He wasn’t perfect, but he was Mandela: An obituary

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“Black man, you are on your own.” – Steve Biko

“In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed…
I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul”
– William Ernest Henley, Invictus (poem)

“Him and his comrades/ Were sentenced to isolation…
They broke rocks/ But the spirit was never broken.”
– Brenda Fassie, Black President

Elder statesman, civil rights campaigner and revolutionary, Nelson Mandela – probably the most significant black man on Earth since Martin Luther King Jr., – is dead.

He died yesterday in the company of his family after battling with a lung infection for months. His death was announced by South Africa’s President, Jacob Zuma in a touching broadcast to the world declaring that “our Nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.

Born Rohilala Mandela into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei, on July 18, 1918 and christened Nelson in primary school, the legendary Madiba – as he is nicknamed – is an integral part of African pop culture and civilization. With over 250 awards, degrees, honourary citizenships and all, it is easy to forget that South Africa’s first black president actually holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University College of Fort Hare and a law diploma from University of Witwatersrand.

Photo: Nelson Mandela revisits his prison cell on Robben Island in 1994, where he had spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. (Getty Images)
Nelson Mandela revisits his prison cell on Robben Island in 1994, where he spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. (Getty Images)

His glory is mostly in his brilliance in mending an interracial South Africa in it’s infant days after apartheid, in the selflessness he exhibited in stepping down after just a single term in office, and in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation; all of which will sorely be missed.

Charged with leaving the country illegally as David Motsamayi and inciting workers to strike, Mandela was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment which he began serving in Pretoria Local Prison. In May 1963, he was transferred to Robben Island and returned to Pretoria a month later. In October 1963, he joined nine others on trial for sabotage in what became known as the Rivonia Trial. Facing the death penalty, his words to the court at the end of his famous ‘Speech from the Dock’ on 20 April 1964 became immortalized:

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

On 11 June 1964 Nelson Mandela and seven other accused Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were convicted and the next day were sentenced to life imprisonment. Denis Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Prison because he was white while the others went to Robben Island. While in prison, he rejected at least three conditional offers of release. That was the beginning of his legend.

Released on 11 February 1990, nine days after the ban on the ANC had been lifted and nearly four months after the release of the other Rivonia comrades, Nelson Mandela immersed himself in official talks to end white minority rule and in 1991 was elected ANC President to replace the ailing Oliver Tambo. In 1993, he was awarded together with President FW de Klerk, the Nobel Peace Prize and subsequently became South Africa’s first democratically elected President in an election significant among other reasons, for being the first time in his life he was voting. Mandela stepped down in 1999, after one term in office.

The magnitude of the name and character of that man Mandela, in death as in life, echoes resoundingly. And as the man, whose larger-than-life self personality looms over the world lies dead at the XYZ hosptal, there is cause for sobering up and celebrating his legacies.

That the African National Congress, ANC, a party he strengthened, is still the ruling party in his native South Africa, despite its consistencies and inadequacies is due largely in part to Mandela’s influence. Together with Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, he set about forming the ANC Youth League, paving the way for the fiery Julius Malema today.

He wasn’t all that perfect as his troubles on the homefront proved. First there was his divorce from the activist, Evelyn Mase in 1957, then another from the viacious Winnie Madikizela in 1996 before setting up tent with Graca Michel. There are also unconfirmed allegations that the Umkhonto we Sizwe (the armed wing of the ANC) under his control, perpetuated violence often unprovoked, against whites and the then South African government in the years before his detention.

In the end however, all that will be remembered – and rightly so – of Madiba is that he was steadfast in fighting for his people. He never looked back, having set hand to the plough. That, is the stuff of legends. Not even Sidney Poitier, Dennis Haysbert, Morgan Freeman, David Harewood and Idris Elba who have all played Mandela in all movies about this fallen citizen of the world put together, will be able to fill in the vacuum he has left behind.

Adieu, Tata!

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