Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

Understandably today, you can’t turn on the tv or radio, or browse to a news or social media site, without many references to Mandela’s death at the age of 95.

Everyone, it seems, has a comment on his life, his legacy, and his impact on the world. Most of these are heartfelt, if some maybe a little over-the-top, given that I know some of the posts I have read come from people with no actual family, relational or geographic link to any part of the African continent.

Anyway, here’s my take on the man they called Madiba…

Mandela’s true legacy will be the demonstration that violence can be denounced and fought against. It’s a fallacy to believe that his whole life was one of peaceful non-aggression, but he emerged from that life into the statesman we all admired so much.

Nelson Mandela was born into a country where the seeds of apartheid were already beginning to take root from South Africa’s colonial past – although it would be a few decades before the racism would be enshrined fully into law. His early years were a struggle against tradition, and a fight for the education he knew would be his way to succeed in an increasingly oppressive land.

Slowly, he was drawn into the political arena, due in no small part to his presence at university (Fort Hare and Witwatersrand) which brought him into contact with activists from the African National Congress. As he became more involved with the organisation, the landscape around him underwent a massive change, with the election of the National Party into Power in 1948.

South Africa in the ’50s and ’60s was a country heading towards virtual civil war. On one side you had a violently oppressive regime led by a minority of racially driven politicians, military and police services. On the other side you had a majority black population whose struggle for political and economic freedom slowly boiled over into organised resistance and progressed to violent acts that, were they to take place today, would be denounced as terrorist atrocities.

Mandela quickly became identified as a target by the National Party, and was arrested numerous times throughout the 1950s. Finally, in 1964, after a lengthy trial and despite near-universal calls for clemency, Mandela and two co-defenders were found guilty of four counts of sabotage and planning to violently overthrow the government. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the infamous Robben Island. He would remain incarcerated for the next 27 years.

Make no mistake – during the bloody conflict there was massive wrong being done on both sides. The way we view the conflict today is blessed with two things: the clarity of 20-20 hindsight, appreciating that the ANC had the ‘moral’ high ground despite their more militant actions bringing ever more violent reprisals from the apartheid government. And the ability for grace, forgiveness and a determination for change to overcome even the most extreme hardship and violence.

When Mandela was finally released from prison in February 1990, the country he walked out into was a different place to the one he had left outside the prison gates so many years before. Political pressure, economic and sporting sanctions, the publicity surrounding Mandela himself, and changes to leaders within the ruling National Party presented a hugely changed landscape. Within four years, the ANC had won a landslide victory in the first free elections for over forty years, and Mandela rose to finally lead the nation he had fought to protect.

For me, I think that above all the emotion and the hardship, all the struggling and all the hope, the life of Mandela means this: that a nation can emerge from virtual civil war, with a violently oppressive regime on one side and an opposition responsible for what, if it were to happen today, would be condemned as terrorist atrocities on the other. All it takes is the capacity for grace, love, and forgiveness, and a determination that things don’t have to stay the same. Nelson Mandela wasn’t perfect, but he found the perfect path from prison to the Presidency, and for his nation, from separation and racist violence to understanding, integration and acceptance for all.

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