The long walk of Nelson Mandela from being an apartheid prisoner to the President of South Africa is an inspirational story for the world.
Some 29 years from now, on February 11, 1990, when Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was released from the prison, it was a moment which changed the trajectory of social justice and equality for all in the 20th century. While freeing one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, the then President F.W. de Klerk announced a univocal message, “After centuries of subjugation, millions of other black South Africans would soon be free too. Apartheid was over.”
As a reply, Mandel in his first speech said, “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people” he added.
He then reached out to the very same people who were responsible for his imprisonment and who had brutalized black fellows to set an example of “true reconciliation” in what was and still remains to a definite extent, a deeply scarred country.
As said by the former archbishop Desmond Tutu, “He came out a far greater person than the man who went in.”
Just a year after he received the Nobel Peace Prize and four years after his release, South Africans voted for him to elect him as the country’s first Black President. But the road ahead was not at all easy for him. His had to do an immense task in the office to prevent a civil war-like situation in the country.
He announced in his sworn-in ceremony, “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
He succeeded in preventing serious racial violence in part through his easy manner and mastery of symbolism. One of the finest moments as a reconciler in presidential tenure came when he congratulated the white team’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup wearing the Springbok rugby jersey.
Till his very last breath, Mandela remained a symbol of unity and equality in a country riven by racial tension and deep inequality.
He was born in one of the poorest regions of South Africa in the Transkei in Mvezo as the great-grandson of a Tembu king on 18 July 1918 as Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela. His name changed from Rolihlahla to “Nelson” by his school teacher. He became an activist in his student life at the University of Fort Hare and opened his first law firm only for blacks in Johannesburg in 1952. In 1961, he became the commander-in-chief of the armed underground wing of the African National Congress, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).
After being underground for more than a year, he was arrested and sentenced to life in 1964. It was during this imprisonment that he delivered the famous speech “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself 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 … It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”, which later became the manifesto for the anti-apartheid movement. He spent over 18 years in jail and throughout his imprisonment, there was always a political pressure on South Africa.
His presidency will not be remembered for great legislative achievements like that of Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill but was no less than them. He served only a five-year term and after his retirement, much of his energy was devoted to mediating conflicts especially the war in Burundi.
Despite being deprived of seeing his own children grow when he was in jail, he dedicated a major portion of his life trying to improve the lives of the young population of the country.