10 amazing moments from Nelson Mandela's life
1. Durban rally – The launch of the Defiance Campaign (1952)
This was perhaps Nelson Mandela's first taste of direct political activism. Although he had been involved with the African National Congress's Youth League for some time, this was the first large scale public event the young Mandela addressed. He spoke to some 10,000 assembled people on 22 June 1952, the 300th anniversary of white settlement of the cape of South Africa. This was the first major protest of the Defiance Campaign, where the ANC fought the Apartheid government with a campaign of non-cooperation against what they regarded as unjust and immoral laws. This gave Mandela a sentence of nine months' hard labour, although this was suspended for two years. Instead, in December 1952 Mandela was banned from addressing more than one person at once, leading to him moving on from a leadership role. The state opposition he faced here would be a taste of things to come.
2. Not guilty verdict in treason trial (1961)
After a four and a half year long trial for high treason against the state, Mandela was found not guilty in a humiliating blow for the Apartheid government. This was a case that needed to be fought hard, but Mandela pulled through, managing in the early stages to see that the three judges selected were replaced due to their links with the governing party of the time. Eventually, one of the charges was dropped, but it was replaced with accusations that Mandela and other members of the ANC tried to violently overthrow the government, something that they vehemently denied. Protests from the Pan African Nationalist groups were being fired on, and in solidarity, echoing Mahatma Ghandi, Mandela burned the identity pass the government had required them to own. With the government declaring martial law as protests intensified, Mandela's legal defence team withdrew, forcing him to represent himself. But he maintained a dignified position and fought the law on its own terms, and won his freedom again in 1961. During the trial, Mandela co-ordinated a stay at home strike on 31 May, the day South Africa became a republic.
3. Move to violent protest (1961)
Likely with a great deal of reservations, Mandela decided after his trial in 1961 that a purely non-violent approach would be insufficient. However he did not call for a campaign of terrorism targeting civilians (although he did admit this was a fall-back possibility), but rather he instead organised a national campaign of sabotage of infrastructure. This was all part of his attempt to make it clear that he had no qualms with the wider population of South Africa, or even the leaders themselves. He instead only wanted to target the laws, and by extension the tools that implemented those laws. Telephone exchanges, electricity substations, government offices. These were the targets of the "Spear of the Nation" group that Mandela co-founded in 1961. All the targets were struck at night to avoid civilian casualties. In this respect, the Apartheid government made a mistake in arresting Mandela. Had they left him be, the more extreme elements of the ANC may not have entered into Spear of the Nation, and might have not committed the more serious terrorist outrages that plagued South Africa in later years, such as the Amanzimtoti bomb on the Natal South Coast in 1985.
4. Arrest and Imprisonment on Robben Island (1964)
When he was arrested in 1962 for organising unauthorised worker strikes and attempting to leave the country without permission, rather than protest and fight the charges, Mandela took the charges with good grace, but turned the trial into an opportunity to preach what he stood for. He wore a traditional Kaross cloak in the court room, refused to call any witnesses, and turned his mitigation plea into a political speech, outlining just what it was he and the ANC wanted. The most famous aspect is the final paragraph.
"During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
The verdict was one of guilty, as Mandela himself admitted during the course of his speech, and he consequently spent over a quarter of a century in prison. Most of this, between 1964 and 1982 was served on Robben Island, where Mandela and other political prisoners were kept separately from the wider body of prisoners. Between breaking rocks into gravel (the sunlight glare off the white stone permanently damaging his eyesight) he worked to found what was called the "Robben Island University" where prisoners with expertise gave lectures on a variety of subjects. Although a Christian, Mandela learned much about Islam, as well as studying the Afrikaans language so as to talk to the guards and bring their support to his cause. This was another example of his intent to promote understanding ahead of conflict.
When more militant members of the Black Consciousness Movement arrived in the prison in the late 1960s, Mandela attempted to build a relationship, but was frustrated by their contempt for white anti-apartheid activists. Everywhere he went, Mandela strove to reach for a vision of equality, rather than revenge, even when he was in the darkest depths of his enemies' dungeons.
5. Release from prison (1990)
In 1985 Mandela had spurned a previous offer of release from the then National Party leader P.W. Botha, because it had included a commitment to renounce violence as a political weapon. This was unacceptable, not because Mandela wanted to continue leading a violent uprising, but because while the ANC was still banned, there seemed to be little reasonable course of action for anti-apartheid activists. "What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people [ANC] remains banned?" Mandela asked "Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts." This demonstrated Mandela's willingness to be negotiated with, and when the reform minded Frederik Willem de Klerk agreed to let all other ANC prisoners free apart from Mandela, things were clearly moving in a different direction. Mandela and De Klerk met, and it was eventually agreed that all formerly banned organisations would be legalised. The government published the first photograph of Mandela in decades, showing him and de Klerk meeting and discussing the future of Mandela's release.
When finally he was able to leave prison, Mandela knew that this was not merely a physical exit. Again making a commitment to a fair restoration of democracy, instead of an indignant rebellion, he said of his departure: "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."
6. Nobel Peace Prize (1993)
The Nobel Peace Prize 1993 was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa. The difficulties in this were large scale. Both sides had violent elements, causing both to work to calm their own base while forgiving the opposite number's worse demons. The worst moment of this was when the far right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging movement attacked the Kempton Park World Trade Centre, storming it and ramming the glass at the front entrance with an armoured car. Nevertheless, Mandela was able to calm his supporters' fears, and a call for an end to rioting while also working to cool angry calls for secession from groups like Inkatha.
This was not merely a moment of great accomplishment for Mandela. It was a moment shared. South Africa was never going to be a country that was created for the betterment of one group, blacks, whites, Indians, or those of mixed heritage. Therefore, when the Nobel Prize was offered, it was to the party working to surrender, as well as those who were working to be victorious. The National Party that de Klerk stood for had, in the past, been a major implementer of Apartheid policy. De Klerk was a moderniser, and ultimately was a big part of the success, and that Mandela was so willing to work with him was a sure sign of South Africa's future directions.
7. Election Victory (1994)
The greatness of what happened at this moment was not merely that a man who had been in prison for over quarter of a century now stood tall as the leader of the land that had once incarcerated him. The biggest victory perhaps was that there was an election at all. There was the very real danger that groups such as Inkatha were going to abandon the democratic process, and instead launch a war of secession. But Mandela and de Klerk sat them down, alongside propagators of the apartheid regime (namely, the two Bothas, Pik and P W.) and made them work together within the same system.
Mandela's election victory was not the end of racism in South Africa, any more than Barak Obama's election was the end of racism in the US. But what it marked was the beginning of the changes to turn South Africa into a truly Rainbow nation. The ANC campaigned on promises of universal education for all, a million houses to be built within five years, and extensions of water and electricity. Mandela spent much time campaigning for donations to the party outside of South Africa, including visiting those who had previously supported the apartheid regime.
The most profound moment might have been during televised debated between de Klerk and Mandela. Although de Klerk was generally held to be the better speaker and thus was considered to have 'won' the debate in terms of the speeches made, Mandela's offer to shake his hand was something he visibly did not expect, leading some to believe it was Mandela's reconciling approach that actually won the election. It was this approach that would be a pattern of things to come.
8. The Springboks Rugby World Cup final (1995)
At the time of the first Rugby World Cup since the end of apartheid, Rugby was still a white man's game, and the Springboks, South Africa's team, were widely reviled among the black population. International boycotts of sports of many kinds had been part of the global pressure on South Africa to end the segregation, oppression, and racism of the regime past. And while the early 1990s had seen apartheid defeated, the hatred and anger at so many years of hurt could not be healed so quickly.
Yet Mandela, understanding the deep need for national unity at the time, came out to encourage black South Africans to support the team. After the dramatic final against New Zealand was won, Mandela presented the cup to the victorious team's captain, Afrikaner Francois Pienaar. Not only that, but Mandela was wearing Pienaar's own number 6 jersey. At the moment of meeting he said "Francois, thank you for what you have done for our country," but Pienaar replied "No, Mr President. Thank you for what you have done." To the amazement of black South Africans, there were cheers in the largely white crowd of "Nelson! Nelson!"
9. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996)
This is perhaps the single greatest accomplishment of Nelson Mandela's presidency. As many examples throughout history can attest to, it is often not the overthrow of the tyrant that is the hard part. The great difficulty lies in what exactly you build in the tyrant's place after they are gone. In South Africa's case, this was especially difficult because of the need to hold together those who had been wronged with those who had not been. It wasn't just a tyrant against all the people below. The country had been divided, and now needed healing.
Mandela understood this all very well, but he was faced with a conundrum. Do nothing, and you essentially sanction the crimes of the regime, and by extension force everyone else to forgive. Prosecute one leader, and you end up having to prosecute everyone, as all of the white population benefited from apartheid, and this would only lead to the kind of embitterment and fear that the white minority feared in the first place. The solution was to do something, and nothing. To hear everyone's stories. Victims and prosecutors. To let out the horrors of the past in an exercise of collective national catharsis. How much this was a success is up for debate, but the fact is that since then the country has continued to hold together its identity and has continued to build itself with many communities forming one nation.
Deep and abiding moments of forgiveness and release from anger peppered the conference.
10. Passing on the torch
The celebration in honour of Nelson Mandel's 90th birthday was enormous. Will and Jada Smith hosted, but other figures of note introducing acts were Quincy Jones, Peter Gabriel, Stephen Fry, Lewis Hamilton and Geri Halliwell. The party itself was in London's Hyde Park, well away from the country Mandela called his own, but there was a moment there which marked another important quality Mandela possessed. Addressing the crowds, he announced in the clearest way he could his attempt to step back from the politics of his homeland. "It is time for new hands to lift the burdens, it is in your hands now."
Mandela only took one term in office of the president, despite the fact that the new constitution he helped draft potentially allowing him to take two. But he stepped out of the pantheon of world leaders and history makers with the same kind of grace and fortitude as he had used to first make his way in. By leaving on his own terms, and making sure those terms were as humble as possible, having only amassed the power he needed, he made sure that future presidents of the new republic would not hold an office that had started life as one of a power grab. He held the torch and passed it on. Let's pray there can be someone in our generation to do the same.