The world suffered a great loss on December 5th, 2013. Nelson Mandela died in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa from a long battle with a lung infection. He was 95 years old. Born in the village of Mvezo in one of South Africa’s poorest regions, the Transkei, on July 18, 1918, Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela was the great-grandson of a Tembu king. The English name Nelson was given to him by a grade school teacher.
Mandela is best known for his decades of heroism in the face of apartheid, civil rights, and in directing a movement of peaceful, nonviolent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies.
In 1993 Mandela and the former president of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Klerk, together won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”
Mandela became the commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed underground wing of the African National Congress in 1961, and the following year underwent military training in Algeria and Ethiopia. He then went underground for more than a year.
He was arrested in 1964 and subsequently sentenced to life in prison during the now famous Rivonia trial where he delivered a speech that was to become the platform of the anti-apartheid movement.
“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.”
He was released on February 11, 1990 from 27 years in prison for opposition to the apartheid governmental regime. He had aged a bit, but he continued to guide South Africa out of the chaos and bloodshed much too well known to its people.
When president FW de Klerk freed Mandela, it sent a message to the world, and to those who had ultimately suffered in South Africa – Apartheid was over.
When Mandela spoke in his first public appearance after his release, he 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 came out a far greater person than the man who went in. He had learned to understand the foibles and weaknesses of human beings and to be more generous in his judgment of others,” said former archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Mandela was South Africa’s first black president in the first ever fully representative election. South Africans showed up in droves to vote for him. But his task was not an easy one… as his comment confirms while being sworn in, “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.”
And Mandela held true to his promise, succeeding in preventing further devastating racial violence. As President for only one five-year term, he retired in 1999 and devoted the rest of his life to mediating conflicts, especially the war in Burundi.
“His life tells a story that stands in direct opposition to the cynicism and hopelessness that so often afflict our word,” US President Barack Obama wrote in the foreword to Mandela’s most recent autobiography.
Mandela leaves behind, his wife Graca and daughters Maki, Zindzi and Zenani and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Mandela remains a peaceful – yet strong symbol in South Africa, a country still torn apart by racism and inequality.
Image via Wikimedia Commons