A brief overview of the life of Nelson Mandela by Roddy Bray. Listen to the audio using the link above, and read the transcription below.
Travelling through the Transkei in January 2010 we headed, like pilgrims seeking inspiration, to Qunu, the remote district where Nelson Mandela grew up and to which he has retired. We chatted to a guide at the Mandela centre, and the kids slid down the granite rock where Nelson once played . Reflecting on his life I recorded this talk, the script and photos are below.
This is the Qunu district of the Transkei, a remote region of rural life in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. These are the hills where Nelson Mandela grew up, and this is where he retired. He was born in 1918 at Mvezo, 20 miles south of here. His father, Henry Mandela, was a chief, and an advisor to the Regent of the Thembu people, but after a dispute with the colonial magistrate the family fled Mvezo empty handed and became refugees here at Qunu. As a boy Nelson learned to herd cattle across these hills. He also played at stick fighting with the other boys, and was careful never to humiliate those he defeated.
Henry Mandela died when Nelson was only nine, another experience of loss and separation that would become so familiar during his life. He was taken in by the Regent, Jongintaba, and he grew up in the royal court, quietly listening to political debates, learning a tradition in which discussion continues until unity is achieved. Nelson also learned of the colonial conquest fifty years before, and the long resistance to white rule made by leaders like Makhana, who was imprisoned on Robben Island.
Nelson was sent to Methodist missionary schools. Here he had a fine education, and learned Christian values such as forgiveness. The Regent tried to force Nelson into an arranged marriage, and he ran away to Johannesburg. He found work as a security guard, but set his heart on being a lawyer. He graduated in law from the University of the Witwatersrand and opened the first black law practise in South Africa.
As a lawyer he was a people's champion, defending victims of the new apartheid system, which discriminated against black people. He was asked to lead boycotts and speak at rallies and became a popular political leader. His message was simple: non-racialism, equal rights and democracy. In 1956 he was put on trial for 'treason' but after five years defending his cause he Repressive laws forced Mandela into hiding in the early 1960s. Despairing of peaceful protest he led a campaign to commit limited acts of sabotage.
After a year on the run he was finally arrested and sentenced to hard labour for life on Robben Island.He would remain in prison for the rest of his 40s, 50s and 60s, and was only freed at the age of 72. He was cut off from his young family and political work, confined to a tiny bare cell. Robben Island was designed to break the spirit of political leaders. The guards were the hardest racists. The prisoners had little protection from them, nor the cold stone floor on which they slept. Each day, they dug with shovels in the harsh brightness of a lime quarry watched by guards with weapons. They were subjected to petty rules, cruelties and restrictions, to torment them and cauterise hope.
Mandela suffered deeply, but in prison he determined to be free in spirit and he constantly measured his dignity. He practised self-control, politeness, sincerity, humility and generosity. He gave leadership to the other prisoners; he emphasised education, each man helping another to further his studies. He led debates. And he kept up the struggle. He organised protests to demand better conditions. He set about winning over the guards, the hardest of opponents. He learned Afrikaans and Afrikaner history. In their own language, with reference to their own culture, Mandela reasoned with them. He sought to understand their hidden fears and learned how to persuade them. Many guards softened, and they were replaced regularly. In jail Mandela developed deep spiritual resources and powerful diplomatic skills.
When he was released in 1990, he was ready to become a towering statesman. Mandela was not a revolutionary bent upon seizing power, his ambition was higher, to convince all South Africans to embrace reconciliation, fairness and learn to live in harmony. He led South Africa from a nightmare of hatred and violence to a liberal democracy he called 'the rainbow nation'. The transformation was widely described as a miracle.
For the first time in history an oppressive minority government gave up power voluntarily, in exchange for Mandela's vision of reconciliation. Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994, with 66% of the vote. Two years later his values were enshrined in a highly praised constitution. His Presidency was characterised by nation building and peace efforts around the world. And unlike dictators and so many populists, he left office after only one term. He showed no love of power, only a fearless commitment to the most noble of values, which he had treasured even in the most terrible of times.
Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 01 May 2010
Location: Southern Africa, Worldwide | South Africa
Themes: the past | 1945 - 1990, 1990 - present, biography, inspiring