‘The metamorphosis and trajectory of Mandela’s life is surely a lesson for those who lead or those who aspire to lead wherever they may be’
It was Daniel J. Boorstin, an American Historian who in 1914, said: “Some are born great, some have greatness trust upon them and some hire public relations officers.” It is apparent that Nelson Mandela was born great. He was born into a royal lineage and at a point he lived in a royal household. But by far, it was the environment where he was born that eventually catapulted him to the pinnacle of greatness. He didn’t need the services of any PR firm to make him great. All he needed and which he had in abundance were inestimable values which are very rare in ordinary mortals. These values include pragmatism, resilience, perseverance, determination, strong will and character, tenacity of purpose, sacrifice and a forgiving spirit, among others.
From the script of his life which runs like an award-winning Hollywood movie, Mandela was always mindful that his leadership role in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid might not have been possible if he had not been imprisoned. This is further reinforced by Rolihlahla, his name at birth, which in his native Xhosa language simply means “pulling the branch of the tree”. Colloquially, it also means “troublemaker”. His English name, Nelson, was given to him by a missionary schoolteacher who got startled when he called the young Mandela one day at school and asked for his name. The teacher must have encountered some pains pronouncing his African name. Hence he resorted to naming him Nelson, a name that stuck to him till death last Thursday at the age of 95 years.
After this name transfiguration, his life as a youth in elementary school, though not properly documented, had shown some rebellious inclination in him. The young Mandela was expelled from the Fort Hare University after joining a student protest. He later completed his degree at the University of South Africa, which he followed up with a Law degree from Wits University. He fled the Eastern Cape for Johannesburg after Jongintaba Dalindyebo, his uncle and the leader of the Tembu people, tried to lure him into a pre-arranged marriage.
He secured a job as a night watchman at a mine in the city. This, probably, was one of the best jobs a black boy like the young Mandela could get in a country reeling under the heavy yoke and seething vortex of apartheid at that time. He later moved in to hibernate with Walter Sisulu, his close friend, and Sisulu’s mother in Orlando, Soweto. This was where he met Evelyn Mase, his first wife, who was a nurse and Sisulu’s cousin. Evelyn was the breadwinner of the family and she supported Mandela while he studied Law at Wits University where he became further involved in politics. They had four children together and divorced in 1958.
Mandela rose rapidly in the ranks of the youth wing of the African National Congress, ANC. He was versatile and cerebral. He later formed and became the commander in chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the party which was forced to go underground by the repressive white minority government. He was not only the first commander-in-chief of the armed wing, but was also, in conjunction with Oliver Tambo, co-founder of the country’s first black law firm, Mandela & Tambo, which largely rose up to the defence of people who were affected by apartheid laws.
Mandela sneaked out of South Africa in 1962 ostensibly to garner support for the armed struggle. During this period, he received guerrilla training in Morocco and Ethiopia. He later returned to the country and had to move around incognito because his activities were becoming not only embarrassing to the apartheid government, but also a threat to its existence. One thing led to another and he was eventually arrested by security agents. The circumstances surrounding his arrest at a police roadblock outside of Howick, near Durban, remain unclear but it is believed that an American CIA agent tipped off the police about his movements.
He was arraigned for trial. At the end of the trial, he was convicted of sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government. For this, he was sentenced to five years in prison. A year later, when the apartheid authorities discovered a safe house in Johannesburg linking Mandela to the sabotage campaign, he was brought out of prison again to stand yet another trial for the more serious charge of sabotage, which carried the death penalty.
Mandela, along with eight others, were spared the gallows, but sentenced to life imprisonment, out of which he served 27 years. During his time in prison, Mandela was restricted to a 2m x 2.5m cell, with nothing but a bedroll on the floor and a bucket for sanitation in it. He was consigned to hard labour in a lime quarry for much of that time and was, at first, only allowed one visitor and one letter every six months. He spent 18 of his 27 years of incarceration on Robben Island.
The light in Nelson Mandela’s prison cell was illuminated 24 hours a day. The apartheid government offered to release him on no less than six occasions but he rejected them each time. On one such occasion, Mandela released a statement saying: “I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom … What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people [the ANC] remains banned?”
Mandela wrote a memoir during the 70s and the copies were wrapped in plastic containers and buried in a vegetable garden, which he kept while at prison. His thinking was that Mac Maharaj, a fellow prisoner, who was due for release at that time, would be able to smuggle the memoir out. But the containers were discovered when prison authorities began the building of a wall through the garden. They were livid. As punishment, Mandela’s study privileges were revoked. Mararaj eventually smuggled out the transcripts at a later date. In fact, Maharaj was so creative that Mandela made him the Minister for Transportation when he became South Africa’s President in 1994 partly because of how effective he was in ‘transporting’ the documents out of prison.
The ANC was labelled a terrorist organization by the apartheid government and was recognized as such by several countries, including the United States and Britain. It was only in 2008 that the United States finally removed Mandela and other ANC members from its terror list. The United Nations honoured him by declaring July 18, his birthday, Nelson Mandela International Day. This was the first time the UN dedicated a particular day to a person. Hundreds of awards and honours were bestowed on him in his lifetime.
In an interview less than a year after he stepped down as the country’s first black president, Mandela shared his reflection of how prison changed him. He said that reading the biographies of great leaders who had been able to overcome their shortcomings and rise to do great things had inspired him. He said it also helped him to realise that in every seemingly ordinary person lay the potential of greatness. “I have been surprised a great deal sometimes when I see somebody who looks less than ordinary, but when you talk to the person and (he opens his mouth, he is something) completely different,” he said.
Mandela said that he had learned that when you had the moral high ground, it was better to sit down, talk to people and persuade them of the correctness of your cause. “If you have an objective in life, then you want to concentrate on that and not engage in infighting with your enemies. You want to create an atmosphere where you can move everybody toward the goal you have set for yourself,” he said.
From the handwritings on the wall, it could be correctly argued that the passing on of this great son of Africa has further exposed the entire continent to the vulnerability of imperialist manipulation. And this time, not through apartheid but through economic emasculation and slavery. The metamorphosis and trajectory of Mandela’s life is surely a lesson for those who lead or those who aspire to lead wherever they may be.
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