Happy 92nd birthday, Nelson Mandela
As he embarks upon his 93rd circuit of the sun, Nelson Mandela remains a hero to his country and to the world
Imagine the village of Nelson Mandela’s youth.
Then, as now, the community of Qunu was scattered across a proud range of hills in Eastern Cape province. When Mandela was a boy, the place was home to only a few hundred souls, who dwelled in beehive huts built of mud bricks, with floors fashioned from the stuff of crushed anthills.
The men were usually far away, working as labourers on distant farms or digging in the sweat-soaked darkness deep beneath the earth, in the rich reef of gold that winds below the high plains surrounding Johannesburg.
The women and children remained at home, living in extended families that drew few distinctions between aunts and mothers or siblings and cousins. Children respected their elders. White people were remote figures of authority, recognized for their power but rarely seen.
Young boys tended small stocks of cattle, sheep, goats or horses. They wore blankets as their only clothing and scampered barefoot across the veld. They ate a cornmeal porridge known as mealies. They gathered honey, fruit, and root vegetables in the wild. They slept on mats without pillows. They played games they invented themselves, hide-and-seek or tag. With more daring than success, they sought to ride upon the backs of freshly weaned calves.
The fourth-born of 13 children, Mandela became a herd boy himself at the age of five.
He might easily have known a very different life from the one he has led — as a fighter against apartheid, as a long-time prisoner, and as president of his country, chosen in its first fully representative democratic election.
As a lesser royal, he might have grown up to become an advisor to the paramount chief of his clan, to enter into an arranged marriage, and to father a passel of children.
Over the slow course of the years, he would have aged gradually, accumulating facial lines, grey hair, creaking joints and a measure of wisdom, before departing this green Earth, leaving few traces of his passage apart from an assortment of bones, a smattering of footprints, the memories of his offspring.
But, for Nelson Mandela, the gods conjured a different plan.
On July 18, the man known to many by his clan name — Madiba — celebrates his 92nd birthday, yet another milestone in a long and extraordinary journey that has encompassed a multitude of lives.
“He is at the epicentre of our times, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are,” South African novelist Nadine Gordimer once remarked.
She was paying tribute to the same soul who today embarks upon his 93rd circuit of the sun — a genuine hero, authentic and intact, in a world that seems to devour its favourites almost as quickly as it anoints them.
Somehow, Nelson Mandela stands apart, and today we celebrate the man who marks his birthday a week after his country finished staging a huge international event — the first African country ever to host soccer’s World Cup.
Congratulations, South Africa.
Mandela’s sacrifices, his achievements and his influence have endured and will long go on enduring.
He has been a master of timing in a disjointed time, someone who has always seemed to know when to whisper and when to shout, when to wait and when to demand, when to stay and when to depart.
In a way, departure has been his genius. African leaders have the unfortunate habit — they are hardly alone in this — of overstaying their welcome, of installing themselves in power and refusing to leave, while cronyism, corruption and political sclerosis exact their inevitable and corrosive toll.
Think of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, to name just two Big Men among a long list of once well-respected African leaders who have clung to power long after they plummeted from grace.
But Nelson Mandela knew exactly when to leave.
He left when his job was done.
If life is a circle, then Mandela has gone all the way around.
During his fourscore and 12 years, he has been a soldier, a prisoner, a president. He has been a husband, a father, a patriarch, a son.
He is a man of peace who has been willing to die for his beliefs or, if necessary, to kill.
When courage was demanded, he was courageous. When eloquence was needed, he was eloquent. When decisions were required, he was decisive. When it was time for sorrow, he shed real tears.
But he is not, and never was, perfection. Like everyone else on this earth, he is said to be petulant at times. At times, he neglected his roles as husband and father. At least once, he married badly. It’s clear he possesses a mortal soul, has weaknesses as well as strengths, defects as well as virtues.
And yet, whether in the gloom of a jail cell or the harsh light of public office, Mandela has managed to lead a multiple life, to be both a flesh-and-blood human as well something else, something even more mysterious — a vessel for our longings. He has willed himself to become what we needed him to be.
More than a man, he is the best of ourselves.
“I have met many politicians in my life, but I consider him to be the seminal figure of the 20th century,” says John Honderich, chair of Torstar Corp., which owns the Toronto Star. Honderich met Mandela on two occasions, once in Toronto and again in South Africa. “There’s an aura, a magic about the man.”
Almost no one who has met him could possibly disagree.
Mandela emerged from nearly three decades behind bars to become the first freely elected leader of South Africa, putting an end at last to the poisonous doctrine of racial separation known as apartheid.
He was 46 when they sent him to jail, a small, stone-walled cell on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island, and he was 72 when he finally emerged again into the sunlight and the flash of cameras — already old, by most people’s standards. And yet, in many ways, it was as if his life had barely begun, as if all his years until that moment had merely been preparation for what still lay ahead.
A people to lead. A nation to rule. A legend to become.
Where other men might have succumbed to less exalted instincts, seeking reprisals and revenge, Mandela has served as an apostle of forgiveness.
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people,” he said while addressing a South African court in 1964, shortly after it had sentenced him to life imprisonment on a charge of treason. “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.”
His life has been a journey from innocence through suffering toward something like peace.
That life began in the village of Mvezo (the family moved later to Qunu), a sheltered and seemingly timeless corner of the continent, and a domain Mandela lovingly described in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
As a young boy, Mandela was in many ways blessed. He was the son of Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, a minor chief in the Thembu clan of the Xhosa nation, and the third of his four wives. His birth name was Rolihlahla, a Xhosa word that means “pulling the branch of the tree” but may be translated as “the troublemaker.”
As he remembers them, those early years were an idyllic time, strangely insulated from the injustices that were embedded in the life of a young nation called South Africa, a land that had become independent from British rule only a few years earlier, in 1911.
Few people around him learned to read or write, but Mandela was an exception, at least in part because his mother was a Christian and a Methodist — a rare circumstance in that clan, in those days. At an early age, the boy named Rolihlahla was sent off to attend a mission school.
It was there, in keeping with the Eurocentric custom of the time, that Mandela received a Christian name. His teachers decided he should be known to the world as Nelson.
In 1930, Mandela’s father died, and the 12-year-old became the ward of his clan’s paramount chief, a man named Jongintaba Dalindyebo. He continued his studies, eventually matriculating at Healdtown secondary school.
Mandela went on to pursue a college education at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa’s first university for black students. There, he met Oliver Tambo, another young African firebrand, and both young men got involved in student politics. They soon ran afoul of school authorities and were expelled.
The year was 1940.
Returning to his village, the 22-year-old Mandela was dismayed to find that Chief Dalindyebo had decided it was time for his young charge to marry and had even picked out a bride for him.
True to his childhood name, the troublemaker had different ideas and promptly absconded to Johannesburg, where he found work as a night watchman in a gold mine — a line of employment that might well have led to an obscure life followed by a quickly forgotten death, but not for Nelson Mandela.
At the time, South Africa was at war in Europe, fighting against Nazism on the side of the Allies. By some standards, those were hopeful times in the country also known as Suid Afrika, a nascent state ruled in uneasy alliance by its English- and Afrikaans-speaking elites.
Some of the laws that restricted blacks were relaxed during this period, and liberal reformers briefly believed their fellow South Africans might yet take an enlightened path toward a just future.
For Mandela, Johannesburg was a revelation — an introduction to the dehumanizing reality of a society in which black people lived but did not belong, worked but did not vote, obeyed but were not heard.
He moved to Alexandra, a black neighbourhood of the city. Never content to moulder, he enrolled in the University of South Africa, studied in his spare time, and earned his bachelor’s degree by correspondence. That done, he started law school at the University of the Witwatersrand.
At the same time, Mandela was forming close relationships with some of the other young men preparing themselves to lead the struggle for black liberation in South Africa. Now he became friendly with Walter Sisulu, among others.
Together, they joined an existing black nationalist organization — the African National Congress — and formed a youth wing that rejected the caution and accommodation favoured by the ANC leadership of the day, whom Mandela once branded as “a dying order of pseudo-liberalism and conservatism, of appeasement and compromise.”
In 1944, Mandela married for the first time. His wife was Evelyn Mase, a cousin of Sisulu. The union produced four children — two sons and two daughters — but it would end in divorce in 1952, a victim mainly of Mandela’s nearly complete absorption in his political activities.
By then, the fleeting hope of political reform had evaporated, and the country was ruled by the Herenigde Nasionale Party led by D. F. Malan. First elected in 1948, the new government advocated a stifling, misanthropic form of racial segregation that Malan called apartheid, the Afrikaans word for “apartness.”
The division of South Africa into three distinct worlds — white, black and mixed race — had long been recognized as a fact. Now it was to be promoted as a doctrine, a battery of laws, an ideal. Certain jobs — like certain neighbourhoods, certain parks, certain park benches, certain public washrooms, certain doorways, certain seats on the bus — were to be reserved for sleg blankes.
Accurate bookkeeping, rather than racial prejudice, provided the underpinning for this pervasive new approach to race relations, or that was the pretence.
The policy spawned elaborate bureaucracies charged with determining who was white, who black, who coloured. Blacks were required to carry passbooks, restricting where they could live and where they could travel. Eventually, South Africa’s white-skinned rulers would devise an insane patchwork of imaginary black states, known as Bantustans. People consigned to life in these glorified slums were stripped of their South African citizenship and reduced to the status of supplicants.
The whole jerry-rigged system was neurotic, delusional and inhuman. It was also the law of the land.
Inevitably, those were incendiary times.
Mandela, Sisulu, Tambo and others continued to push the ANC to confront white authorities more aggressively. In 1951, Mandela himself became head of the ANC’s youth wing.
A year later, the same year that he and Tambo opened the first black law practice ever in South Africa, the Mandela became president of the ANC’s Transvaal chapter, including Johannesburg and its surrounding territory.
Predictably, the new, more confrontational tactics of the ANC triggered an increase in state repression.
In 1956, South African authorities arrested nearly the entire leadership of all organizations opposed to apartheid, a total of 156 people, charging the lot with treason — a crime punishable by death. Those put on trial included ANC president Albert Luthuli. They also included Nelson Mandela.
The Treason Trial ground on for four years, until March, 1961, when all of the remaining defendants, including Mandela, were acquitted. It was during the trial that Mandela met and subsequently married a young woman named Nomzamo Noblanda Winnie Madikizela, who went on to considerable renown in her own right as Winnie Mandela.
The years churned past, and South Africa’s interracial divisions continued to deepen.
On March 21, 1960, South African police in a Transvaal township called Sharpeville opened fire on throngs of blacks who were protesting against the country’s system of pass laws. Sixty-nine people were killed and at least 180 more were wounded in what came to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre, a bloodletting that shocked the world and propelled South Africa’s racial conflict to a new and more volatile level.
Like others in the ANC, Mandela drew one firm conclusion from the carnage at Sharpeville: the struggle for black liberation in South Africa could no longer be waged by non-violent means alone. He and others quickly set about establishing an armed wing for the ANC, a guerrilla force called Umkhonto we Sizwe or “Spear of the Nation.” Mandela was named commander of the force, and his career entered a shadowy, clandestine stage.
In 1962, he snuck out of South Africa in order to attend a conference of African liberation movements in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. He proceeded to Algeria for military training and then to London for meetings with British parliamentarians.
On his return to South Africa, Mandela’s hard-won reputation for stealth — some had taken to calling him the Black Pimpernel — finally failed him. He was arrested, charged with leaving the country illegally and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
Hardly had that trial ended when another commenced.
On July 11, 1963, South African police raided a farm outside the town of Rivonia near Johannesburg, where they arrested nine men, all evidently leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, and charged them with more than 200 offences that included making plans for an “armed invasion” of South Africa. As commander of the organization, Mandela was himself hauled up on the same charges.
Of the 10 defendants, five were sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela among them.
With the others, he was banished to Robben Island, 12 kilometres off the South Africa coast from Cape Town. He arrived on a grey winter’s day, lashed by a bitter wind, and was promptly ordered to strip and don the standard-issue uniform for black prisoners — khaki shorts, a light sweater and canvas shoes without socks. They gave him the number 46664 and confined him to a cell no longer than he was tall.
It was 1964, the same year the Beatles invaded North America.
For the following 27 years, Mandela remained a prisoner. In the late 1960s, within the space of a year, his mother died and his eldest son was killed in an automobile accident, but Mandela was denied permission to attend their funerals.
The prisoners spent long, stultifying hours crushing rocks into gravel. Still, Mandela and his fellow inmates also managed to organize a sort of underground school that operated without their warders’ knowledge. They were also able to put on musical concerts, and somehow managed to keep their spirits up despite the groaning weight of the years that stretched ahead.
“We regarded it as our duty to keep ourselves current on the politics of the country,” Mandela would later write. “One of the advantages of going to the quarry was that warders’ sandwiches were wrapped in newspaper and they would often discard these newsprint wrappers in the trash, where we secretly retrieved them. We would distract the warders’ attention, pluck the papers out of the garbage, and slide them into our shirts.”
By such means, they kept abreast of the news.
These and other stratagems helped ease the boredom of prison life, while earning for the inmates an occasional thrill of victory, the sensation that they were not totally at the mercy of their keepers.
When they were not breaking rocks or plotting ruses against their guards, the prisoners engaged in debates about the great themes of the day — or the most arcane. An abiding subject for discussion involved tigers: had they ever existed in Africa? Mandela was finally persuaded by other prisoners that, most likely, they never had.
Because of his dignified bearing and natural air of authority, Mandela was regularly chosen by his fellow inmates to convey their grievances to prison authorities and to negotiate on their behalf.
“He was a very welcoming person,” remembers Lionel Davis, a former political prisoner who spent seven years on Robben Island, at the same time Mandela was there. “He made you lose your fears a little.”
In 1976, after he had spent 12 years on Robben Island, Mandela was given the chance to save his own skin. Jimmy Kruger, minister for police under then president B. J. Vorster, offered him a deal. He could leave the island, return to his home — now reconfigured as a Bantustan called the Transkei — and live out his days in what some might call freedom. In return, authorities asked only that Mandela renounce the struggle of his people.
Instead, prisoner 46664 turned on his heels and marched back to his cell. His years of imprisonment could have ended in a single instant of weakness. Instead, they were not yet halfway done.
A decade later, Mandela was offered an even more seductive deal, this time by justice minister Kobie Coetzee. All he needed to do to gain his release on this occasion was to renounce, not the struggle itself, but merely the use of violence to achieve the struggle’s goals.
Again, he told them no.
Mandela remained on Robben Island until 1982, when he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town.
Meanwhile, the cause of liberation in South Africa was attracting more and more global attention. In 1985, a small army of international music stars, including Bruce Springsteen and Miles Davis, recorded a song called “Free Nelson Mandela.”
Three years later, Mandela was moved again, this time to the Victor Verster Prison outside Paarl.
When he had first disappeared from the world’s view, relegated to the flat, wind-blown blister of Robben Island, Mandela had been a sturdy, muscular man in early middle age, with a rectangular visage, a broad jaw and a powerful frame. It was this youthful image of the man that somehow remained current in the eyes of the outside world, even as Mandela himself — the human being, not the symbol — slowly aged.
Meanwhile, far beyond the confines of South Africa’s jails, the world was changing. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Cold War was ending and the Soviet Union was tottering toward its demise.
In its own ungainly fashion, South Africa was inching toward change as well. Cold War-era conflicts in Angola and Namibia finally burned out, and South African forces withdrew.
P. W. Botha, the country’s president and an ossified relic of the old guard, suffered a heart attack and was replaced by a more imaginative, forward-looking man named F. W. de Klerk, someone able to recognize a dead end street when he was stumbling down it.
Apartheid in 1989 was surely a dead end street.
Although still a prisoner, Mandela was universally regarded as the pre-eminent black South African leader of the day — a man whose approval was crucial to the success of any project for political reform. He held his first audience with de Klerk in December 1989.
From that point onward, the dismantling of South Africa’s system of racial separation proceeded at a faster pace than almost anyone could have predicted.
On Feb. 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison, nearly three decades after first being incarcerated. He was greeted by an exuberant throng, many of whose members must have been surprised — perhaps even shocked — by the appearance of a man whom they knew mainly from old photographs.
Nelson Mandela in the year 1990 was a healthy and agile fellow, but he was also a septuagenarian, well past what most Canadians would consider to be retirement age. His hair was greying. His frame seemed far sparer than it once had been. His demeanour was that of an elder statesman rather than a young rebel. Yet his life’s work had barely begun.
Among Mandela’s first major acts after leaving prison was to do what international celebrities are expected do. He went on the road, an extended world tour that would help increase the weight of global pressure for the abolition of apartheid while also enhancing his own political heft. The trek brought him to Canada — including stops in Ottawa and Toronto — in June of 1990.
It was not the last time he ventured so far north. Mandela was to return to Toronto on at least two other occasions, once in 1998 and again in 2001, when he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Ryerson University.
Back in 1990, however, his most urgent concerns lay closer to home. He was elected to the helm of the ANC in 1991, and he soon set about negotiating South Africa’s transition from pariah state to majority rule.
The process was far from smooth, and it was to be marred by violence, some inflicted by whites upon blacks but much pitting blacks against each other. The bloodiest of these disputes was the long-running conflict between the ANC — which some viewed as a vehicle for members of South Africa’s Xhosa tribe — and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
Despite obstacles, distractions and frustrations, Mandela and de Klerk pressed ahead. For their efforts, they shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize. By then, they had cleared the way for the country’s first-ever free elections, in which all adult citizens, no matter their race or colour, would be entitled to cast their ballots.
The vote was held in April, 1994, and the ANC won a solid but not overwhelming victory.
Intimately familiar with the hazards of possessing too little power, Mandela also understood the dangers of holding power in excess, and he expressed relief that his party had fallen short of a two-thirds majority, a result that would have permitted the ANC to rewrite the national constitution unilaterally.
On May 10, 1994, Nelson Mandela delivered his inaugural address as the first president of a democratic South Africa — an event that must surely be numbered among the brightest moments in a century that careened between light and dark, between hope and despair.
Even more than his assumption of national office, however, what distinguishes Mandela from many a politician was his readiness to surrender power when the right moment came, a remarkable decision for a national leader on a continent whose leaders too often seem to regard the trappings of high office as commodities to be retained for as long as they draw breath or, if possible, longer.
In 1997, Mandela ceded the presidency of the ANC to Thabo Mbeki. Two years later, he stepped down as South Africa’s ruler.
By the time he left office, Mandela had divorced his second wife, the scandal-prone Winnie Mandela, and made a sensible and by all appearances happy third marriage to Graça Machel, widow of late Mozambican president Samora Machel.
The two were married on Mandela’s 80th birthday, in 1998.
As for his decision to leave active politics, the man’s sense of timing was characteristically impeccable.
“Mandela realized he would be more effective outside government than in government,” says Davis, who once shared a prison block on Robben Island with Mandela. “It’s outside of government that Mandela made his mark.”
As a former president, Mandela has been able to rise above the squabbles of day-to-day political life. He established a philanthropic institution, the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and has thrown the weight of his name behind a range of noble causes, advancing the welfare of Africa’s young, for example, and also lobbying on behalf of the millions of men, women, and children suffering from HIV and AIDS.
In 2004, Mandela announced his retirement from public life. “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” he joked at the time.
But call, they did. At times, so has he.
Considering the stigma that still attaches itself to AIDS in Africa, Mandela made a courageous decision in 2005 when he acknowledged publicly that one of his own offspring — Makgatho, a son by his first wife — had lost his life to the disease.
Many interpreted the carefully worded statement as a deliberate rebuke of Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor as president, who had gained international infamy for his antediluvian views on AIDS — views many experts blame for the premature and unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans.
It was not the only time Mandela has spoken out from his retirement. On several occasions, he has used his influence to narrow rifts among South African leaders. In 2008, he condemned abuses of power being committed by Robert Mugabe, the president of neighbouring Zimbabwe.
More recently, a Clint Eastwood movie called Invictus, partly about rugby but mainly about Mandela, has reawakened memories of the man around the world, while South Africa’s hosting of this year’s World Cup has refocused international attention on the country and, inevitably, on its greatest hero, too.
South Africa without apartheid is not a paradise, as Mandela himself would readily admit. The country has its troubles and its tensions. It suffers from crime, poverty and abiding inequality. But its people can vote, they can speak their minds, they can run for public office, and they can come and go as they please. If these are not triumphs, it is difficult to imagine what triumphs might be.
Nowadays, Mandela and his wife, live near Qunu, the village where he was raised. They dwell in a house by a quiet stream, in a valley surrounded by gentle hills.
There, Mandela indulges a taste for private times and simple pleasures — a breakfast of porridge with fresh fruit and milk, for example, or the music of Handel or Tchaikovsky played at sunset, or visits from his three surviving children (from a total of six) and his 18 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, not to mention four step-children and four step-grandchildren from his final marriage.
At 92, Mandela is a frail version of his younger self and is seldom seen in public anymore. Yet his influence and his legacy endure, both within South Africa and around the globe.
On his long walk to freedom, Nelson Mandela carried a people, a nation and the hopes of the world. He did not let them fall.
Happy Birthday, Madiba.