Former President Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first democratically elected Head of State. His five-year presidency from 1994 to 1999 was regarded as one of reconciliation by both black and white South Africans. The people’s president was revered the world over for his fight against apartheid and commitment towards liberating all South Africans. Through his principled stance on various issues, South Africa’s profile was enhanced internationally as a leading emerging democracy.

“The march towards freedom and justice is irreversible…I have spoken about freedom in my lifetime. Your struggle, your commitment and your discipline has released me to stand before you today.”

These were among the first words that Nelson Mandela uttered as a free man on February 11, 1990. For 27 years, Mandela had been locked behind bars and publicly silenced for his political views.

But his long life and incredible story began 71 years earlier, on July 18, 1918, in the rural Eastern Cape village of Mvezo. “It is a place where every stone, every blade of grass, every noise made by insects is part of me. It was here that I made my first love and took out a young lady…So you can see how important this area is for me.”

Nelson Mandela registered to study for a BA degree at the University of Fort Hare in 1939. But he quit after only two years. He faced expulsion for leading food-related student protests.

When the 22-year-old learnt that his family was arranging a marriage for him, he fled to the bustling streets of Johannesburg. There the late ANC leader, Walter Sisulu, became his mentor and confidant.

“We met in 1941. I was then an estate agent and my office was a place which was visited by many young men coming from Native Affairs. He came to my office and I was struck by his personality, indeed his very character, you know, impressed me. When he’s serious on a particular point of view, he’s serious. He won’t even smile or laugh. So that he has got all that humanity and then sharpness on certain points,” Sisulu said of their first meeting.

Mandela experienced urban African life under apartheid in the township of Alexandra. It was characterised by widespread poverty, overcrowding and constant police harassment. Nevertheless, Mandela managed to complete his BA degree through Unisa and enrolled as a part-time law student at Wits University. In the early 1940s, Mandela married his first late wife, Evelyn Mase; joined the African National Congress and co-founded its militant Youth League.

The Young Turks shook their mother body and the country with mass action, strikes and boycotts. These were the key features of the ANC’s 1949 Programme of Action and the Defiance Campaign of the early 1950s.

As Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign, Mandela and over 3500 people were arrested for deliberately breaking unjust apartheid laws. In 1955, when the ANC and its democratic allies organised the Congress of the People at Kliptown in Soweto, the apartheid government had banned Mandela. The Congress of the People gathered 3000 delegates from all walks of life to draft a freedom charter. It was adopted unanimously and became the blueprint for South Africa’s democratic Constitution. At the end of 1956, Mandela and 155 other political activists were charged with treason. That’s also when Mandela met his second former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Of their initial encounter he said: “The first time I saw her, I was driving in town and the next thing I saw her in my office and that’s how the whole thing started. It was quite a difficult time, but meeting her, of course, meant that I had the inspiration and strength, you know, to face that experience.”

The Treason Trial collapsed after four-and-a-half years in early 1961. Mandela went into hiding and co-founded the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe. He also slipped out of the country quietly and illegally to secure moral, financial and military support for the ANC’s armed struggle. On his return, he was arrested at Howick in KwaZulu-Natal and imprisoned on Robben Island. While serving his five-year sentence, he was again put on trial with key comrades, who’d been arrested at Rivonia in northern Johannesburg. One of them was Mandela’s close friend, ‘Kathy’ Kathrada:

“We were careless at Rivonia. We were very careless with our security, so much so that I often said thank God we were arrested because we were going to do such drastic things that would have definitely got us hanged.

“With the sentence of life imprisonment, it was a relief because there was this expectation of death, particularly for people like Walter and Madiba. So life sentence came as a relief to all of us.”

Mandela and his black co-accused were subjected to harsh conditions and brutal treatment on the island. For example, they weren’t given shoes or hot water. They had to wear shorts and sleep on mats. For the first six months, they were forced to break stones, with picks and shovels, in the lime quarry. Although the Rivonia Trial imprisonments dealt a huge blow to the liberation struggle, resistance to apartheid continued – in South Africa and abroad.

The apartheid government fought hard to stay in power. It imposed strict media laws and extended the reach of its security forces. This resulted in further acts of violence against anti-apartheid activists and ordinary South Africans. A state of emergency governed the late 1980s.

Late president PW Botha was at the helm at the time: “The proclamation authorising this measure was signed by me this morning and will be effective as from midnight today.”

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Hundreds of activists were shot dead and over 30 000 detained without trial. From prison, Nelson Mandela took the initiative to engage his political adversaries in the apartheid government. Calls for the release of Mandela and all political prisoners echoed around the world.

Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the campaign leaders says, “He had an inkling that he was going to be released and he started consultations with a broad range of people who went to visit him at Victor Verster – the trade union movement, the churches, some business people and people in the UDF and the youth and what have you. We also knew that we needed to start getting ready for his release and inevitably that had to involve Lusaka, which was where the ANC was.”

FW de Klerk succeeded the late PW Botha as the country’s last white president in September 1989. Four-and-a-half months later, De Klerk stunned the world when he unbanned political parties such as the Communist Party and the ANC. He also announced that he was going to free Mandela.”

“I am now in a position to announce that Mr Nelson Mandela will be released at the Victor Verster Prison on Sunday, the 11th of February, at about 3PM.”

Former SABC TV presenter, Clarence Keyter, announced Mandela’s release from jail. “There’s Mr Mandela, Mr Nelson Mandela, a free man, taking his first steps into a new South Africa.”

After being silenced in jail for 27 years, Nelson Mandela made his first speech at the Grand Parade in Cape Town on the 11th of February 1990, to thunderous approval from the crowd.

“Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. 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. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

Nelson Mandela and Cyril Ramaphosa led the ANC’s multi-party constitutional negotiations at Kempton Park on Gauteng’s East Rand. The protracted talks with the National Party and the country’s other political players experienced several hiccups that frustrated even Mandela.

Of this he said: “I am gravely concerned about the behaviour of Mr De Klerk. He has launched an attack on the African National Congress and in doing so he has been less than frank. Even the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime, as his, has certain moral standards to uphold. I am prepared to work with him in spite of all his mistakes.”

On April 27, 1994, 75-year-old Nelson Mandela and millions of black South Africans voted for the first time in their lives.
Mandela: “I ask you to pray for us…I ask you to give us your whole-hearted support. We ask you to give us your good wishes. That is all we need in order to secure a better life for all of you.”

New democratic symbols replaced the old apartheid ones. Mandela’s Cabinet was an all-inclusive one called the Government of National Unity. It was widely applauded for its reconciliatory policy between black and white South Africans.

Mandela practised what he preached. He even invited the late Rivonia Trial prosecutor, Percy Yutar, to his house.

Of this, Yutar remarked, “It shows a great humility of this saintly man, who has done so much in a short space of time and I have no doubt whatsoever that he will achieve very much more.”

Under Nelson Mandela’s leadership, South Africa was welcomed back into the international fold, including the United Nations, which he addressed on October 3, 1994.

“Future generations will find it strange that it was only so late in the 20th century that it was possible for our delegation to take its seat in the Assembly, recognised both by our people and the nations of the world as the legitimate representative of the people of our country.”

The South African turmoil and triumph took a very personal toll on one of the greatest political love stories. Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s marriage couldn’t bear the strain of almost three decades of separation. By early 1996, their marriage was legally dissolved.

Mandela said this of their separation: “In view of the tensions, we have mutually agreed that a separation would be best for each one of us. I shall personally never forget/regret the life comrade Nomzamo Winnie and I tried to share together. I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her from the moment I first met her. I hope you’ll appreciate the pain I have gone through.”

On his 80th birthday in mid-1998, Nelson Mandela married Mozambique’s former first lady, Graca Machel. They weren’t shy to share their love and affection for each other publicly.

Machel: “…It’s just wonderful that after so much pain I have gone through and I believe that’s also from Nelson’s side, that finally we found each other and we can share a life together. I think that’s just wonderful.”

Mandela: “My wife and I say thank you very much. Ningadinwa ngangomso. Le kamuso. Thank-you!”

In early 1999, Nelson Mandela voluntarily vacated the presidency after having served just one term of five years. He handed over the baton of both the ANC and the country to Thabo Mbeki. Mandela’s last official speech in Parliament was emotional:

“Deputy-President Thabo Mbeki exemplifies this approach, which is critical to the unity of our country. I call on all to give their support to his leadership. His and other voices are those of a new generation of leaders that are emerging in answer to new historical challenges. Together we must continue our efforts to turn our hopes into reality. The long walk continues. Ndlela ntle, mooi loop, tsela tshweu…”

In retirement, Nelson Mandela highlighted the plight of children and those living with HIV and Aids. Cyril Ramaphosa shared many private moments with him:

“I would characterise his leadership as…representing the beginnings of transformation in our country, where we needed to transform South Africa from the horrible past.”

Former Robben Islander and Transport Minister, Mac Maharaj, sums up Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”:

“How did Madiba achieve such extraordinary self-control? The secret, I believe, lies in his ability for introspection in the privacy of his self. Mandela’s greatest achievements stem from engaging with others by proceeding from their assumptions. In private, he never stops trying to understand the other side.”

Obituary compiled with the help of Willie Ackerman and the SABC Media Library.