As the world mourns the exit of former South African President Nelson Mandela, Damilola Oyedele, examine how his death shook the world and review the life of a man widely considered a global icon
Late on Thursday night, the news of the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, fondly called Madiba by his people, resonated around the world. The world literarily stood still in honour of a man whose life was a lesson in consistent struggle sacrifice and service to the people. And almost immediately, torrents of tributes from world leaders dominated airwaves. His life and time also made headlines across the world. In all continents, ordinary people took to the social media to pay their tributes to the man whose life inspired many. In South Africa, people have been keeping vigil at his residence while President Jacob Zuma has now been saddled with the responsiblity of personally giving the world updates on his burial arrangement.
World leaders are also declaring days of mourning in his honour. In Nigeria, President Goodluck Jonathan declared three days of national mouning and ordered flag to be flown at half mast. President Barack Obama made similar proclamation. Flags in the US would be flown at half mast until sunset on Monday. Across, the world leaders are making simiilar proclamtions for a man widely considered one of the best things to have come out of the African continent.Though a South African citizen, he remained Africa’s pride and a global icon.
Born into the royal Thembu family on July 18, 1918, Mandela, a Xhosa, was re-christened Nelson during his primary school years in accordance with the custom of the school to give all pupils Christian names. He obtained his Junior Certificate from the Clarkebury Boarding Institute before proceeding to the University College of Fort Hare for a Bachelor Degrees in Arts. He did not complete his studies there due to his expulsion for joining a students’ protest. He completed his BA at the University of South Africa. He later attended the University of Witwatersand where he studied law. Instead of returning to his hometown to enjoy the trappings of royalty, Mandela lived in Johannesburg, joined the anti-apartheid movement and became a founding member of the ANC Youth League. He caught the attention of the apartheid government during the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign. His anti-apartheid activities continued until 1962 when he was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on the Robben Island prisons.
While imprisoned, he rejected at least three offers of conditional release based on his political activities. He ended up spending a total of 27 years in prison with hard labour. On February 11, 1990, he was released.
Mandela emerged from prison without rancour or bitterness towards the people who imprisoned him. He worked with the white minority government to end apartheid regime and on May 10, 1994, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected black President. As President, he ran a government of national unity; he did not respond to racism with racism and did not allow the maltreatment of White South Africans. He worked to promote national reconciliation, democracy, equality, education and to fight oppression.
Mandela was an epitome of humility. As President, he allowed his predecessor, Apartheid President de Klerk to retain the presidential residence while he (Mandela) lived in a nearby manor. The story has also been told of how a certain VIP went to visit Mandela and found the Madiba himself at the gate to receive him. Entering the living room for discussions and lunch, Mandela asked his guest, “Where is your colleague?” “Oh, I came alone. The person you saw with me is my driver,” the guest responded. “I meant him, your driver, please invite him to join us for lunch,” Mandela said.
Mandela is safely regarded as one of Africa’s greatest. He lived a simple life and donated one third of his annual salary: 552000 rand to the Nelson Mandela Fund which he established in 1995. In 1999, he founded the Nelson Mandela Foundation with three major goals; HIV/AIDS, rural development and school construction. Mandela was an ambassador for peace; he entered the forefront of the clamour for countries to resolve conflicts though diplomacy, dialogue and reconciliation. He became a voice to be reckoned with on the global stage.
He remains one of the most globally honoured Africans. In 1990 while still in prison, he was granted the Bharat Ratna Award by the government of India. In 1993, he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with de Klerk. In 2009, the UN General Assembly proclaimed his birthday, July 19 as Mandela day with a call to individuals to donate 67 minutes of their time doing something for others on that day. 67 minutes commemorates the number of years he spent as part of the anti-apartheid movement.
He was the first living person to be made a honorary Canadian citizen, he received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, he was the last recipient of the Soviet Union’s Lenin Peace Prize and first recipient of the Al-Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights,. He received the Ataturk Peace Award of Turkey in 1999 after turning it down in 1993 for human rights violations. He also holds the award of the Bailiff Grand Cross of the Order of St. John and the Order of Merit, granted by Queen Elizabeth II.
As the Madiba rightly said “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.”
Mandela: In the eyes of writers
The Book: Long Walk to Freedom- (His autobiography)
The most well-known, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, his autobiography published in 1994, four years after his release, tells his experiences, how they helped shaped him into the man he became. He writes: “As readers will discover, this book has a long history.”
Mandela talks of his youth, how he had to negotiate both the world of his tradition and the reality of a white-dominated country. It tells of how he attained scholarship to study law, his choice to become a politician and human rights activist. He writes about the people who came into his life and what ultimately set him on the path that led him to become a hero of peace.
An Authorised Portrait
Written in 2006 by activists Mac Maharaj, Ahmad Kathrada, Mike Nicol, and historian Tim Couzens, it draws on extensive interviews with family, other people of influence in his life, as well as world leading political figures. It illustrates with 250 rarely seen pictures. It is a tribute to humanity, remarkable determination of the great man, a chronicle of his exceptional contributions to his people and the world. It tells his story from birth to his political involvement through his imprisonment to his presidency.
Mandela’s love for children and knowledge of the important role youths will play in shaping the future of South Africa is no secret .Among these are his favourite. African folktales, a children’s abridged version of Long Walk to Freedom, is a collection of 32 indigenous stories from all over Africa, selected by Madiba for their beautiful portrayal of humanity. “I am what I am … both as a result of people who respected me and helped me, and of those who did not respect me and treated me badly,” quotes Sampson of Mandela.
The Book: The Struggle is My Life
A collection of his speeches, political writings was released in 1990. It looks into His life, the ordeals he suffered for his people, during the political turmoil in South Africa. Authored by Mandela, it contains the most moving and inspirational words spoken by Madiba, including the famous statement from the dock in the Rivonia Trial, “I am prepared to die”, before sentencing began.
His ending speech: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people, I have fought against white and 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 achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Conversations with Myself –An Intimate portrait
The most personal picture of Mandela contains bits and pieces of his life, extracts from his diaries, calendars, letters and transcripts. An intimate look into his life as told in its very raw form, relives his trying times, including health issues, dreams and political initiatives. He writes: “I love playing; chatting with children, feeding and putting them to bed with a little story, and being away from the family has troubled me throughout my life. I like relaxing at the house, reading quietly, taking in the sweet smell that comes from the pots, sitting around a table with the family and taking out my wife and children. When you can no longer enjoy these simple pleasures something valuable is taken away from your life and you feel it in your daily work.”
Nigerian Writers eulogise Mandela
Speaking to THISDAY, Poet, Olawale Obadeyi said: “Mandela, in my view, lived selflessly. The degree of his personal sacrifice is immeasurable. Wish our leaders can take a lesson or two from his life .This is a huge loss. He was truly the last great Black man that ever walked the surface of the earth.’’
For renowned Author, Seun Moses, ‘‘he extemporizes courage, empathy, resilience, possibility. A principality like him don’t die, they ascend and join the ageless. Mandela was a freedom fighter who made history by bending the arc of moral universe towards justice. The world cannot contain the lasting impact of his unparalleled force of change. Rolihlahla’s sunshine overshadowed his sunset.’’
In the words of Jahman Anikulapo, Veteran Journalist, writer and former Editor, Sunday Guardian, ‘‘He was Human through and through: had all the shades—the positives, and foibles; but he was greatness and inspiration personified’’.
More books even in Death
His death will trigger an avalanche of books, novels and biographies about this great man, and global icon.
To musicians, He Was The Man
As Africa’s biggest fear had been confirmed, we can now sing the dirge. “Madiba no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages”, Africa believes in consonance with President Barrack Obama’s speech when the news broke. And quite vividly, we recall that, so legendary had Nelson Mandela’s apartheid struggle become that scores of African singers relied on his ‘tell-story’ to make hit songs that reminds Africa of her truest freedom fight.
In 1999, singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg, performed his legendary “Asimbonanga” in Frankfurt and Nelson Mandela took to the stage in person. He was back in Germany on tour and was working on an autobiography and a musical. In 1987 as protests against apartheid were erupting on to the streets of South Africa and Nelson Mandela was spending his 23rd year in prison, a white singer recorded a song in Zulu called “Asimbonanga” meaning “We haven’t seen him.”
It was one of the first songs that openly called for Mandela’s release. It was an instant hit and was banned by the South African government. The singer was Johnny Clegg. “It made me sad to see South Africans shooting each other, that’s why I wrote this song”, he told the world. The message I wanted to convey was – who will be able to reunite us? That person could only be Mandela,” he concluded.
More than a decade later at a concert in Frankfurt, Mandela was able to thank him in person. When Johnny Clegg and his band performed Asimbonanga, Mandela himself took to the stage and began dancing. He asked why wasn’t anybody else dancing.”Let’s hear that song once again,” Mandela said. Clegg found it all overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of his life. Not soon will Africa forget singing legend, Miriam Makeba, for her role in seeing South Africa’s historic freedom. After spending nearly 30 years in exile, Mr Nelson Mandela personally asked “Mama Africa” to return home in 1990 right after he was released from prison and the end of apartheid. Miriam Makeba and Mandela shared admiration in equal measure, so much that on his 70th Birthday, she performed a special tribute for Mandela singing some of her most popular songs like “Pata Pata”, “Soweto Blues” and freedom songs from the era.
As it is, where generations struggle to remember a politician’s speech, Bob Marley’s Redemption Song which put pressure on South Africa at her cruelest era, is today a song of freedom on the world’s lips. Late Ozzidi sound maestro, Sonny Okosun, also delivered his incendiary reggae jam “Fire in Soweto” in honor of South Africa’s plight sometime in 1978.
Senegalese griot singer, Youssou N’Dour, was also one of Africa’s rising stars when he recorded his album “Nelson Mandela” in Paris’ Studio Montmartre in 1986. The album featured the track which was delivered in French, the cause of Mandela and apartheid. Senegal exported some of the best music on the continent during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and N’Dour’s dedication to Mandela was an early signal of the success to come. Most recently, Nigerian Raggae lord, Majek Fashek, made his addition to the torrents of tribute songs in favour of Mandela in his monster hit song, So Long. The song which re-echoed Africa in dire need of unity clearly articulates that Nelson Mandela is to Africa what Martin Luther King is to United States of America.
Letters to Winnie
A few of the letters Mandela wrote from Robben Island where he was sent to in 1964 at the age of 46. Eighteen of his 27 years in prison were spent on the prison island.
April 15, 1976
My dearest Winnie,
Your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling that I’m caressing you as in the old days. I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so. Nolitha stands on the table directly opposite me. How can my spirits ever be down when I enjoy the fond attentions of such wonderful ladies?
October 26, 1976
My dearest Winnie,
I have been fairly successful in putting on a mask behind which I have pined for the family, alone, never rushing for the post when it comes until somebody calls out my name. I also never linger after visits although sometimes the urge to do so becomes quite terrible. I am struggling to suppress my emotions as I write this letter.
I have received only one letter since you were detained, that one dated August 22. I do not know anything about family affairs, such as payment of rent, telephone bills, care of children and their expenses, whether you will get a job when released. As long as I don’t hear from you, I will remain worried and dry like a desert.
I recall the Karoo I crossed on several occasions. I saw the desert again in Botswana on my way to and from Africa–endless pits of sand and not a drop of water. I have not had a letter from you. I feel dry like a desert.
Letters from you and the family are like the arrival of summer rains and spring that liven my life and make it enjoyable.
Whenever I write you, I feel that inside physical warmth, that makes me forget all my problems. I become full of love.
June 26, 1977
My dearest Winnie,
Our daughters raised in hardship are grown women today. The first born has her own house and is raising her family.
We couldn’t fulfill our wishes, as we had planned, to have a baby boy. I had hoped to build you a refuge, no matter how small, so that we would have a place for rest and sustenance before the arrival of the sad, dry days. I fell down and couldn’t do these things. I am as one building castles in the air.
November 22, 1979
My dearest Winnie,
You looked really wonderful on 17/11, very much like the woman I married. There was colour in your face. Gone was the choleric appearance and glazed look in your eyes when you are under pressure of over-dieting. As usual, I kept addressing you as Mum but my body kept telling me that a woman is sitting across this platform. I felt like singing, even if just to say Hallelujah!
•Compiled from Fatima Meer’s authorised biography of Mandela, Higher than Hope (Harper & Row, 1988)
A painful separation…
The relationship between myself and my wife, Comrade Nomzamo Winnie Mandela, has become the subject of much media speculation. I am issuing this statement to clarify the position and in the hope that it will bring an end to further conjecture.
Comrade Nomzamo and myself contracted our marriage at a critical time in the struggle for liberation in our country. Owing to the pressures of our shared commitment to the ANC and the struggle to end apartheid, we were unable to enjoy a normal family life. Despite these pressures our love for each other and our devotion to our marriage grew and intensified.
I was compelled to go underground as of April 1961, living the life of a fugitive until I my arrest by the South African Security Police in 1962. That was a decision arrived at consciously by myself and Comrade Nomzamo in the full knowledge that it spelt the end of life as family for the foreseeable future. After my conviction in November 1962 I was incarcerated for twenty seven years until my release on February 11th, 1990.
During both my trials, the first in 1962 and during the Rivonia trial of 1964, Comrade Nomzamo was a key figure in mobilising solidarity and support for myself and the other Rivonia trialists alongside other members of the ANC and its allies. During the two decades I spent on Robben Island she was an indispensable pillar of support and comfort to myself personally. She also became the international focus of the campaign in solidarity with the all South African political prisoners. As such, she earned the ire of the National Party government which lost no opportunity to harass, persecute, arrest, detain and charge her. This culminated in her banishment from Johannesburg to Brandfort in the OFS.
Comrade Nomzamo accepted the onerous burden of raising our children on her own. She was more fortunate than other single mothers in that she enjoyed the moral and material support of both the South African and the international community. She endured the persecutions heaped upon her by the government with exemplary fortitude and never wavered from her commitment to the struggle for freedom. Her tenacity reinforced my personal respect, love and growing affection. It also attracted the admiration of the world at large. My love for her remains undiminished.
However, in view of the tensions that have arisen owing to differences between ourselves on a number of issues in recent months, we have mutually agreed that a separation would be best for each of us. My action was not prompted by the current allegations being made against her in the media. I deeply regret the role that the media has assumed in this regard and would once again urge that the issue of her guilt or innocence be left to the judicial system to determine. Comrade Nomzamo has and can continue to rely on my unstinting support during these trying moments in her life.
I shall personally never regret the life Comrade Nomzamo and I tried to share together.
Circumstances beyond our control however dictated that it should be otherwise. I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace with all the love and affection I have nursed for her inside and outside prison from the moment I first met her.
• Statement by Nelson Mandela on his relationship with his wife April 13, 1992
THE WOMEN IN HIS LIFE
By Roland Ogbonnaya
For Nelson Mandela, he had women who helped him waltz through his destiny. For example, in the forties, he married Walter Sisulu’s cousin, Mathona Evelyn Mase, who was a nurse. They had two sons: Madiba Thembekile ‘Thembi’ and Makgatho and two daughters both called Makaziwe. The first died in infancy. ã€€They effectively separated in 1955 and divorced in 1958.
Once faced with the prospect of an arranged marriage, he instead chose in 1944 to marry Mathona Mase, a woman who was from the same area of South Africa as he was.
While Mathona represented more of a sincere friend to Mandela than a romantic interest, she’s just one of many women who would found his strong spirit, relentless courage and ample generosity attractive.
According to his biographers, the intricacies of Mandela’s heart, mind and spirit were revealed in his three decade long relationship with Winnie Madikizela. It was described as a love story, tempered tragically by the political ambitions of its two larger-than-life protagonists. Throughout, he felt painful guilt for what Winnie had endured because she was his wife – the years of imprisonment, solitary confinement and house arrests. And he showed vast loyalty as he learned of her affairs and descent into violence. But Winnie and his family always came second to his other great love, the ANC and the liberation struggle. Winnie was like a tonic as Mandela immersed himself into official talks to end white minority rule. Winnie, who was the first black woman to become a Johannesburg social worker, became Mandela’s second wife. Unfortunately, their lengthy time apart took its toll, as they divorced in 1996.
Mandela’s third and final marriage was to Graca Machel in 1998. He married Graca, the widow of Mozambican late President Samora Machel on his 80th birthday in 1998.
Interestingly, not many knew that Mandela had once fell in love with an Indian-origin woman and would have taken her as wife. South Africa would have had an Indian-origin first lady if Amina Cachalia had agreed to a marriage proposal by Mandela.
Mandela proposed to Amina, the widow of veteran ANC activist Yusuf Cachalia, after his 27 years of imprisonment and his marriage to Winnie Mandela ended. But, she turned down the proposal, as she wrote in her biography ‘When Hope and History Rhyme’. Amina, who died at the age of 83, revealed an intimate and affectionate side to the relationship between her and Mandela in the book released after her death.
Her children, Ghaleb and Coco Cachalia, both confirmed that their mother had confided in them about Mandela’s marriage offer. Amina and Yusuf Cachalia spent many years in India, where he headed the desk of the African National Congress (ANC) in exile. In the book, Cachalia gave vivid descriptions of private visits to her apartment by Mandela and her visits to his office and residence.
“On one of these visits I must have been looking rather flustered as I bustled about doing my chores,” Amina wrote. Mandela sat me down on the two-seater couch in the living room and kissed me passionately. Running his fingers through my hair, he said: “Do you know that you are an exceptionally beautiful, vivacious and enticing young lady?” I hollered at him. He looked very worried and wanted to know what was so wrong with what he had said. I replied gently: I’m not a young lady; I am a middle-aged woman.”
“He looked relieved and said: “Okay lets begin again.” Then he repeated the string of adjectives, substituting ‘old’ for ‘young’ lady. I screamed again and said that I was not an old lady either,” she revealed.
Amina, in the book, recalled one evening when Mandela visited her apartment in Johannesburg. She prepared crayfish for him, which he did not eat, as he was upset on being rebuffed. “That night Nelson declared his love for me in no uncertain terms. I resisted, reminding him of his marriage (to former Mozambican First Lady Graca Machel), and the fact that while I may have been moved to consider his overtures positively, his marriage to Graca prevented me from doing so,” Amina wrote.
“I was free, he was not. He was clearly upset. I had hurt his feelings and resisted his advances. I begged with him to stay for crayfish but he brushed my pleas aside and walked out of the door.” On a visit to Mandela’s Houghton home the next day, Amina revealed how Mandela sat opposite to her and wrote notes to her, which said “beautiful, endearing things to me.”
“The day before had evidently been forgotten and we were to make a fresh beginning. But I told him that we were playing with fire and I prepared to tear up the notes. He stopped me, assuring me that he would shred them once he had finished writing,” Amina recalls.
However, with six children and 20 grandchildren, Mandela can rest comfortably knowing that another Mandela may one day follow in his political footsteps.
“Any person or institution which tries to rob me of my dignity has lost in advance, for this is something which I will never betray, for any reason.” – Nelson Mandela
I grew up with ‘Nelson Mandela’ enshrined in my heart. Surprisingly, I was thousands of miles away from the troubled land where he was incarcerated. Living as a young man in a damn wealthy and free society in those heady days, freedom was treated with abandonment and insolence because it came cheap in Nigeria. And, despite the fact that military dictators governed Nigeria, I never had to bargain for the terms of my humanity since I was born free. I was an untouchable basking in the euphoria of my peaceful existence. In this state of innocence, South Africa, however, was like the place next door. The story of the ills the white minority perpetrated on the black majority filtered into Nigeria, and our ears were unhindered in a manner that suggested that every African was in bondage as long as our kith and kin south of the continent were dehumanized by a system that was supported by the West subtly.
Today, I remember the government of the day talking tough in its insistence that freedom is an imperative for our brothers in the south of Africa. This hard stance tainted us with a dab of communism since the capitalist West was an indirect participant in the orgy of violence that apartheid unleashed on our siblings. And the West was supposedly the agent of existentialism and democracy!
In the mid-70s, I remember the leadership of Nigeria passing easily gotten petro-dollars to freedom fighters, who came asking, in furtherance of their quest for the total emancipation of their fatherland. My country was awash with images of oppression oozing from the south of Africa, and many exiles found undisturbed habitations in my backyard. Young as I was, my daily existence was laced with the horror taking place south of the continent as the National Committee Against Apartheid, which was established and funded by the government of my nation, assaulted my visceral being metaphorically with songs of lamentation from the black townships and squatter camps that black people were. As many fell unsung, and as many faceless black South Africans languished in the gallows, Madiba became the symbol that many Nigerians and I could feel and touch as the embodiment of all that is desirable. He became the face the rest of the world recognised as the visage of a faceless people dying unsung because of their God given skin pigmentation.
Today, Nelson Mandela still stands out in my consciousness as a rebel who stood his grounds and looked at the enemy straight in the face, undeterred by his personal discomfort. He towers in my memory as the personification of a people’s struggle against injustice and discrimination perpetuated through the coercive use of state apparatus in an attempt to subjugate a people’s will, making the majority subservient to the nefarious machinations of a minority, whose presence in the land was made comfortable by the hard, unappreciated labour of the natural inhabitants of the land: Their hands toiled the grounds and their blood irrigated the soil, but they were poorer for it just because of their blackness.
Being the epitome of a collective desire of a people to be free, Mandela inspired mighty verses across the lands in the hearts of great poets: poems that touched my heart as I read them and triggered fury in my soul, tempting me to pick up cudgels and turn a mercenary for a common cause. Although I could not trace on paper and document the pattern of his changing face in the deep recesses of my spirit, I saw his facial features in the air, yet he was faceless for the greater part of his incarceration because, before his release in 1990, only pictures dating back to the 50s and early 60s were readily available to us; the cold wind from Robben Island gave wings to his iron will as it sailed through many moons to embrace and possess me. Mandela thought me perseverance and his words smuggled through the iron bars of Robben Island after the 1976 Soweto uprising rang through the nights instilling courage in me. When he said “the resistance of the black man to white colonial intrusion was crushed by the gun,” I heard him over and over saying, “in all we do, we have to ensure the healing of the wounds inflicted on all our people across the great dividing line imposed on our society by centuries of colonialism and apartheid.” Mandela taught me to be my brother’s keeper.
Am sure his jailers would have loved to have him as a sphinx, but before their very eyes, he emerged indestructible. In my eyes, Mandela is immortal while those who tormented him cringe and scurry to their hiding place shamed-faced. In his life time, he became the conscience of humanity at every turn: whilst in dungeon, he was the catalyst that propelled the world to listen to the freedom songs streaming out of the townships for ages; and when freedom finally came, he transformed into the balm that salved the nation, the steel voice singing the songs of reconciliation. This he did because, according to him, “I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.” With this act, he taught me to be forgiving and to obliterate from my heart any iota of hatred that lurks therein for my white brothers. As his departure still my soul, he is very much alive in my spirit because I still hear him say, “racism must be consciously combated and not discreetly tolerated … we must ensure that colour, race and gender become only a God-given gift to each one of us and not an indelible mark or attribute that accords a special status to any [and] without reconciliation, we will not be able to give our people a better life.”
Today, methinks his words set the agenda for our destiny as a people of one nation and one universe as the world moves on without the presence of the sage and the myth. Personally, my conviction is influenced by my belief that it is my humility that defines my humanity just as Madiba made me to know that stubbornness and belligerence are a virtue, especially when my personal principles are threatened. Yes, he was right when he said, “men must follow the dictates of their conscience irrespective of the consequences which might overtake them for it.”
What Made Him A Hero?
Life of Sacrifice To Humanity
The passing on of South Africa’s first black President and Africa’s most celebrated political icon, Nelson Mandela, must have shook the world and brought in its wake reminiscences of the struggle for racial equality and justice. Before his death last Thursday, Mandela popularly called “Madiba” had assumed a larger than life image in the minds of people around the world. His life was always that of sacrifice and exemplary conduct, a factor which endeared him, not only to his kinsmen in South Africa, but to the world at large. His endurance and ability to let go his personal comfort, career development and family interest in order to fight for what was in the greater interest of his people marked out as a man of uncommon character. As lawyer, Mandela had acquired what it takes to live a flourishing lifestyle at that time, but instead he choose to forgo all that and subjected himself to a humiliating prison life. He accepted to live a solitary life in jail so that he would attract the attention of the world to the sufferings and inhuman conditions of the black people of South Africa.
His Jail Term
As a young man in his early thirties, Mandela saw the discrimination and ill-treatment meted out to blacks by the then apatheid regime as unjust and utterly reprehensible. His resolve to challenge the status quo along with other contemporaries got him locked up in jail. Not only was he jailed with hard labour, but was also kept in a desolate island known as Robben Island. Mandela thus became the longest serving prisoner of conscience, languishing in jail for 27 years. What was remarkable about Mandela’s struggle for freedom for his people was the selfless and painful sacrifices he was ready to make for the interest of the people of South Africa. For instance, his jailers made sure he was denied access to his family and friends for most of the period in jail. On many occasions, the late freedom fighter was subjected to psychological trauma and taunted with an offer to renounce his anti- apartheid struggle in exchange for his release and opportunity of enjoying a life with his family. But he rejected the offers being resolute and determined to win the struggle for the emancipation of his people. Perhaps with the exception of Martin Luther King Junior of the United States of America, no other person living or dead has risen to become the conscience of the world as far as the struggle for racial equality and justice are concerned.
Voluntarily Relinquished Power
Another glaring attribute that endeared Mandela to his admirers all over the world was his exemplary leadership qualities. Even at the moment of victory, after ensuring the end of apartheid and having been elected as the first black President of South Africa, Mandela’s selfless and dogged disposition was indeed a good example in leadership and a lesson to many leaders and those aspiring to leadership. One remarkable feature of the leadership attribute of Mandela was to play out when at the end of his first tenure, which many believed was more about laying a solid foundation for the future growth and development of South Africa as a modern democratic society, Mandela to the surprise of everyone threw in the towel and did not succumb to the lure of second term in office. This uncommon behaviour, to a large extent may have earned the late icon a place of pride in the hearts of people around the world.
An Acomplished Statesman
Mandela was magnimous and bored no grudges. Where many would have pursued revenge and engaged in acts of retribution, he rather choose statesmanship. The post apatheid era was managed in most seamless and non acrimonious way that left no one in doubt about his unique leadership quality. Rather than pursue vengence, he pursued reconciliation even at the expense of loosing popularity among his contemporaries in his party, African National Congress (ANC). But for the large heart and liberal disposition with which President Mandela handled the post apatheid administration, South Africa may have remained a sharply divided entity along racial lines. He remained neutral and only accepted to come out of his shells at moments when his towering personality was needed to promote developmental interests around the world.
Words on Marble
The universal struggle against apartheid was not an act of charity arising out of pity for our people, but an affirmation of our common humanity.
It would have been immoral to keep quiet while a racist tyranny sought to reduce an entire people into a status worse than that of beasts of the forest.
The millions of graves strewn across Europe which are the result of the tyranny of Nazism, the decimation of the native peoples of the Americas and Australia, the destructive trail of the apartheid regime against humanity- all these are like a haunting question that floats in the wind: why did we allow these to happen?
Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud.
Apartheid is the rule of the gun and the hangman
On Imperialism and Colonialism
Imperialism has been weighed and found wanting.
Through force, fraud and violence, the people of North, East, West, Central and Southern Africa were relieved of their political and economic power and forced to pay allegiance to foreign monarchs.
In all we do, we have to ensure the healing of the wounds inflicted on all our people across the great dividing line imposed on our society by centuries of colonialism and apartheid.
To overthrow oppression has been sanctioned by humanity and is the highest aspiration of every free man
What is important is not only to attain victory for democracy, it is to retain democracy.
A democratic political order must be based on the majority principle, especially in a country where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights.
Even tyrants must be allowed to campaign.
Majority rule is not intended to suppress the views, the hopes, the aspirations of the minority.
Democracy and human rights are inseparable.
If you are in harmony with yourself, you may meet a lion without fear, because he respects anyone with self-confidence.
On Compromise and Reconciliation
If you are not prepared to compromise, then you must not enter or think about the process of negotiation at all. Compromise must not undermine your own position.
It is a fact of the human condition that each shall, like a meteor – a mere brief passing moment in time and space – flit across the human stage and pass out of existence.
To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.
We fought injustice to preserve our own humanity…
What challenges us is to ensure that none should enjoy lesser rights; and none tormented because they are born different, hold contrary political views, or pray to God in a different manner.
We have fights as human beings, but you should never forget that we are the creation of one Lord.
The world is one stage and the actions of all inhabitants part of the same drama.
None of us can be described as having virtues or qualities that raise him or her above others.
If a man fights back he is likely to get more respect than he would if he capitulated.
Sitting down and denying the enemy the opportunity to use violence is the best strategy.
I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.
I detest racialism, because I regard it as a barbaric thing, whether it comes from a black man or a white man.
Racism pollutes the atmosphere of human relations and poisons the minds of the backward, the bigoted and the prejudiced.
Our struggle is the struggle to ease the colour line that all too often determines who is rich and who is poor.
As we enter the last decade of the 20th century, it is intolerable and unacceptable that the cancer of racism is still eating away at the fabric of societies in different parts of our planets.
We must ensure that colour, race and gender become only a God-given gift to each one of us and not an indelible mark or attribute that accords a special status to any.
Racism must be consciously combated and not discreetly tolerated.
The very fact that racism degrades both the perpetrator and the victim commands that, if we are true to our commitment to protect human dignity, we fight on until victory is achieved.
On the Struggle
Struggle that does not strengthen organization can lead to a blind alley.
Struggle without discipline can lead to anarchy.
Struggle without unity enables the other side to pick us off one by one.
No organization whose interests are identical with those of the toiling masses will advocate conciliation to win its demands.
A movement without a vision is a movement without moral foundation.
Too many have suffered for the love of freedom
Only free men can negotiate.
No power on earth can stop an oppressed people determined to win their freedom.
There is no such thing as part freedom.
Freedom cannot be given in doses; one is either free or not free – not half free.
Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won.
No South African should rest and wallow in the joy of freedom.
To men, freedom in their own land is the pinnacle of their ambitions, from which nothing can turn men of conviction aside.
We do not want freedom without bread, nor do we want bread without freedom.
Freedom is not only the opportunity to vote, but the gate to the awareness of may problems: hunger, poverty, illness, non-advancement.
To overthrow oppression is the highest aspiration of every free man.
A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred.
To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the lives of others.
Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.
On South Africa and South Africans
Never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.
No society emerging out of the grand disaster of the apartheid system could avoid carrying the blemishes of its past.
If we are able today to speak proudly of a ‘rainbow nation’, it is in part because the world set us a moral example, which we dared to follow.
Had the new South Africa emerged out of nothing, it would not exist.
We do face major challenges, but none are as daunting as those we have already surmounted.
Never and never again shall the laws of our land rend our people apart or legalize their oppression and repression.
I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot.
I am a product of the mire that our society was.
I don’t think there is much history can say about me.
On His Family
When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made…. To be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. But it was a joy I had far too little of.
I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my mother and my sisters, to live as an outlaw in my own land.
To see your family, your children being persecuted when you are absolutely helpless in jail, that is one of the most bitter experiences, most painful experiences, I have had.
I did not in the beginning choose to place my people above my family, but in attempting to serve my people, I found I was prevented from fulfilling my obligations as a son, a brother, a father and a husband.
I part from my wife with no recriminations. I embrace her with all the love and affection I have nursed for her inside and outside prison from the moment I first met her…. She married a man who soon left her; that man became a myth; and then that myth returned home and proved to be just a man after all.
On Leadership and Government
It is a mistake to think that a single individual can unite the country.
Many in positions of power and privilege pursue cold-hearted philosophies, which terrifyingly proclaim: I am not your brother’s keeper!
A leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons, which have become less effective.
A leader who relies on authority to solve problems is bound to come to grief.
It is important to surround yourself with strong and independent personalities, who will tell you when you are getting old.
That the will of the people is the basis of the authority of government is a principle universally acknowledged as sacred throughout the civilized world, and constitutes the basic foundations of freedom and justice.
Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another.
A political movement must keep in touch with reality and the prevailing conditions.
Political power should be the basis for the economic empowerment of people.
We should not allow South African politics to be relegated to trivialities chosen precisely because they salve the consciences of the rich and powerful, and conceal the plight of the poor and powerless.
If you are a politician you must be prepared to suffer for your principles.
The Children who sleep in the streets, reduced to begging to make a living, are testimony to an unfinished job.
There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.
Children are the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of its treasures.
No single individual can assume the role of hero or messiah.
There are men and women chosen to bring happiness into the hearts of people – those are the real heroes.
On his death
It would be very egotistical of me to say how I would like to be remembered. I’d leave that entirely to South Africans. There will be life after Mandela
I would just like a simple stone on which is written, ‘Mandela’.
A COUNTRY CHILDHOOD
I was born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata, the capital of the Transkei. The year of my birth marked the end of the Great War; the outbreak of an influenza epidemic that killed millions throughout the world; and the visit of a delegation of the African National Congress to the Versailles peace conference to voice the grievances of the African people of South Africa. Mvezo, however, was a place apart, a tiny precinct removed from the world of great events, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years.
The Transkei is 800 miles east of Cape Town, 550 miles South of Johannesburg, and lies between the Kei River and the Natal border, between the rugged Drakensberg mountains to the north and the blue waters of the Indian Ocean to the east. It is a beautiful country of rolling hills, fertile valleys, and a thousand rivers and streams, which keep the landscape green even in winter. The Transkei used to be one of the largest territorial divisions within South Africa, covering an area the size of Switzerland, with a population of about three and a half million Xhosas and a tiny minority of Basothos and whites. It is home to the Thembu people, who are part of the Xhosa nation, of which I am a member.
My father, Gadla Henry Mphakabyiswa, was a chief by both blood and custom. He was confirmed as chief of Mvezo by the king of the Thembu tribe but, under British rule, his selection had to be ratified by the government, which in mvezo took the form of the local magistrate. As a government-appointed chief, he was eligible for a stipend as well as a portion of the fees the government levied on community for vaccination of livestock and communal grazing land. Although the role of chief was a veneravle and esteemed one, it had, even seventy-five years ago, become debased by the control of an unsympathetic white government.
The Thembu tribe reaches back for twenty generations to King Zwide. According to tradition, the Thembu people lived in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains and migrated towards the coast in the sixteenth century, where they were incorporated into the Xhosa nation. The Xhosa are a part of the Nguni people who have lived, hunted and fished in the rich and temperate south-eastern region of South Africa, between the great interior plateau to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south, since at least the eleventh century. The Nguni can be divided into a northern group the Zulu and the Swazi people- and the southern group, which is made up of amaBaca, amaBomvana, amaGcaleka, amaMfengu, amaMpodomise, amaMpondo, abeSotho and abeThembu, and together they comprise the Xhosa nation.
The Xhosa are a proud and patrilineal people with an expressive and euphonious language and an abiding belief in the importance of laws, education and courtesy. Xhosa society was a balanced and harmonious social order in which every individual knew his or her place. Each Xhosa belongs to a clan that traces its descent back to a specific forefather. I am a member of the Mandiba clan, named after a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the eighteen century. I am often addressed as Madiba, my clan name, as a sign of respect.
Ngubengcuka, one of the greatest monarchs who united the Thembu tribe, died in 1832. As was the custom, he had wives from the principal houses: the Great House, from which the heir is selected, the Right Hand House, and the Ixhiba,a minor house that is referred to by some as the Left Hhand House. It was the task of the sons of the Ixhiba or Left Hand House to settle royal disputes. Mthikrakra, the eldest son of the Great House, succeeded Ngubengcuka and among his sons were Ngangelizwe and Matanzima. Sabata, who ruled the Thembu from 1954, was the grandson of Ngangelizwe a senior to Kalzer Daliwonga, better known as K.D. Matanzima, the former chief minister of the Transkei – my nephew, by law and custom – who was a descendant of Matanzima. The eldest son of the Ixhiba house was Simakade, whose younger brother was Mandela, my grandfather.
Although over the decades there have been many stories that I was in the line of succession to the Thembu throne, the simple genealogy I have just outlined exposes those tales as a myth. Although I was a member of the royal household, I was not among the privileged few who were trained for rule. Instead, as a descendant of the Ixhiba house, I was groomed, like my father before me, to counsel the rulers of the tribe.
My father was a tall, dark skinned man with a straight and stately posture, which I like to think I inherited. He had a turf of white hair just above his forehead and, as a boy, I would take white ash and rub it into my hair in imitation of him. My father had a stern manner and did not spare the rod when disciplining his children. He could be exceedingly stubborn, another trait that may unfortunately have been passed down from father to son.
My father has sometimes been referred to as the prime minister of Thembuland during the reigns of Dolindyebo, the father of Sabata, who ruled in the early in the early 1900s, and that of his son, Jongintaba, who succeeded him. That is a misnomer in that no such title existed, but the role he played was not so different from what the designation implies. As a respected and valued counsellor of both kings, he accompanied them on their travels and was usually to be found by their sides during important meetings with government officials. He was an acknowledged custodian of Xhosa history, and it was partly for that reason that he was valued as an adviser. My own interest in history had early roots and was encouraged by my father. Although my father could neither read nor write, he was reputed to be an excellent orator who captivated his audiences by entertaining them as well as teaching them.
In later years, I discovered that my father was not only an adviser to kings but a kingmaker. After the untimely death of Jongilizwe in the 1920s, his son Sabata, the infant of the Great Wife, was too young to ascend to the throne. A dispute arose as to which of Dalindyebo’s three most senior sons from the mothers – Jongintaba, Dabulamanzi and Melithafa – should be selected to succeed him. My father was consulted and recommended Jongintaba on the ground that he was the best educated. The recommendation was controversial, for Jongintaba’s mother was from a lesser house, but my father’s choice was ultimately accepted by both the Thembus and the British government. In time, Jongintaba would return this favour in a way that my father could not then imagine.
All told, my father had four wives, the third of whom, my mother, Nosekeni Fanny, the daughter of Nkedama from the AmaMpemvu clan of the Xhosa, belonged to the Right Hand House. Each of these wives – the Great Wife, the Right Hand Wife (my mother), the Left Hand Wife and the wife of the Iqadi or support house – had her own kraal. A kraal was a homestead and usually included a simple fenced-in enclosure for animals, fields for growing crops, and one or more thatched huts. The kraals of my father’s wives were separated by many miles and he commuted among them. In these travels, my father sired thirteen children in all, four boys and nine girls. I am the eldest child of the Right Hand House, and the youngest of my father’s four sons. I have three sisters, Baliwe, who was the oldest girl, Natancu, and Makhutswana. Although the eldest of my father’s sons was Mlahlwa, my father’s heir chief was Daligqili, the son of the Great House, who died in the early 1930s. All of his sons, with the exception of myself, are now deceased, and each was my senior not only in age but in status.
When I was not much more than a newborn child, my father was involved in a dispute that deprived him of his chieftainship at Mvezo and revealed a strain in his character I believe he passed on to his son. I maintain that nurture, rather than nature, is the primary moulder of personality, but my father possessed a proud rebelliousness, a stubborn sense of fairness, that I recognize in myself. As a chief – a headman, as it was often known among whites – my father was compelled to account for his stewardship not only to the Thembu king but to the local magistrate. One day one of my father’s subjects lodged a complaint against him involving an ox that had strayed from its owner. The magistrate accordingly sent a message ordering my father to appear before him. When my father received the summons, he sent back the following reply: ‘Andizi, ndisaqula’ (‘I will not come, I am still girding for battle’). One did not defy magistrates in those days. Such behaviour would be regarded as the height of insolence – and in this case it was.
My ftaher’s response bespoke his belief that the magistrate had no legitimate power over him. When it came to tribal matters, he was guided not by the laws of the king of England, but by Thembu custom. This defiance was not a fit of pique, but a matter of principle. He was asserting his traditional prerogative as a chief and was challenging the authority of the magistrate.
When the magistrate received my father’s response, he promptly charged him with insubordination. There was no inquiry or investigation; that was reserved for white civil servants. The magistrate simply deposed my father, thus ending the Mandela family chieftainship.
I was unaware of these events at the time, but I was not unaffected. My father, who was a wealthy nobleman by the standards of is time, lost both his fortune and his title. He was deprived of most of his herd and land, and the revenue that came with them. Because of our striated circumstances, my mother moved to Qunu, a slightly larger village north of Mvezo, where she would have support of friends and relations. We lived in a less grand style in Qunu, but it was in that village near Umtata that I spent some of the happiest years of my boyhood and whence I trace my earliest memories.
The village of qunu was situated in a narrow, grassy valley crisscrossed by clear streams, and overlooked by green hills. It consisted of no more than a few hundred people who lived in huts, known as rondavels, which were beehive-shaped structures of mud walls, with a wooden pole in the center holding up a peaked, grass roof. The floor was made of crushed ant-heap, the hard dome of excavated earth above an ant colony, and was kept smooth by smearing it regularly with fresh cow dung. The smoke from the hearth escaped through the roof, and the only opening was a low doorway one had to stoop to walk through.
The rondavels were generally grouped together in a residential area that was some distance away from the maize fields. There were no roads, only paths through the grass worn away by barefooted boys and women. The women and children of the village wore blankets dyed in ocher; only the few Christians in the village wore Western-style clothing. Cattle, sheep, goats, and horses grazed together in common pastures. The land around Qunu was mostly treeless except for a cluster of poplars on a hill overlooking the village. The land itself was owned by the state. With very few exceptions, Africans at the time did not enjoy private title to land in South Africa but were tenants paying rent annually to the government. In the area, there were two small primary schools, a general store, and a dipping tank to rid the cattle of ticks and diseases.
Maize (what we called mealies and people in the West call corn), sorghum, beans, and pumpkins formed the largest portion of our diet, not because of any inherent preference for these foods, but because the people could not afford anything richer. The wealthier families in our village supplemented their diets with tea, coffee, and sugar, but for most people in Qunu these were exotic luxuries far beyond their means. The water used for farming, cooking, and washing had to be fetched in buckets from streams and springs. This was woman’s work, and indeed, Qunu was a village of women and children: most of the men spent the greater part of the year working on remote farms or in the mines along the Reef, the great ridge of gold-bearing rock and shale that forms the southern boundary of Johannesburg. They returned perhaps twice a year, mainly to plow their fields. The hoeing, weeding, and harvesting were left to the women and children. Few if any of the people in the village knew how to read or write, and the concept of education was still a foreign one to many.
My mother presided over three rondavels at Qunu which, as I remember, were always filled with the babies and children of my relations. In fact, I hardly recall any occasion as a child when I was alone. In African culture, the sons and daughters of one’s aunts or uncles are considered brothers and sisters, not cousins. We do not make the same distinctions among relations practiced by Europeans. We have no half brothers or half sisters. My mother’s sister is my mother; my uncle’s son is my brother; my brother’s child is my son, my daughter.
Of my mother’s three huts, one was used for cooking, one for sleeping, and one for storage. In the hut in which we slept, there was no furniture in the Western sense. We slept on mats and sat on the ground. I did not discover pillows until I went away to school. The stove on which my mother cooked was a three-legged iron pot that rested on a grate over a hole in the ground. Everything we ate we grew and made ourselves. My mother planted and harvested her own mealies. After harvesting the mealies, the women ground the kernels between two stones. A portion of this was made into bread, while the rest was dried and stored in pots. Unlike mealies, which were sometimes in short supply, milk from our cows and goats was always plentiful.
From an early age, I spent most of my free time in the field playing and fighting with the other boys of the village. A boy who remained at home tied to his mother’s apron strings was regarded as a sissy. At night, I shared my food and blanket with these same boys. I was no more than five when I became a herd-boy, looking after sheep and calves in the fields. I discovered the almost mystical attachment that the Xhosa have for cattle, not only as a source of food and wealth, but as a blessing from God and a source of happiness. It was in the fields that I learned how to knock birds out of the sky with a slingshot, to gather wild honey and fruits and edible roots, to drink warm, sweet milk straight from the udder of a cow, to swim in the clear, cold streams, and to catch fish with twine and sharpened bits of wire. I learned to stick-fight–essential knowledge to any rural African boy–and became adept at its various techniques, parrying blows, feinting in one direction and striking in another, breaking away from an opponent with quick footwork. From these days I date my love of the veld, of open spaces, the simple beauties of nature, the clean line of the horizon.
As boys, we were mostly left to our own devices. We played with toys we made ourselves. We molded animals and birds out of clay. We made ox-drawn sleighs out of tree branches. Nature was our playground. The hills above Qunu were dotted with large smooth rocks which we transformed into our own roller coaster. We sat on flat stones and slid down the face of the large rocks. We did this until our backsides were so sore we could hardly sit down. I learned to ride by sitting atop weaned calves–after being thrown to the ground several times, one got the hang of it.
I learned my lesson one day from an unruly donkey. We had been taking turns climbing up and down its back and when my chance came I jumped on and the donkey bolted into a nearby thornbush. It bent its head, trying to unseat me, which it did, but not before the thorns had pricked and scratched my face, embarrassing me in front of my friends. Like the people of the East, Africans have a highly developed sense of dignity, or what the Chinese call “face”. I had lost face among my friends. Even though it was a donkey that unseated me, I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonoring them.
Usually the boys played among themselves, but we sometimes allowed our sisters to join us. Boys and girls would play games like ndize (hide-and-seek) and icekwa (touch-and-run). But the game I most enjoyed playing with the girls was what we called khetha, or choose-the-one-you-like. This was not so much an organised game, but a spur-of-the-moment sport that took place when we accosted a group of girls our own age and demanded that each select the boy she loved. Our rules dictated that the girl’s choice be respected and once she had chosen her favorite, she was free to continue on her journey escorted by the lucky boy she loved. But the girls were nimble-witted–far cleverer than we doltish lads–and would often confer among themselves and choose one boy, usually the plainest fellow, and then tease him all the way home.
The most popular game for boys was thinti, and like most boys’ games it was a youthful approximation of war. Two sticks, used as targets, would be driven firmly into the ground in an upright position about one hundred feet apart. The goal of the game was for each team to hurl sticks at the opposing target and knock it down. We each defended our own target and attempted to prevent the other side from retrieving the sticks that had been thrown over. As we grew older, we organized matches against boys from neighboring villages, and those who distinguished themselves in these fraternal battles were greatly admired, as generals who achieve great victories in war are justly celebrated.
After games such as these, I would return to my mother’s kraal where she was preparing supper. Whereas my father once told stories of historic battles and heroic Xhosa warriors, my mother would enchant us with Xhosa legends and fables that had come down from numberless generations. These tales stimulated my childish imagination, and usually contained some moral lesson. I recall one story my mother told us about a traveler who was approached by an old woman with terrible cataracts on her eyes. The woman asked the traveler for help, and the man averted his eyes. Then another man came along and was approached by the old woman. She asked him to clean her eyes, and even though he found the task unpleasant, he did as she asked. Then, miraculously, the scales fell from the old woman’s eyes and she became young and beautiful. The man married her and became wealthy and prosperous. It is a simple tale, but its message is an enduring one that virtue and generosity will be rewarded in ways that one cannot know.
Like all Xhosa children, I acquired knowledge mainly through observation. We were meant to learn through imitation and emulation, not through questions. When I first visited the homes of whites, I was often dumbfounded by the number and nature of questions that children asked of their parents–and their parents’ unfailing willingness to answer them. In my household, questions were considered a nuisance; adults imparted information as they considered necessary.
My life, and that of most Xhosas at the time, was shaped by custom, ritual, and taboo. This was the alpha and omega of our existence, and went unquestioned. Men followed the path laid out for them by their fathers; women led the same lives as their mothers had before them. Without being told, I soon assimilated the elaborate rules that governed the relations between men and women. I discovered that a man may not enter a house where a woman has recently given birth, and that a newly married woman may not enter the kraal of her new home without her husband’s permission. I also learned that to neglect one’s ancestors would bring ill-fortune and failure in life. If you dishonored your ancestors in some fashion, the only way to atone for that lapse was to consult with a traditional healer or tribal elder, who communicated with the ancestors and conveyed profound apologies. All of these beliefs seemed perfectly natural to me.
I came across few whites as a boy at Qunu. The local magistrate, of course, was white, as was the nearest shopkeeper. Occasionally white travelers or policemen passed through our area. These whites appeared as grand as gods to me, and I was aware that they were to be treated with a mixture of fear and respect. But their role in my life was a distant one, and I thought little if at all about the white man in general or relations between my own people and these curious and remote figures.
The only rivalry between different clans or tribes in our small world at Qunu was that between the Xhosas and the Mfengu, a small number of whom lived in our village. The Mfengu arrived on the eastern Cape after fleeing from Shaka Zulu’s armies in a period known as the Mfecane, the great wave of battles and migrations between 1820 and 1840 set in motion by the rise of Shaka and the Zulu state, during which the Zulu warrior sought to conquer and then unite all the tribes under military rule. The Mfengu, who were not originally Xhosa-speakers, were refugees from the Mfecane and were forced to do jobs that no other African would do. They worked on white farms and in white businesses, something that was looked down upon by the more established Xhosa tribes. But the Mfengu were an industrious people, and because of their contact with Europeans, they were often more educated and “Western” than other Africans.
When I was a boy, the Mfengu were the most advanced section of the community and furnished our clergymen, policemen, teachers, clerks, and interpreters. They were also amongst the first to become Christians, to build better houses, and to use scientific methods of agriculture, and they were wealthier than their Xhosa compatriots. They confirmed the missionaries’ axiom, that to be Christian was to be civilized, and to be civilized was to be Christian. There still existed some hostility toward the Mfengu, but in retrospect, I would attribute this more to jealousy than tribal animosity. This local form of tribalism that I observed as a boy was relatively harmless. At that stage, I did not witness nor even suspect the violent tribal rivalries that would subsequently be promoted by the white rulers of South Africa.
My father did not subscribe to local prejudice toward the Mfengu and befriended two Mfengu brothers, George and Ben Mbekela. The brothers were an exception in Qunu: they were educated and Christian. George, the older of the two, was a retired teacher and Ben was a police sergeant. Despite the proselytizing of the Mbekela brothers, my father remained aloof from Christianity and instead reserved his own faith for the great spirit of the Xhosas, Qamata, the God of his fathers. My father was an unofficial priest and presided over ritual slaughtering of goats and calves and officiated at local traditional rites concerning planting, harvest, birth, marriage, initiation ceremonies, and funerals. He did not need to be ordained, for the traditional religion of the Xhosas is characterized by a cosmic wholeness, so that there is little distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the natural and the supernatural.
While the faith of the Mbekela brothers did not rub off on my father, it did inspire my mother, who became a Christian. In fact, Fanny was literally her Christian name, for she had been given it in church. It was due to the influence of the Mbekela brothers that I myself was baptized into the Methodist, or Wesleyan Church as it was then known, and sent to school. The brothers would often see me playing or minding sheep and come over to talk to me. One day, George Mbekela paid a visit to my mother. “Your son is a clever young fellow,” he said. “He should go to school.” My mother remained silent. No one in my family had ever attended school and my mother was unprepared for Mbekela’s suggestion. But she did relay it to my father, who despite–or perhaps because of–his own lack of education immediately decided that his youngest son should go to school.
The schoolhouse consisted of a single room, with a Western-style roof, on the other side of the hill from Qunu. I was seven years old, and on the day before I was to begin, my father took me aside and told me that I must be dressed properly for school. Until that time, I, like all the other boys in Qunu, had worn only a blanket, which was wrapped around one shoulder and pinned at the waist. My father took a pair of his trousers and cut them at the knee. He told me to put them on, which I did, and they were roughly the correct length, although the waist was far too large. My father then took a piece of string and cinched the trousers at the waist. I must have been a comical sight, but I have never owned a suit I was prouder to wear than my father’s cut-off pants.
On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education. The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. There was no such thing as African culture.
Africans of my generation–and even today–generally have both an English and an African name. Whites were either unable or unwilling to pronounce an African name, and considered it uncivilized to have one. That day, Miss Mdingane told me that my new name was Nelson. Why she bestowed this particular name upon me I have no idea. Perhaps it had something to do with the great British sea captain Lord Nelson, but that would be only a guess.
• Culled from his book The Long Walk to Freedom