The anti-apartheid leader and South African revolutionary has died at the age of 95. Nana-Ekua Brew Hammond remembers the extraordinary life and deeds of the man known as 'Madiba'

by Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, December 5, 2013


Nelson Mandela

Rolihlahla Nelson Dahlibunga “Madiba” Mandela, who dedicated 48 years of his life to toppling South Africa’s racist Apartheid regime, died today. He was 95 years old. In the months preceding his death, he had been receiving treatment for a recurring lung infection.

Almost a century before, Mandela was born into a vastly different world.

The man who would win a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in ending Apartheid was born to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela on July 18th in Mvezo, a tiny hamlet on the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata in Transkei, South Africa. After centuries’ long encroachment upon their land, native South Africans were treated like second-class citizens in their own country as the Dutch, German, and British sought to colonize them. Apartheid—the system of racial discrimination and enforced segregation that limited and criminalized certain kinds of contact between blacks, whites, “Coloreds” (mixed race people) and Indians—would not officially begin in South Africa till 1950, but the stage had been set.

Perhaps identifying the quality in his newborn son, or prophesying it, Nkosi Mandela named him "Rolihlahla" which in the Xhosa language literally means "pulling the branch of a tree", or, colloquially, "troublemaker." It was upon his enrollment in primary school that Rolihlahla’s teacher, in accordance with the custom to give schoolchildren “Christian” names, named the boy “Nelson” which means “son of the champion” and “conqueror of the people.”

Mandela’s father would not live to see his son make good on either of his names. At nine years old, Mandela lost his father to lung disease, and was soon after adopted by the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo, whom his father had served as a principal counselor.

In the royal, Mandela began to learn about South Africa’s history of struggle against white settlers. During the traditional circumcision ceremony that initiated 16-year-old Mandela and about 25 other boys into manhood, one Chief Meligqili told them their adulthood would not bear the characteristics of true freedom due to colonial rule. During the ceremony he was given another prophetic name: “Dahlibunga” which means “creator or founder of the council” or “convener of the dialogue”.

Mandela spent the decade between his manhood initiation and his entry into social activism, developing leadership skills. As a second-year student at the University College of Fort Hare, the only boarding university blacks were allowed to attend, he was elected to the Student Representative Council. He later resigned from the position in solidarity with student protests over the quality of the school’s food. For this, he was expelled.

Royally outraged by the dismissal, Mandela’s adoptive father arranged a marriage for the young man with the goal of securing his future. Then 23, Mandela fled the arrangement for Johannesburg, where he worked as a guard and clerk and took correspondence courses to earn his bachelor’s degree. (He would later return to Fort Hare to graduate in 1943.)

In Jo’burg, Mandela’s interest in activism grew. He became increasingly involved in the African National Congress (ANC), which sought to reverse the injustice South Africans were experiencing at the hands of the white government. In 1944, the same year he married nurse Evelyn Ntoko Mase, he co-founded the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) within the organization aimed at transforming the ANC into a mass grassroots movement.

While Mandela’s wife attended to the family the couple had started—a son named Madiba Thembekile born in 1946, a daughter named Makaziwe who died in 1948 at nine months’ old, second son Makgatho Lewanika delivered in 1950, and daughter Pumla Makaziwe born in 1954, named in in honor of her older sister—Mandela rose through the ANC ranks.

In ’48, he was elected National Secretary of the ANCYL; in ’51, ANCYL President; in ’52 Transvaal ANC President. He also opened the nation’s first black law firm with Fort Hare mate Oliver Tambo.

The young attorney led the 1952 Defiance Campaign for which he was arrested. He would go on to be arrested, monitored by the government or jailed multiple times. In 1955, after another arrest, Mandela’s wife moved out of their home. In accordance with her beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness, Evelyn practiced political neutrality.

Three years after Evelyn’s exit, and three months after his divorce from her was final, Mandela married Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela, better known as “Winnie”, whom he had met via ANC work. The activist couple expanded their family with daughters Zenani Dlamini in 1959 and Zindziswa (called Zindzi) in 1960.

In 1960, Mandela’s life would irreversibly change.

On March 21st, South African police sprayed bullets into a crowd of demonstrators gathered in Sharpeville to protest laws that required blacks to carry passes to move between certain neighborhoods. Known as the Sharpeville Massacre, the shooting claimed the lives of 69 Africans and injured 180 to 300 others. The violence was simultaneous as police shot, tear gassed, or beat with batons other protesters gathered around the country. In response, the South African government called a State of Emergency; and banned the ANC from operation. Mandela was detained with 1000 others. Meanwhile, the bloody episode was condemned around the world.

Once committed to nonviolent protest, Mandela formed an armed wing of the ANC in 1961 and called it Umkhonto we Sizwe — “Spear of the Nation”. He snuck out of the country under an assumed name and traveled around Africa and to the UK lobbying for support; also getting military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. Shortly after his return to South Africa, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to a five-year term. While serving that sentence, he was charged with sabotage and sentenced to life in prison.

Prison was an almost comic reminder of the ridiculousness of Apartheid. At Robben Island, where Mandela spent the first 18 years of his 27-year incarceration, the inmates were accorded different treatment based on their race, down to meals. Mandela wrote in his autobiography:

For Africans, lunch consisted of boiled mealies, that is, coarse kernels of corn. The Indian and Coloured prisoners received samp, or mealie rice, which consisted of ground mealies in a souplike mixture. The samp was sometimes served with vegetables whereas our mealies were served straight. … For supper, Coloured and Indian prisoners received a quarter loaf of bread (known as a katkop, that is, a cat's head, after the shape of the bread) and a slab of margarine. Africans, it was presumed, did not care for bread as it was a "European" type of food.

Mandela’s mother and son died while he was on the island. The government’s refusal to let him attend their funerals added to deepening national and international sympathies that had begun to lay firmly with Mandela and the ANC, thanks in no small part to Mandela’s wife Winnie.

While her husband served his term, Winnie worked tirelessly to subvert Apartheid, sending their daughters to boarding school in Swaziland so she could focus. Mrs. Mandela was under surveillance by the South African government, arrested multiple times and tortured. Her home was firebombed. Through it all, she spoke out against the brutality of the racist South African system, earning folk hero status in her own right as the “Mother of the Nation”.

Mrs. Mandela’s legacy was later tarnished by violence she was found to have sanctioned against African sympathizers of Apartheid; and the abduction and murder of a 14-year-old boy named Stompie Moeketsi by her bodyguards who went by the moniker The Mandela United Football Club. Later, Mrs. Mandela became embroiled in corruption scandals and found guilty of "gross violations of human rights". Still, Winnie remains a hero to many South Africans and people around the world.

In response to mounting international pressure that included sanctions and disinvestment, the South African government moved Mandela and other ANC leaders were to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982. Three years later, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela his freedom in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; Mandela refused the condition. In ’88, Mandela was moved to a private house on the Victor Verster Prison compound in Paarl, a minimum security facility where he would serve out the last months of his term.

In ’89, South Africa’s President Botha resigned after suffering a stroke. His successor F.W. de Klerk was a former conservative who had condoned Apartheid before slowly changing course to lead members of his party toward reform. As President, de Klerk announced Mandela’s release date—February 11, 1990—and lifted the ban on the ANC.

After 27 years in prison, Mandela had become a global symbol of gracious victory over centuries of entrenched xenophobia. He was welcomed back to public life by his countrymen, the international community, and Winnie. In ’91 he was elected president of the ANC. A year later, the couple that had been apart for all but six years of their 34-year marriage officially separated. They would divorce in 1996.

In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country's Apartheid system. On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic election. 19 parties contended for the presidency including de Klerk, but in the end Mandela won with over 12 million votes to de Klerk’s nearly four million. In a move that was unusual among leaders on the continent, Mandela promised one term in office.

President Mandela immediately set about healing Apartheid’s deep, rancid wounds. He leveraged the nation’s enthusiasm for sports to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks, encouraging black South Africans to support the national rugby team the Springboks. His efforts—and the team’s dramatic 1995 Rugby World Cup win against the favored New Zealand players—inspired the 2009 Clint Eastwood film Invictus starring Oscar-winners Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Mandela’s life would inspire many small and big screen films including 1997’s Mandela and De Klerk with Sidney Poitier in the title role, and the upcoming Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom with British actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris in the roles of Nelson and Winnie.

Mandela also called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the goal of recording the daily and gross injustices that defined life under Apartheid and beginning the process of healing for many victims. The TRC, launched in 1996, was best known for its hearings in which perpetrators and victims testified of the savage and petty evils of Apartheid. Offenders who could prove their actions were politically motivated could apply for amnesty. (5,392 amnesty applications out of 7,112 were refused.)

In 1998, Mandela wed the former First Lady of Mozambique, Graça Simbine Machel. Machel was a freedom fighter in her own right, and fought for her country’s independence from the Portuguese as a member of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (Frelimo).

At the end of his first term, Mandela retired from active politics; succeeding the presidency to Thabo Mbeki. In the years that followed, Mandela’s international stature rose even more.

In 2002, he started 46664—taken from his prison number (prisoner number 466 of 1964)—an initiative to raise global awareness and funds toward prevention of HIV/AIDS. In 2005, Mandela’s second born son Makgatho died of complications from AIDS.

On his 89th birthday, Mandela convened a group of world leaders called "The Elders" which included his wife, human rights activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Jimmy Carter and others to address the world's toughest issues. The group exists to demand an end to atrocities around the world, support initiatives to address humanitarian crises, and promote democracy, peace, and women's equality.

Mandela wrote several books, among them: 1994’s Long Walk to Freedom, 2010’s Conversations with Myself, 2011’s Nelson Mandela By Himself: The Authorized Book of Quotations and the children’s book Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.

At 91, his birthday was declared Mandela Day in South Africa.

Mandela returned to his native Qunu to live out his last years with family in relative peace, but there were some interruptions to the tranquility he sought. His great-granddaughter was tragically killed in a car accident on June 11, 2010.

From January 2011 to June 2013, he was admitted to the hospital on four separate occasions for lung infection—his father died of lung disease—not including a brief hospitalization to undergo surgery for a stomach ailment. In May 2013, Mandela’s daughters Makaziwe and Zenani filed suit against their father for the rights to his artworks and control of his millions.

In spite of the money squabble, Makaziwe and Zenani joined sister Zindzi who is South Africa’s Ambassador to Argentina, as well as Machel and Winnie at their father’s bedside at Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria. They survive him as do 17 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren—and the millions of South Africans who no longer need a pass to travel freely around their own country or otherwise experience legally-sanctioned mistreatment for the skin they are in.

The troublemaker, champion, and founder of the council who was called "Madiba" after his Xhosa clan now rests in peace, having lived up to his name.

Addressing the world President Jacob Zuma

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.

Stay in the Know
Sign up for the Ebony Newsletter