• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

From herdboy to man they revered as superhuman

HE was the prince who lived to become a king of humankind.

CHEER LEADER: Nelson and Winnie Mandela greet a huge crowd at a stadium in Soweto in 1990.
CHEER LEADER: Nelson and Winnie Mandela greet a huge crowd at a stadium in Soweto in 1990.

In his 95 years Nelson Mandela lived a legion of lives.

He was a simple herdboy, a royal, a commoner, a soldier, a prisoner, a president and human rights hero.

His family saw him as a husband, a father, a patriarch and a son.

The world saw him as a superhuman radiant beacon of hope shining from South Africa, whose 27 years in a cramped six-foot-wide prison cell seemed to leave him without an ounce of resentment or hostility to those who practised the racist scourge of apartheid.

Mandela was born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo in the then Transkei on July 18, 1918.

His birth-name was Rolihlahla, which translated roughly - and prophetically - as "troublemaker."

He was the son of Hendry Gadla Mandela, the chief of Clan Madiba in the Thembu Kingdom, and his wife Nosekeni.

It was his teacher who decided to call him Nelson. It is said it was because she could not pronounce Rolihlahla.

Mandela's father died when he was nine and he was sent to be brought up by Jongintaba, the Prince Regent of the Thembu, who arranged for Mandela to be educated.

He was raised lovingly, but with discipline, by the chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo and his wife in the Thembu royal household.

The first member of his family to get a formal education, he went to boarding school and then enrolled in South Africa's elite Fort Hare University, where his activism unfurled with a student boycott.

After completing two years he left for Johannesburg to avoid a marriage arranged for him by his guardian, chief Jongintaba.

As a young law scholar, he joined the resurgent African National Congress just a few years before the National Party - controlled by the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and French settlers - came to power on a platform of apartheid.

The National Party government enforced racial segregation and stripped non-whites of economic and political power.

As an ANC leader he organised a Defiance Campaign which saw thousands from all the communities refuse to obey the instructions about where they could sit, what doors they could enter, and all the other apartheid regulations about how people lived their lives.

By this time Mandela set up the first black legal firm in South Africa, in partnership with his lifelong friend, Oliver Tambo.

Together they would lead the South African liberation struggle for the next forty years.

By 1962 he was arrested and soon charged with treason. At the opening of his trial in 1964, he said his adoption of armed struggle was a last resort born of bloody crackdowns by the government.

"Fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation and fewer and few rights," he said from the dock.

"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 for which I hope to live for and achieve.

"But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

He was convicted and jailed for five years. While serving that sentence he was charged in the winter of 1964 with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.

But he lived by his courtroom words.

He remained in prison on the notorious Robben Island for 18 years before being transferred to Polismoor Prison on the mainland in 1982.

In prison, Mandela never compromised his political principles. During the 1970s, he refused the offer of remission of sentence if he recognised Transkei and settled there.

In the following decade, he again rejected president PW Botha's offer of freedom if he renounced violence.

But, as he and other ANC leaders languished in prison or lived in exile, South African black township children helped to sustain the resistance. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured before the schoolchildren's uprising was crushed.

Meanwhile, in 1980, his great friend Mr Tambo, who was in exile, launched an international campaign for his release.

As he did so, the world community tightened the sanctions first imposed on South Africa in 1967 against the apartheid regime.

This pressure produced results. President de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC and Mandela was released, amid celebrations, from prison.

Within days, the ANC and the National Party began talks about forming a new multi-racial democracy for South Africa.

However, violent clashes broke out between supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party, a Zulu group led by Chief Buthelezi, and ANC supporters.

Despite attempts to resolve the problems through talks, the violence escalated and the Inkatha targeted ANC strongholds with support from the white police force.

Relations grew tense as the violence persisted, but the two leaders - President de Klerk and Mandela - met sporadically in an attempt to stop the bloodshed.

In 1992, Mandela divorced his wife Winnie, after she was convicted on charges of kidnapping and accessory to assault.

In December the following year, Mandela and Mr de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela said it was an accolade to all people who had worked for peace and stood against racism.

Five months later, for the first time in South Africa's history, all races voted in democratic elections. Mandela was elected president amidst scenes of jubilation with the ANC winning 252 of the 400 seats in the national assembly.

Mandela gave up the presidency of the ANC in December 1997 in favour of Thabo Mbeki and stepped down as president of the country after the ANC's landslide victory in the summer of 1999 for Mr Mbeki.

Subsequently, Mandela married Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique.

In January 2005, he suffered a personal tragedy when his eldest son, lawyer Makgatho Mandela, 54, died of Aids-related complications. His father said the only way to fight the disease's stigma was to speak openly about it.

Even in retirement, Mandela did not remain silent. He accused the United Kingdom and the United States of encouraging international chaos by ignoring other countries and assuming the role of "policemen of the world".

He also openly criticised Washington and London for taking military action in Iraq and Kosovo without seeking permission from the United Nations Security Council.

But as the years progressed, his ailing health saw him retreat from public life.

In 2008, he made a rare visit to the UK to attend a concert marking his 90th birthday.

The following year, the United Nations declared July 18 Mandela Day, in recognition of his birthday.

But a family bereavement and increased fragility meant that he maintained a low profile at football's World Cup 2010 in South Africa, only briefly appearing.

It was an event that the former president had lobbied for on behalf of his country.

Mandela's role in South Africa hosting - and going on to win - 1995's Rugby World Cup had by this time been turned into a film, Invictus.

American actor Morgan Freeman received an Oscar nomination for portraying Mandela in his bid to use sport to unite the country post-apartheid.

Additional Images: 
Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.