Nelson Mandela: Saint Before Man and God By Olukorede Yishau

When he was retiring from public life in 2004, his plea was: “Don’t call me, I will call you”. Now, he is in no position to call again. He has been in critical condition in the hospital for the past one month living without really being alive to happenings around him. He turns 95 today and his fans yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa dubbed him the ‘saint before man and God’.

For Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the beautiful life, which began on July 18, 1918, has, no doubt, been remarkable.

Since he left as South African president after his first term, his health has not been the best.

In January 2011, he was admitted to the private Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg leading to speculation about his health condition. He was discharged after two-and-a-half days in hospital and returned to his Houghton, Johannesburg home in an ambulance.

In July 2001, Mandela was diagnosed of prostate cancer. He had to undergo a seven-week course of radiation.

On his 85th birthday, he announced that he would be retiring from public life. He added that he did not intend to hide away totally from the public, but wanted to be in a position “of calling you to ask whether I would be welcome, rather than being called upon to do things and participate in events”.

And since then, he has appeared less in public. He had been rumoured death not less than thrice. The first was two years after he was diagnosed of prostate cancer. CNN mistakenly on its website published his pre-written obituary due to a fault in password protection. Then in 2007, a group distributed hoax email and SMS messages claiming that he was dead, but the authorities were covering up his death. They alleged that white South Africans would be massacred after his funeral. Yet, he was on holiday in Mozambique.

Last year too, he was rumoured dead and his family had to deny. Now, many believe the hour for the curtain to close may be near. For now, it has not ended for the man born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei.

The struggle that his life is must have been informed by his experience after his father Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela died in 1927. Following his father’s death, he became a ward of Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. At the palace, he heard elders’ stories about his ancestors’ valour during the wars of resistance. This, he said, made him begin dreaming of making his own contributions to the freedom struggle of his people.

He attended primary school in Qunu where his teacher Miss Mdingane gave him the name Nelson, in accordance with the custom to give all school children “Christian” names. He earned his Junior Certificate at Clarkebury Boarding Institute and proceeded to Healdtown, a Wesleyan secondary school. He thereafter began studies for a Bachelor of Arts Degree at the University College of Fort Hare. He could not complete the degree there. He was expelled for joining a students’ protest. He was undaunted and later completed his degree through the University of South Africa and returned to Fort Hare for his graduation in 1943.

In 1941, he met Walter Sisulu, an estate agent in Johannesburg , where he worked as a mine security officer. Three years later, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and helped form its Youth League. He was involved in the congress adopting a more radical mass-based policy, known as the Programme of Action.

By 1952, he was chosen as the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign with Maulvi Cachalia as his Deputy. It was a campaign of civil disobedience against six unjust laws. It was a joint programme between the ANC and the South African Indian Congress. He and 19 others were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act for their part in the campaign and sentenced to nine months hard labour suspended for two years.

In August 1952, he and Oliver Tambo established South Africa’s first black law firm, Mandela and Tambo. His two-year diploma in law and his degree qualified him to practise law . The authorities became more interested in his activities and it was no surprise that before the end of that year, he was banned from certain activities.

In 1956, he was tried for treason and on December 5 of that year, he was arrested in a countrywide police swoop of 156 activists. Men and women of all races found themselves in the dock in the marathon trial that only ended when the last 30 accused, including Mandela were acquitted on March 29, 1961. The trial was still on when he married his second wife Winnie in 1958.

The March 1960 police killing of 69 unarmed people in a protest at Sharpeville led to the country’s first state of emergency and the banning of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress. He was detained during the state of emergency.

The trial did not kill the struggle in him. In fact, some days before he was acquitted, he travelled to Pietermaritzburg to speak at the All-in Africa Conference, where it was resolved that he should write to the then Prime Minister Verwoerd requesting a non-racial national convention. He was also mandated to warn the government of an impending national strike against South Africa becoming a republic. And as soon as he and his colleagues were acquitted in the treason trial, he went underground and began planning a national strike, but this was called off because of a massive mobilisation of state security.

In June 1961, the mantle fell on him to lead the armed struggle and establish Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). And On January 11, 1962, using the adopted name David Motsamayi, he left South Africa secretly, travelled around Africa and visited England to seek support for the armed struggle. He was away for about six months and received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. He was arrested in a police roadblock outside Howick on August 5, 1962 while returning from KwaZulu-Natal, where he briefed ANC President Chief Albert Luthuli. He was charged and convicted of leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to go on strike. The sentence was for five years. He began serving in Pretoria Local Prison in May 1963 but was transferred to Robben Island and returned to Pretoria in mid-June.

The government was not through with him. In October 1963, he and nine others were tried for sabotage. In his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ on April 20, 1964, he said: “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 need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

About two months after he made this speech, Mandela and seven other accused, including Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white; the others went to Robben Island on June 11, 1964.

His life experienced a spate of tragedies. His mother died in 1968 and his eldest son Thembi in 1969. He was not allowed to attend their funerals.

At the end of March 1982, Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town with Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni. He was returned to the prison in November 1985 after a prostate surgery and was held alone. After this, he began writing to the then Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee, who visited him in hospital, to initiate talks between the apartheid government and the ANC.

He had tuberculosis in 1988 and was transferred on December 7, 1988 to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. Nine days after the unbanning of the ANC, he was released. That was on February 11, 1990. The other Rivonia comrades had been released four months earlier.

In 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, he obtained an LLB through the University of South Africa. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town.

He would have regained his freedom earlier had he not rejected three conditional offers of release. He spurned one of such offers, releasing a statement via his daughter Zindzi, saying “What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

On his release, he said: “Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC (Umkhonto we Sizwe) was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement would be created soon, so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

A free man, he immersed himself in talks to end white minority rule. He was in 1991 elected ANC President to replace his ailing friend Oliver Tambo. In 1993, he and F.W. de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize.

On April 27, 1994, he voted for the first time in his life in an election he vied for the presidency. He won and on May 10, 1994 he was inaugurated South Africa’s first democratically elected president. In line with his promise, he refused to run for a second term and retired from public life.

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