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South Africa is blessed with a few iconic figures who dedicated themselves to the liberation of our country from iniquitous extractive colonial greed and the evil of apartheid. Nelson Rolihlahla

Mandela towers over all of them physically and symbolically as the mid-wife of the long-drawn negotiation process that ushered in democracy in 1994.

But who was this man? What marked him for this iconic role in South Africa and the world? What impulses drove him from being a successful lawyer to becoming a radical freedom fighter? What set him apart from his comrades in jail that enabled him to see beyond the stalemate between an ineffectual armed struggle, an effective mass democratic movement that made the country ungovernable, and a brutal regime determined to defend white privilege to the bitter end? What guided him to navigate tensions within his party, the ANC, and his own more inclusive politics and passion for social justice? What would he have to say about the tragic state of his country in the grip of greedy ANC leaders who have captured the state for personal gain?

Mandela the Man

Rolihlahla Mandela is a man who overcame humiliating childhood poverty, including the imposition of a ‘Christian name’ – Nelson - on the first day of school by a white missionary female teacher, to become a historic figure of note. He tells the story of his imposed name with a wicked smile on his face. After introducing himself as Rolihlahla Mandela, the teacher simply informed him that from that day onwards he would be known as Nelson. Yes, he kept his name throughout his life. He could have changed it but kept it as part of his Long Walk to Freedom.

Mandela had to make difficult decisions in his life. Born into a family designated as senior advisors to the head of the Bathembu tribe, he knew that he would have to live out the expectations of succeeding his late father in the role of senior royal advisor. He escaped to the City of Gold to pursue a different career that led to becoming a lawyer. He could see much further than his contemporaries in many ways throughout his life.

Mandela loved making fun of himself. In encouraging young people to be persistent even in the face of failure, he tells them of the many times he failed at university level studies at Witwatersrand University. He would say: “After working hard to succeed, I failed. I studied again and failed.” Despite repeated failures, he never gave up. He was only able to complete his legal studies through distance learning at the University of South Africa from Robben Island.

Mandela was a strong family man. He was however a product of his time with respect to male dominance. His first marriage failed due to the couple growing apart as Mandela became more and more politically engaged, whilst his wife became deeply religious. Mandela’s second marriage was a love affair captured ably in the Long Walk to Freedom film. The exquisitely beautiful Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela-Mandela suffered enormously as a young wife separated by imprisonment from her husband. She was punished by repeated detentions without trial and torture simply because she was his wife.

Many were the losses that Mandela suffered. The loss of his father when he was only a boy. The death of his eldest son, Thembekile, in a car accident on his way back from visiting his father in jail in Robben Island Prison. Prison officials refused to allow him to bury his son. He could only sob alone in his cell. He also was not allowed to bury his mother who died in her old age. Mandela knows the depth of pain of loss without anyone to turn to for support. This made him a deeply compassionate man and leader.

Despite his wife’s widely publicised indiscretions and questionable political decisions, and infamous statements about her support for the gruesome ‘necklace murders’ of suspected informers and betrayers of the struggle for freedom, Mandela remained loyal and determined to support her and to reconcile with her. After his release in 1990, the indiscretions continued and led to public humiliation that forced him to divorce her. Graca Machel not only became his third wife, but a healer of his loneliness and a companion in his old age and failing health at the end of his life.

Mandela’s Metamorphosis Over 27 years of Imprisonment

The Nelson Mandela who went to prison was very different from the Nelson Mandela who emerged triumphantly on 2/2/1990. What distinguishes him from his comrades who shared much of the same experiences?

Robben Island was a crucible that either burned the passion for freedom of many who endured humiliation and hardship at the hands of a brutal regime, or it made one more resilient. Crude racist warders who had been indoctrinated into believing in black inferiority saw their job as breaking the spirits of political prisoners in order to protect white privilege.

Nelson Mandela spoke of the hardships they endured. He suffered from being forced to work barefoot in icy waters around Robben Island. He had swollen ankles from damaged ankles to his last day. His eyes were damaged by limestone dust from day long crushing of stones for no obvious purpose other than ensuring backbreaking hard labour for the prisoners. Yet, he emerged like iron that had been subjected to high furnace temperatures and had become steel. He became more reflective, confident, and open to other people’s views than his former self.

Unlike his comrades who regarded the leaders of the Black Consciousnesses Movement (BCM) who were imprisoned in October 1977 as misguided arrogant young people, Mandela took an interest in what made these young people tick. He noted their defiance and refusal to be treated with disrespect by the warders. Unlike other prisoners, this cohort of BCM leaders insisted on being treated with dignity. They also refused to be classified as Bantu, Indian and Coloured. They brought with them the insistence on being black and proud.

Mandela took every opportunity to get to speak to them and to understand their philosophical orientation. He used to dramatically describe how these BCM new arrivals came across: “Man these chaps were quite amazing. They stood their ground and forced the warders to treat them with respect.” Sath Cooper, the leading person in this cohort recalls how they spent their first Xmas together with Madiba, Mandela’s clan name. Their Xmas present was being allowed to mingle and have light friendly chats from 8 a.m. to just before 4 p.m.

The discussions between Madiba and the BCM leaders were intense. They disagreed on the BCM’s strategy focus on black self-liberation as a first step to shed imposed inferiority complexes, and on black solidarity as essential to end the divide & conquer approach of the oppressors. This solidarity unleashed black power that challenged the racist exploitative regime.

The ANC defended its approach of ‘multi-racialism’ and a broad-church ideology. Internally the ANC focussed on protests against exclusion rather than questioning the very foundations of white monopoly over power and resources of the country. The arms struggle was waged externally by exiles. Mandela was not threatened by the BCM, unlike his comrades who saw it as a competitor to the ANC.

Mandela’s reflections and his sensing of possibilities of doing things differently, led him to reject attempts by the Apartheid regime to offer him freedom in exchange for agreeing to return to his rural home area in the Transkei district of the Eastern Cape. He instead was determined to challenge his jailers by learning from their own history under British colonial rule, that negotiation is the only viable pathway to settle intractable conflicts.

Mandela the Negotiator

The extraordinary courage and strategic focus of Mandela on breaking the stalemate between the Apartheid regime and the majority population, propelled him to extreme efforts that compromised his health. Having failed to convince his comrades to accept negotiations as the only way out of the impasse, he resolved to pursue negotiations with his jailers ‘Nicodemously’. He would be a normal prisoner during the day but secretly be taken out at night to talk to apartheid regime representatives. He also requested to be put in an isolation cell to allow him time for reflection, reading and planning his negotiations with his jailers. He ultimately fell ill with Tuberculosis and was admitted to a Cape Town hospital for a few weeks.

The long-drawn negotiations began to bear fruit in 1987/88 when the senior ANC political prisoners were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, and greater access was given to all of them to have visitors, some of the oldest and frail leaders were released. Madiba the strategist refused to be released until all others were free. He spent the rest of his imprisonment at a prison farm in Paarl living in a comfortable farmhouse with a warder assigned as his butler.

Madiba arranged for me to visit him every second Saturday from October 1989 to his release in February 1990. We became very close like father and daughter. On some occasions my sons, then 11 and 6 years old, would join me at his invitation. It was amazing to watch how he treated each as an individual person. He was interested in their likes and dislikes and spent a good hour talking to them about tennis and other topics they showed interest in.

Our discussions were mainly about the latest developments in our country that were of interest to him as he prepared for his release. He was particularly anxious about how to close the knowledge gap between them as people who were returning to a country they no longer knew. Political prisoners like him had been absent for more than 26 years. Some exiles like Thabo Mbeki left as teenagers. News and other reports could not substitute for distance from one’s country.

He strategically decided that a panel of expert advisors would be critical to balance the highly well-prepared Apartheid regime negotiators whom he had to deal with from a very thin knowledge base. He asked me to help him constitute such a panel from my networks of committed civil society organisations and academic experts in various critical fields such as: Economics, finance, education, health, land and agriculture, urban planning and rural development.

Mandela the Strategist and President

It has become fashionable to blame Mandela for the lopsided settlement deal that finally emerged after countless stalemates. The assassination of Chris Hani, the Communist Party leader, during the Easter of 1993, precipitated a national crisis that was averted only by Mandela assuming the leadership of the country by agreement with the then frightened Apartheid President FW De Klerk.

Mandela addressed the nation on SABC TV. He loomed large and authoritative as he called for dignified peaceful mourning and rededication of the nation to finding a political settlement to usher in the freedom Chris Hani sacrificed his life for. Mandela turned this tragedy into a lever for finalising the negotiations, agreeing to a settlement that led to the 1994 first democratic elections.

The lopsidedness of the 1993 settlement, was largely due to the ANC-led negotiation Team being outclassed by the Apartheid negotiators. The ANC leaders under Thabo Mbeki, who had been close to ailing Oliver Tambo in exile, had rejected the idea of an expert panel of internal professionals. He argued for reliance on “our own people” - ANC loyalists and their exile supporters. Just as Mandela had predicted, the ANC negotiators pitched their focus on political freedom and neglected the essential socio-economic transformation imperative to dismantle the apartheid’s extractive, racist, sexist ecologically unsound system.

The extent of the tragic missed opportunities of the focus on a political settlement is now abundantly clear for all to see. Attempts by concerned people from the private sector suggesting that we take a leaf from the German Unification process that built-in a solidarity tax to be levied from West Germans for almost two decades, were rejected outright. The Germans created a pool of funds that was invested in East Germany to promote equity.

Even though the Preamble of our Constitution enjoins us to heal the divisions of the past, build a society that is just, and free the potential of all citizens, there were neither tools nor resources built into the political settlement to achieve that. As the French philosopher Raymond Claude Ferdinand Aron noted: Too great a degree of inequality makes human community impossible.

Post-1994 ANC policies have failed dismally to dismantle the structural inequalities and iniquities inherited from almost 500 years of colonial conquest. The social engineering embedded in the extractive development model aimed at creating and sustaining white privilege at the expense of indigenous African people remains in place. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is a palliative policy that has sanctified white privilege by including a few black faces of super wealthy politically connected individuals. BEE also opened the way to State Capture on a massive scale by the ANC and their supporters emulating the very same extractive colonial and apartheid socio-economic model we fought against.


Mandela went to join his ancestors a sad man. He could see the devastation of continuing poverty and inequalities but had no power to persuade his successor, President Mbeki, to change course on many fronts: HIV/AIDS, Education and Social Welfare and the implementation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s redress recommendations.

Mandela's final words to the people of South Africa, especially the youth were: IT’S NOW IN YOUR HANDS! The good news is that young leaders in South Africa are raising their hands to pick up the challenge of completing the unfinished business of building a constitutional democratic, just and prosperous South Africa.

Mamphela Ramphele

Mandela Lecture

Penn State University




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