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Nelson Mandela was the most respected, and probably the most loved of all world leaders in the late 20th century, and the most enduring of the heroes who emerged from the political convulsions of the 1980s. He personified the peaceful and rapid transition of power in South Africa that many had thought impossible, while his commitment to reconciliation was underlined by his own experience of personal sacrifice and forgiveness.

For 27 years in jail he refused to compromise his principles, while for most of that time his own party, the African National Congress (ANC), was broken. But he emerged in February 1990 to become the dominant influence in his country, without whom peace was unlikely.

The roots of Mandela’s strength went back to his upbringing in the rural Transkei, the homeland of the Xhosas in the Eastern Cape province. He was related to the paramount chief of the Thembu people, to whom his father was chief councillor, and he was brought up with a strong sense of responsibility and tribal pride. “The elders would tell tales,” as he later described it, “about the wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland.”

His first influences were very local and tribal. His father died when he was nine, and he went to live at the paramount chief’s Great Place, where he would watch the chief dispensing justice which gave him an early interest in the law. But he soon absorbed a very English missionary education, at the local Methodist high school, and later at the black university college of Fort Hare, where he met many future black leaders including his closest friend, Oliver Tambo.

Mandela was dashing, ambitious, keen on ballroom dancing and boxing. But he was in a rebellious mood, both against the college which suspended him and others for political agitation and against the paramount chief who was planning his marriage and future chieftainship.

At 22 he sold two oxen to pay for a journey to Johannesburg, where he began a far more turbulent career. There, he became friends with a much more experienced black activist, Walter Sisulu, and his mother, with whom he stayed in the township of Orlando West. Sisulu became his indispensable political mentor, and introduced him to his cousin, Evelyn, whom he married.

When Mandela wanted to study law, Sisulu arranged for him to be articled to a white attorney, Lazar Sidelsky, who befriended him. Mandela studied law part time at the University of the Witwatersrand; but he was soon drawn into militant politics through the ANC, the veteran black organisation that was now in the process of revival. He was inspired by a fiery young Zulu intellectual, Anton Lembede, who, together with Sisulu, Tambo and Mandela, set up a Congress Youth League in 1944 to press the ANC towards effective protest.

The Youth Leaguers were initially exclusively African nationalist and fiercely anti Communist; but they soon widened their outlook, particularly after the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948 and enforced their apartheid policy.

Mandela and his friends found common cause with Indian and Coloured leaders and began to look to communists as invaluable allies. Mandela never joined the Communist Party, but he respected his communist colleagues in the ANC. As he put it in 1964: “For many decades the communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us, and work with us.”

Mandela continued his legal career, setting up a partnership with Tambo near the centre of Johannesburg, which helped black clients with their political and other legal difficulties.

But both partners were now wholly committed to the struggle against apartheid, and Mandela became more deeply implicated when the ANC launched its first passive resistance in the Defiance Campaign in 1952, for which he mobilised volunteers.

Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo were now seen as the “kingmakers” behind the more conservative leaders of the ANC. Mandela was the most imposing and charismatic of them, with his military bearing and chiefly confidence. He was tall, physically very strong, with a natural sense of command. But he was politically less shrewd and knowledgeable than either Sisulu or Tambo.

The Defiance Campaign was soon suppressed by fierce legislation, and subsequent protests against apartheid were met by mass arrests. In 1956, the police arrested 156 leaders of the ANC and its allies, including Mandela, and charged them with treason, in a trial that periodically immobilised them for four years.

But Mandela was growing in stature and his morale was strengthened by his second marriage in 1958 to Winnie Madikizela, a vivacious and attractive social worker who soon developed her own fiery political awareness, and would before long become a controversial politician in her own right.

Mandela faced a much greater challenge in early 1960, when the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) set a faster pace for resistance, and peaceful protests against passbooks were met with violent reprisals,
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culminating in the Sharpeville Massacre. When the ANC and the PAC continued to demonstrate and burn passes, they were both banned. Mandela was forced to go underground, travelling in disguise through the country as the “black Pimpernel”.

Mandela was now the effective leader of the banned ANC inside South Africa, while Tambo led it in exile. Mandela threw all his energies into an ambitious stay at home strike planned for May 1961, when South Africa would become a republic. But the police massed in the townships with armoured cars, and the protest though remarkably successful was depicted by the press as a flop. Mandela was convinced that, as he said on British television: “We are closing a chapter on this question of non violent protest”.

South African president Nelson Mandela speaks at a conference in the early 1960s (AFP)

Mandela and his radical colleagues now persuaded the ANC leadership, with some difficulty, to form a separate military wing, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), to embark on the “armed struggle” beginning with sabotage. Mandela became commander in chief; and MK set up a secret base on a farm at Rivonia outside of Johannesburg.

It was a much more dangerous policy than passive resistance and strikes, and conceived with inadequate planning, and bound to alienate many allies. But their sabotage was carefully limited to destroying power plants and communications that, Mandela hoped, would discourage overseas investment; and linked to appeals to world opinion to impose economic sanctions on Pretoria to compel it to abandon apartheid.

Soon after the first explosions, Mandela was smuggled out of the country to make his first journey abroad, appealing for world support. After addressing a conference in Ethiopia he travelled through North and West Africa and visited London, where he made influential friends including Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour opposition leader, and David Astor, the editor of The Observer. He returned to South Africa, back in disguise, and rashly visited political colleagues until in August 1962 his car was stopped by the police in Natal and he was arrested after 17 months in hiding. He was charged with incitement to strike and with illegally leaving the country. He conducted his own eloquent defence, insisting that this was “a trial of the aspirations of the African people”. He was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment with hard labour.

But while he was serving his sentence the police raided the farm in Rivonia, capturing other conspirators and uncovering documents revealing the plans for future sabotage. Mandela became one of the accused in the much bigger “Rivonia trial” with colleagues, including Sisulu, charged with organising sabotage and violent revolution, and furthering the aims of communism.

At the end of the massive trial, Mandela made his most historic speech, a four hour exposition of his political philosophy and development, and his ideal of democracy, concluding with the words: “It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” The accused were found guilty and narrowly avoided a death sentence, but were sentenced to life imprisonment, and were sent to Robben Island.

Most white South Africans assumed that Mandela and the ANC would never again play a role in politics, and for the next decade the black opposition inside South Africa was virtually obliterated. But on Robben Island Mandela, Sisulu and the others maintained their optimism. They were encouraged in the late 1960s by the news of ANC guerrilla fighters entering South Africa from the north. But it was not until 1976 that they saw a revival of political militancy, when a younger generation rebelled against their schooling in Soweto. The revolt was suppressed with more ruthless detention, interrogation and torture by the police. But the influx of young, new political prisoners gave Mandela new cause for hope. He was not a religious man; but he had a strong sense of human and family values, and a conviction that his cause would eventually win. He also used his prison experience to sharpen his mind by constant argument and later by studying for a law degree, which he took from jail.

By 1984, Mandela could at last see signs of more concerted world action against apartheid, as a new mass revolt was spreading inside South Africa, accompanied by massive international protest and the beginnings of effective sanctions, which were beginning to achieve what Mandela had anticipated a quarter century before. But he was surprised to find the most effective boycott coming from American bankers, who had helped to finance Pretoria’s military state in the past, and were now abruptly withdrawing their loans and investments.

The first hopes of concessions from Pretoria were soon dashed, as the government imposed its severest state of emergency, detaining 20,000 people without trial. But the government was becoming painfully aware that its acceptance by the outside world would depend on Mandela’s release; and some ministers believed that Mandela was more dangerous inside jail than at large.

In 1989, the State President, Pieter Willem Botha, had a talk with Mandela to explore a new formula for his release, and soon afterwards his successor Frederik Willem de Klerk quickly recognised that he must give way to world opinion and internal resistance and moved towards a more conciliatory agenda. In February 1990, De Klerk unbanned the ANC, and shortly afterwards released Mandela himself, after 27 years in jail.

It was a sensational emergence. Many observers had expected Mandela to appear as a weakened old man who would be out of touch with the modern world and the militant younger blacks. But from the beginning he was politically shrewd, loyal to the ANC and mastering new communications, including television which had not existed in South Africa when he began his sentence.

Nelson Mandela addresses at a funeral of 12 people died during the township unrests in Soweto, 20 September 1990 (AFP)
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