Champion of Peace: Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela: A Convert to Peace

Ever heard of a “troublemaker” transforming the landscape of a country, showing the way to the entire world?

Well, that is the story of Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa. Working for equal rights of black people, he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with F.W. de Klerk, the president of South Africa before him.

Nelson Mandela was in a family of 13 children in a small village called Mvezo by the banks of Mbashe River in South Africa, in 1918. South African nations have many native tribes and Mandela belonged to the Xhosa tribe. His birth name was Rolihlahla which means ‘troublemaker’ in the local language!

When he was nine years old, his father passed away and he was adopted by the South African king of Thembuland where he lived. Nelson was a name given to him by one of his teachers at his English school. The king made sure was educated well, and he went on to pursue law at Fort Hare University. He left University after he protested for the rights of the student union.

When he returned home, he saw that the regent had arranged his wedding. In an act of rebellion, he sold two oxen to purchase a ticket to Johannesburg! 

During this time, South Africa was ruled by a Government that promoted Apartheid, a system of racial discrimination against non-white people.  

While Mandela was in Johannesburg, he witnessed and experienced the horrific effects of apartheid. Mandela wanted to fight against this system and in 1944, he joined the African National Congress or ANC. Their demand was for same human rights for blacks as for whites. Mandela and his friend from the University, Oliver Tambo, opened the first black law firm in South Africa. Mandela was very actively involved in the ANC especially in motivating young people to fight for their rights.

In 1960, ANC was banned. Mandela became the leader of a secret army and he was on the wanted list of the Government. This army used violence and militant force to fight the system. He went into hiding.

In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested for trying to overthrow the Government and was given life sentence. He spent the next 28 years in South Africa’s most dreaded prisons, including Robben Island. Even in prison, he did not stop his work. He wrote extensively to his supporters and people fighting for justice. His time in Robben Island made him realize the importance of peaceful protests. He was a changed man. Like Gandhi, he believed in the power of non-cooperation as a mode of effective protest to bring about change.

He was always respectful and polite, even to his opponents. When he was in Pollsmoor prison, a warden was in charge of showing movies to the prisoners every Monday. Once, the warden mentioned to Mandela that he never got a fresh cup of coffee. The next Monday, Mandela brought over a fresh cup of coffee and two biscuits for the warden, from his prison cell. The warden broke down on seeing such compassion.

As global protests and struggles against apartheid increased, the Government realized that they could no longer keep the blacks under their rule through repression. The white regime changed its policies. Discriminatory laws were repealed. Ban on political parties and restrictions on the media were lifted. Other countries started speaking up and people all over the world screamed “Free Nelson Mandela”.

After 28 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela walked out of the jail as a free man on February 11, 1990.

At the stroke of midnight on April 26, 1994, the new national flag of the Republic of South Africa was unfurled marking the newly born democracy in the world. In the same year, elections took place and black people were able to vote for the first time. The ANC won the elections and in May 1994, Nelson Mandela become the first black president of South Africa.  

The apartheid government came to an end, paving way for the formation of a multi-racial government.

How did this come about? Forgiveness was part of Mandela’s mantra. After the emergence of the new democratic South Africa, he and other black leaders appealed to fellow blacks to forgive the whites for the atrocities they had committed while in power.

Even as the president, Mandela was known to be a simple yet elegant man. While he preferred his suits to be well tailored, he never lost sight of the simple things in life. Mandela, for instance, always made his own bed. When on tour in Shanghai, he was insistent that he make his own hotel bed. His associates informed him that in Chinese culture, it was considered rude for the guest to do so. Mandela immediately called the housekeeping staff at the hotel and explained to them the situation, so that they didn’t feel insulted. “He never cared about what great people thought of him, but he did care about what small people thought of him,” said his personal assistant, Jessie Duarte.

The South African constitution inspires democrats all over the world. What made this change possible was the determination of the people of South Africa to work together, to transform bitter experiences into the binding glue of a rainbow nation.


For further reading

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.

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