Since June 8, 2013, Nelson Mandela has been hospitalized, receiving treatment for a lung infection. As the world watches as the 94-year-old fights for his life, reflections of Mandela’s extraordinary journey from prisoner to president have been occupying the minds of many.
When Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first demographically elected president in 1994, he was showered with gifts. These gifts came from different nations, governments, institutions and people. According to the Nelson Mandela Museum, the gifts were in acknowledgement of the imprints Nelson Mandela’s footprints had left all over the world. (1)
Almost twenty years later, as the anti-apartheid icon clings to his life in a Pretoria hospital, he is once again being showered by gifts from supporters. A hive of South Africans gather outside the hospital, referring to Mandela as “tata”, the Ahosa word for father.
These devoted supporters pray, light candles and leave notes. These passionate tributes are verification of the remarkable legacy Mandela has spawned.
Nelson Mandela’s legacy also focused notably during President Obama’s recent visit to South Africa. In a speech made in Cape Town, Obama declared that the future of the “young and growing continent” still relies on Nelson Mandela’s vision for equality and opportunity.
Seeking, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, “to carve out his own piece of that legacy”, Obama announced an ambitious proposal, to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa. Referring to the initiative, the U.S. President, vowed to bring “light where there is darkness”. (2)
Just outside the University of Cape Town, Obama made a poignant adulation speech, stating:
“Nelson Mandela showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.” (3)
Encircled by a diverse display of students, the scene movingly highlighted just how much Mandela’s vision for a unified “rainbow nation” in South Africa had been achieved.
About Nelson Mandela
Mandela was educated at the University of Fort Hare and later at the University of Witwatersrand, where he became qualified in law. He became increasingly involved with a multi-racial nationalist movement known as the African National Congress (ANC).
The ANC strove to bring political change to South Africa’s white and oppressive rule. In 1948, when the National Party came into power and began to execute a policy of “apartheid”, the ANC staged a campaign of passive resistance against apartheid laws. In 1952, Mandela became one of the ANC’s deputy presidents.
In 1960, six black ANC protesters were killed by police during a demonstration at Sharpeville. The government banned the ANC and in response, the movement abolished its “non-violent” policy.
Mandela was appointed the commander-in-chief of the ANC’s military wing and was sent abroad to receive training. On his return in 1963, Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were arrested and were tried for plotting to overthrow a government by violence.
In 1964, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1990, in response to internal and international pressure, Mandela was released from prison and the ban against the ANC was lifted.
Throughout his 27 years in prison, he was ridiculed by the South African government as being the incarnation of evil and corruption.
Despite being locked in the appalling prison conditions of Robben Island, intended to decay his spirit, Mandela continued to cultivate and develop the vision of the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress. The Freedom Charter sought a country where all races would live democratically together. According to the ANC website the Freedom Charter is:
“A beacon to the Congress movement and an inspiration to the people of South Africa,’ to quote the memorable words of our comrade Nelson Mandela.” (4)
The attempt to silence and weaken him was a resounding failure. Instead, during his time in prison, Mandela became a global emblem of resistance to apartheid. When he resurfaced on the international stage in 1990, Mandela told the world:
“Our long march to freedom is irreversible.” (3)
In 1993 Nelson Mandela, together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for:
“Their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic regime”. (5)
The following year South Africa held its first multi-race election and he was elected the country’s first black president.
Mandela’s enduring legacy could be seen as being twofold. First, he helped the Freedom Charter achieve its goals which would see South Africa put an end to centuries of colonial domination, exploitation, racist tyranny, humiliation and misery.
Second, his altruistic actions and unwavering moral spirit are a lesson to us all. As Robert Taylor, an author and activist for social justice wrote in the Huffington Post:
“We have much to learn from Nelson Mandela’s leadership grounded in generosity of spirit, authenticity and moral authority that transcends human divisiveness. Two things stand out about his leadership legacy – his open mindset and the choice to make human calculations rather than political ones.” (3)
June 24, 2013 marked the 18th anniversary since one of Nelson Mandela’s most significant moments – the day he walked into a busy rugby stadium wearing the national team’s springbok jersey.
That single moment united millions in South Africa, black and white. Instead of festivities and celebrations to mark the anniversary, there remains a somber mood in South Africa, as the nation prays that their greatest leader wins his latest battle – the battle for his life.