Columns / Discourse / Featured / December 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela: The passing of a moral giant

Nelson Mandela during an April 2000 visit to the London School of Economics, where he gave a lecture on "Africa and Its Position in the World." (Wikimedia Commons Photo:

Nelson Mandela during an April 2000 visit to the London School of Economics, where he gave a lecture on “Africa and Its Position in the World.” (Wikimedia Commons Photo:

Nelson Mandela, South African freedom fighter and international icon, passed away Dec. 5 after battling a long illness that had seen him in and out of hospitals for the better part of a year. He was 95.

Mandela is known internationally for his lifelong struggle to end the racist system of apartheid, which segregated and oppressed nonwhite South Africans for most of the 20th century. He is known worldwide as one of history’s great unifying forces.

Ultimately, Nelson Mandela has joined the ranks of the very few revolutionaries that saw their dream through after touching upon both violent and nonviolent resistance – where Marx dropped the pen, Mandela picked up the microphone; when Che dropped the rifle, Mandela sat behind bars; and when Gandhi did not make it out of his office, Mandela retired peacefully.

Four days before his passing, I went to an all-day show in Cape Town, South Africa, celebrating the local Festival of Lights. During an intermission, two South Africans, a white man and a black woman, came up on the stage and taught the crowd how to do the “Madiba jive.” Everyone reacted with enthusiasm – young, old, black, brown, white were jumping and wiggling to a tune Madiba’s generation would have difficulty appreciating.

Africans mourn with music, with song and dance, yet much of this nation now remains silent. Previous health scares last Christmas and this summer have prepared South Africa for the inevitable passing of the father of the nation.

Mandela, who went by Madiba to legions of South Africans, was born in 1918 and grew up in the Eastern Cape, becoming politically active through his time at the University of Fort Hare and through his friendship with other anti-racist students and activists.

He began studying law in 1943 but became so wrapped up in political action he failed his final year three times, dropping out altogether in 1949 in order to work with the anti-apartheid movement. Activity ramped up and government oppression increased until he was forced to stand trial with five others on charges of treason in 1958, which saw him serve a suspended nine-month labor sentence.

Mandela continued to defy travel bans and went on a continent-wide tour in 1962, collecting support and funds for the Spear of the Nation (MK), a militant group he co-founded the previous year. Arrested the same year, he was sentenced to five years for leaving the country without permission and inciting workers’ strikes

Evidence linking him to the Spear of the Nation was unearthed, and the following trial brought his ideas and the activities of the African National Congress to international attention. His sentence was extended to life, and he spent the following 27 years working with anyone he could – he even worked on his Afrikaans so as to convert the prison guards that verbally and physically abused him.

Upon release from Robben Island in 1990, after nearly three decades behind bars, Mandela addressed a crowd in Cape Town and greeted them with deep humility: “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

Mandela’s release was authorized by South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk, an Afrikaner who came to power advocating non-racial policies, and a man with whom Mandela formed an intense, short bond with in the pursuit of desegregation.

In 1993, he and de Klerk were awarded a joint Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to end apartheid – de Klerk regularly mentions his amazement at Mandela’s “remarkable lack of bitterness.”

Elected president of South Africa in 1994, Madiba carefully and patiently wrenched open a society on the edge of civil war and spent the decade peacefully struggling to bring an end to the cruel apartheid system, pursuing justice rather than vengeance. After spending his five-year term on reconciliation efforts, he stepped down in 1999 to become an international statesman, leaving the ANC firmly in charge of the burgeoning democracy.

Sona Diallo ’14, a Gambian raised in Namibia and the United Kingdom, reflected on the great unifying force Mandela was to the world: “I think for us and to me he wasn’t simply a great man — he was family. He embodied everything Africa is striving to become.”

“In Southern Africa he isn’t simply an icon, he was a true hero in every sense of the word. He was the reason people woke up determined, because in a place where racism is still present he provided the security that black Africans needed to persevere,” Diallo said.

Mandela lived a full life and fought tirelessly for the end of a system that had denied tens of millions a place in their own homes. We should celebrate Mandela’s life by living it.

As Kyle Cruz ’13 put it, “If he could forgive under those circumstances, what demands of mercy and love are required of you and I?”

Tags:  Apartheid Cape Town Madiba Nelson Mandela south africa

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Tom Courtright
Tom Courtright is a columnist for The Knox Student, primarily covering Africa. He grew up in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania and is currently studying international relations, history and journalism. He begins his volunteer term with Peace Corps in September 2014, on the Pacific island of Fiji.

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