By: Eileen Marable
Obituary by Alan Hamilton
Nelson Mandela, who died at age 95, was arguably the most influential political figure of this or any other era. From his rise to prominence as a member of the African National Congress (ANC) he became, for many, the archetypal freedom fighter, anti-apartheid campaigner and political prisoner; a rise that culminated in his election to President of South Africa 10th May 1994.
Born Rolihlahla Mandela on 18th of July 1918 in the village of Mvezo in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, he was the first member of his family to attend school. It was on his first day that he acquired the name ‘Nelson’ as it was colonial custom for teachers to give English, or ‘Christian’, names to each pupil.
The South Africa of Mandela’s youth was already a deeply segregated nation. And it was during his law training that the young Mandela came into contact with those already struggling in the cause of black self-determination and release from imperial rule. His involvement with the ANC was to define the rest of Mandela’s life.
The 1948 election saw the formal codification of segregation by the white-only government as they classified the population into three races and defined the rights of each. This legislation both introduced a new word to the world: apartheid, and saw the ANC and Mandela, feeling they had no choice in the face of such overwhelming state-sponsored discrimination, but introduce a defiance campaign .
Years of protest, resistance and incarceration followed; Mandela’s influence steadily growing within the ANC. This climaxed in Mandela’s arrest on 5th August 1962, his trial for inciting workers’ strikes and his imprisonment for five years. However, it was while serving this sentence that new charges of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government were formulated against Mandela and his co-accused. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
The next twenty years of Mandela’s life were spent in the infamous Robben Island prison. From behind bars his activism was severely curtailed, but he was, as time went on, able to make contact with anti-apartheid campaigners around the world. In the subsequent eight years he was transferred first to Pollsmoor and then Victor Verster prisons, continuing his efforts to seek a workable solution to the apartheid situation with figures as diverse as South African Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee and exiled ANC leader Oliver Tambo.
In 1989 the hardline South African president P.W. Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by F.W de Klerk. Against all expectations of the new conservative president he announced that he felt apartheid unsustainable and released all ANC prisoners, with one very notable exception: Mandela.
It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 that de Klerk made the momentous decision to allow the legalisation of the ANC and the release of Mandela.
Millions around the world watched Mandela walk to freedom from Victor Verster prison hand in hand with wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
After 27 years of imprisonment rather than avenge himself against those who had kept him incarcerated he sought to change his country; firstly by working with the de Klerk government to end apartheid and usher in free multi-racial elections.
Mandela’s election to president followed, where he undertook a process of national reconciliation –exemplified by the sight of Mandela handing the rugby world cup trophy to Springbok captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, as South Africa beat New Zealand.
After only one term Mandela retired from frontline politics. He then went on to found the ‘Nelson Mandela Foundation’ to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS. His tireless activism combatting the pandemic was remarkable as he was no longer a young man and the extreme prison conditions he had endured had taken a heavy toll on his health.
Finally, in 2004, he announced he was ‘retiring from retirement’ and spent the last few years of his life out of the public eye. Though he did, memorably, appear during the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to a rapturous reception.
Mandiba, as he is commonly called in South Africa, was a statesman that all others aspired to, not only for his achievements as an indefatigable anti-apartheid activist and first black South African president but for his integrity, magnanimity and idealism. He changed the face of South Africa, African democracy and world politics.
He is survived by his wife Graça Machel and three children from previous relationships.
To honor his life, Discovery Channel will premiere THE MAKING OF MANDELA, an all-new documentary celebrating the remarkable life of the legendary South African leader Nelson Mandela, a symbol of hope and peace not only to his own country but to the world, on Sunday Dec. 8 at 12PM ET/PT.
Narrated by actor David Harewood (Homeland), THE MAKING OF MANDELA provides a true representation of Mandela's personal story and the crucial key decisions he made throughout his incredible journey to freedom. The film is also supplemented by Mandela’s own recordings for his book “A Long Walk to Freedom,” in which Mandela’s legacy is told through intimate and revealing interviews with those who knew Mandela best.
"I have cherished the ideal of a free society in which all persons live together in harmony...It's an ideal which I hope to live for...but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
-Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013.
To see a slideshow of his life visit: Nelson Mandela: A Life In Pictures from Discovery Channel UK
Discovery News also remembers Nelson Mandela In Photos.