system.
The negotiations between Mandela and de Klerk lasted 3 tension filled years, but resulted in the end of South Africa's apartheid system. For their efforts to end apartheid, Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway in December 1993.
South Africa held its first free elections in 1994. Despite long lines, people turned out to vote because this election mattered. Mandela's ANC won the most seats thus making him president.
While it was jubilation for the majority black South African population, the minority white South African population were very wary of the situation. A very few turned to right-wing groups and terrorism, but most took a wait-and-see approach. In one of his first acts as president, Mandela made an attempt at conciliation towards the group that once oppressed his people. As documented in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The 16th Man and the film Invictus, Mandela reached out to the white population and brought the 1995 Rugby World Cup to the country. White and eventually black South Africa rallied behind the South Africa Springboks and cheered them on to a 15-12 win in extra time over the heavily favored New Zealand All Blacks.
Mandela's term as president was one leading the country on a path towards reconciliation with its past and building for the future. It appeared that he did not have an inclination towards politics. That and he was in his 70s when he was elected. Mandela served one term as South Africa's President. After leaving the presidency, he continue his commitment towards human rights advocacy, elimination of poverty, education advocacy, and HIV-AIDS research. His advocacy for HIV-AIDS research touched him personally as his second son died due to complications from the disease in 2005.
Though his relationships with three US presidents (H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush) was good and his view in the US among the mainstream was well received, there were times he did not agree with the United States. In January 2003, Nelson Mandela was extremely critical of the US making war preparations to invade Iraq that year. Mandela remained on the US terrorism watch list as late as July 2008. On a trip to the US to speak before the Brooking Institute and the NAACP in 2005, Mandela meet with the junior senator from Illinois.
That senator is now President Barack Obama.
Mandela's last public appearance was in 2010 at FIFA World Cup Final, an event he advocated for. Mandela believed in the power of sport as a unifying feature. During his time in prison, Mandela credits playing soccer as a means of keeping his mental sanity.
One thing I noticed after President Mandela's passing was that yes people were sad, but the atmosphere was a festive one. People were dancing and singing, not because they were sad that he passed, but they were happy because of the life he led. That is WHAT we should be celebrating: not his passing, but his life.
Thank you Mr. Mandela for leaving this world better than you found it.
The way we can honor his memory is to work to make this a better world.