Madiba Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: Yesterday and Today – By Dr. Padmore Agbemabiese

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 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.

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Madiba Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Rivona Trial, 20th April, 1964


The beginning

These words of Madiba Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, on 20th April, 1964, at the Rivona Trial set him up on a painful road with a focus on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalized racism, poverty, and inequality in a world ravaged by hatred and avarice. For this course, he spent 27 years of his manhood in prisons: initially on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. To Nelson Mandela “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” There is always something in a name, the hand of destiny that shapes our path on the map of human geography. Mandela’s name “Rolihlahla” which in the Xhosa language literally means “pulling the branch of a tree,” figuratively translates to mean “troublemaker.” It is in reference to this that Mandela once noted “I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.” There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.

When and where he entered: His early childhood

A chronicle of Nelson Mandela’s life journey from his childhood in a rural village through to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa reveals a journey of an icon destined to create a new world. Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela is said to have been born into the Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei, on July 18, 1918, to Nonqaphi Nosekeni and Nkosi Mphakanyiswa Gadla Mandela, a regent to the Acting King of the Thembu people, Jongintaba Dalindyebo. His father died of lung disease when he was only nine years old and the young Rolihlahla came to live with Jongintaba at the Great Place in Mqhekezweni. As a young boy, Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela heard his elders tell stories of the valor of his ancestors during the wars of resistance to colonialism and dreamed of making his own contribution to the freedom struggle of his people someday. He attended primary school in Qunu and in accordance with the colonial policy of giving all school children “Christian” names; he was christened Nelson in the Methodist Church. He received his BA in 1943 at University of South Africa and LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Nelson Mandela on Issues of Poverty and its effects

In 2005, at London’s Trafalgar Square, Nelson Mandela observed that “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” By his own admission he was a poor student and this made him to leave university in 1948 without graduating. He only started studying again through the University of London and also did not complete that degree. It was only in 1989, while in the last months of his imprisonment, that he obtained his LLB degree through the University of South Africa. He graduated in absentia at a ceremony in Cape Town. Mandela once declared “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life. While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.” His desire to see poverty end made him tell the G-8 leaders in 2005 that “When you meet in Scotland in July, (you) have already promised to focus on the issue of poverty, especially in Africa. I say to all those leaders: do not look the other way; do not hesitate. Recognize that the world is hungry for action, not words. Act with courage and vision. Make Poverty History in 2005. Make History in 2005. Then we can all stand with our heads held high.”

Mandela and Africa’s predicament

The road to confronting Africa’s dilemma, snakes, meanders and cascades through avenues you may not even know exists. Kofi Anyidoho states that “There is something of our story, something of our Mystery carved in every Tombstone in all Graveyards of the world.” In fact, the scars from wounds of Africa’s predicament run deep, and sometimes the nightmares don’t end even when African people engage themselves in a “resurrection dance” holding onto hope and armed with the “spirit of endurance.” Knowing too well that the world is a dangerous place for a naïve adolescent, a road that is full of hyenas pretending to be “royal ancestors,” Nelson told the youths of the world, particularly African youths that “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom. Of course the task will not be easy. But not to do this would be a crime against humanity, against which I ask all humanity now to rise up.” Nelson Mandela’s unwavering courage, forgiveness and hope have today touched and inspired people all around the world. He showed that the dream of a just society is possible and he challenged our generation to lead the way towards it.

The long walk to freedom

Sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had. The walk to freedom wasn’t easy for Nelson Mandela from the start. At the end of 1952 he was banned for the first time by the apartheid regime from public activities. As a restricted person he was only able to secretly watch as the Freedom Charter was adopted at Kliptown on 26 June 1955. On December 5, 1955, Nelson Mandela was arrested in a countrywide police swoop of 156 activists, which led to the 1956 Treason Trial. Men and women of all races found themselves in the dock in the marathon trial that only ended when the last 28 accused, including Nelson Mandela were acquitted on 29 March 1961. On 11 January 1962 using the adopted name David Motsamayi, Nelson Mandela left South Africa secretly. He traveled around Africa and visited England to gain support for the armed struggle. He received military training in Morocco and Ethiopia and returned to South Africa in July 1962. He was arrested in a police roadblock outside Howick on 5 August while returning from KwaZulu-Natal. He was charged with leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment which he began serving in Pretoria Local Prison. On 27 May 1963 he was transferred to Robben Island and returned to Pretoria on 12 June. Within a month, police raided a secret hide-out in Rivonia used by ANC and Communist Party activists and several of his comrades were arrested. In October 1963 Nelson Mandela 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.

If you really know of the boil in the throat of Africa’s predicament you will understand Nelson Mandela when he says “When a man is denied the right to live, the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

Amandla Ngawethu: The many more roads to travel

Africans cannot sing praise-songs on the passing into ancestor-hood of Madiba Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela without bringing to mind his survival spirit and how far he had to stretch his voice to touch the soul of humanity. Africa recalls how on 11 June 1964 Nelson Mandela and seven others, namely Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment and were sent to Robben Island. In 1968, Nelson Mandela’s mother died followed by his eldest son Thembi in 1969. He was not allowed to attend their funerals. On 31 March 1982 Nelson Mandela was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town with Sisulu, Mhlaba and Mlangeni. Kathrada joined them in October. When he returned to the prison in November 1985 after prostate surgery Nelson Mandela was held alone. In 1988 he was treated for tuberculosis and was transferred on 7 December 1988 to a house at Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. He was released from its gates on Sunday 11 February 1990, nine days after the unbanning of the ANC and the PAC and nearly four months after the release of the remaining Rivonia comrades. To Mandela, “Prison itself is a tremendous education in the need for patience and perseverance. It is above all, a test of one’s commitment” to a course, for which one was imprisoned. Throughout his imprisonment Mandela rejected at least three conditional offers of release which could have led to generations of dreams deferred—dreams of education, social mobility, economic independence for South Africans and many other sets of deferred dreams.

This Earth my Brother and Sister

In the 1980s, the name of Nelson Mandela and the ANC was still sour like bile on the tongue of world politics and there were individuals that insisted that Nelson Mandela be labelled a terrorist in his own country and the ANC a terrorist organization. It is interesting to hear these same people proclaiming now Mandela to be a great man, a “saint,” an icon of determination, maybe because in his old age he might have been seen as “mellowed.” They believe in the sense that the post-Apartheid Mandela has been much less threatening to the ravages of racist capitalism than he was in his radical youth. I have heard my Grandma say “A rabbit’s hole is never so thoroughly dry; you will by all means find some old nuts around”  especially when you consider a man who survived 27 years in prison and came out of it with his heart and soul intact. It is unfortunate we all love the “mellowed out” Mandela and don’t want to think about the kind of principled revolutionary activism he represented and implemented, which spelled the death knell of Apartheid in South Africa.

Until his passing into ancestor-hood, Nelson Mandela had reiterated his position clearly, “I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days.” No matter the extent to which he is accused, he stands firm to the fact that “Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.” Not even death threatens this position and his commitment to Africa’s predicament because “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.” Mandela does not shy away from the penalty that every leadership has to suffer, but he believes that “Those (in leadership positions) who conduct themselves with morality, integrity and consistency need not fear the forces of inhumanity and cruelty.” In fact, he warns “Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way.”

Conclusion: Mandela the angel of Black future

What is the life and legacy of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, from his birth in 1918 till his passing to ancestor-hood in 2013? We can recall his dogged persistence in pursuing justice, his insistence that the struggle against racism could not be compromised, and his calming assurance that enemies could cohabit.  Mandela reminds us that overcoming discrimination, exploitation, and repression in the world is possible, that unassailable fortresses can be breached, indeed crumbled, when people mobilize, organize, and challenge. His life tells us that struggling against injustice is humanizing and demanding equality provides a foundation for a community to survive and flourish. Throughout his life, Nelson Mandela provided a vision and a moral compass, not only for South Africa but for the world at large.

In celebrating his life, we refuse to accept that inequality is normal, that injustice can be tolerated, and that addressing poverty, ignorance, and disease in the world is someone else’s responsibility. After more than a quarter century in prison, not only did Nelson Mandela survive, but he set a pace for change, which he insisted in the 1940s was inadequate. Nelson Mandela never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality and education. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism. Mandela is not dead but gone to join the ancestors who long ago resisted colonialism, for he has always maintained that “I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.” To Nelson Mandela “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” It was as if he was born to teach the world a lesson in humility with humor and above all else in patience, because he maintains that “Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.” Nelson Mandela showed the world how to love rather than hate, not because he had never surrendered to rage or violence, but because he learnt that love would do a better job. Today, he finally blinked, and walks to join the ancestors, and we cry, knowing our eyes are opened to so much because of him. His life will forever remain an inspiration to all, who are oppressed and deprived, to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation.

In humility, I borrow words of a poet to say, dear ancestor, Madiba Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela, help us recall how you gathered the worst among your aches and pains, transformed them all into a vision of a new life, where the prison was the medical lab from which you diagnosed Africa’s diseased condition, and from there you performed corrective surgery on Africa’s anemic predicaments. Through you our sorrows ripen into a Sun Flower, and one day, when we all assemble, we will gather our voices to sing:

Asimbonanga (we have not seen him)
Asimbonang’ umandela thina (we have not seen Mandela)
Laph’ekhona (in the place where he is)
Laph’ehleli khona (in the place where he is kept)
Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the island into the bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me