Julian Omidi discusses the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.
With Nelson Mandela’s passing, we are reminded of how, only a few decades ago, one of the greatest political and human injustices was being perpetrated by a republic, and it was one man’s dedication to the rights of his fellow countrymen and women to freedom and human dignity that helped to dismantle it.
Apartheid was instituted by the Afrikaner majority in South Africa after World War II as a means of legitimizing the curtailment of the legal rights of black South Africans. Black South Africans were relocated into townships and had their racial classifications specified on their identity cards; were prevented from using municipal facilities (including hospitals) that were designated “whites only;” could only attend schools specifically for black students and had been stripped of the right to vote. Blacks were frequently forcibly relocated to different townships through government resettlement programs so that whites-only suburbs could be built in their places. Blacks could not work or live in white areas unless they were issued a pass.
Nelson Mandela was actually born Rolihlahla Mandela and later given the clan name Madiba. He was assigned the name “Nelson” by one of his school teachers on his first day; it was common for young Africans to be given an English name once they entered school. His father was a chief of the Thebu nation, and Mandela’s family was a morganatic branch of the royal family of the Eastern Cape Province. Mandela’s royal upbringing is what is believed to have given him his regality and confidence.
Throughout his youth and particularly during his stint at university, Mandela, despite his initial elitism, began to forge relationships with a wide and diverse array of people. However, he became radicalized after the institution of Apartheid, and helped to organize boycotts and strikes in protest of the new regime. His arrest and subsequent conviction in 1964 for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government spurred global protests, and Mandela became during his 27 year imprisonment – largely without his even knowing – a symbol for freedom and democracy.
The conditions of the prisons in which Mandela served were deplorable – there wasn’t even functioning plumbing. Nevertheless, his dignity and resolve made him one of the most respected men in the prison system. At one point, he introduced his prison guard by name to one of his attorneys, referring to them as “my guard of honor.” While serving, he sharpened his leadership and diplomacy skills by acting as mentor to younger political prisoners and participating in debates on innumerable subjects. His lack of any apparent bitterness astounded the guards; he even invited one of them to attend the ceremony after he had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
As president – his election in 2004 was a monumental event in world history – he worked to unite South Africa, and his leadership is credited with staving off civil war in a fractured country. The fact that Nelson Mandela’s views evolved from a largely black nationalist perspective to a multiracial philosophy separated him from his more radical comrades, including his own wife.
Nelson Mandela was, unquestionably, one of the most important figures in the 20th century – one whose legacy should be regarded with the same reverence as that of the greatest humanitarian leaders the world has ever produced.
 Keller, Bill: Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95 New York Times 12/5/2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/06/world/africa/nelson-mandela_obit.html?ref=africa&pagewanted=print