Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918 into the royal family of the Thembu, a Xhosa-speaking tribe which nestles in a fertile valley in the Eastern Cape. There in the family kraal of white washed huts, the young boy spent a happy and sheltered childhood, and listened eagerly to the stirring tales of the tribal elders. His Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, has the colloquial and rather prophetic meaning “trouble-maker”, and he only received his more familiar English name, Nelson, on his first day at Healdtown, a British colonial boarding school.
The teacher apparently chose English names at random for each unsuspecting child in her class, and was possibly thinking of Lord Nelson at the time, since the famous seagull hadn’t arrived yet; but that would only be a guess. The school principal, ironically, was called Wellington, and frequently informed young Mandela and his classmates that there was no such thing as African culture, and that they, the natives, were indeed privileged to be educated by such a fine and civilized Englishman as himself.
Thus it was that early on, that Nelson Mandela’s political awareness began to take shape, and he steeled himself to resist such indoctrination while he immersed himself in the very real cultural practices of his own Xhosa people. He remembers the harsh rigors of his initiation, when he was prepared for the trials of manhood that lay ahead. He remembers emerging from his long seclusion, coated in red ochre, and receiving two cows and four sheep, which made him feel richer than he had ever felt before, and, as he put it, “walking……straighter and taller….and thinking that he might someday have wealth, property, and status.” He certainly was right about that, but a long road lay ahead.
The 1930’s were troubled times in South Africa, when forced removals, pass laws and other segregation bills were passed. With growing unease, Mandela went to Fort Hare University to do a Bachelors degree, but it wasn’t long before his strong will and indignation at injustice got in the way, and he was expelled in 1940 for leading a Student Representative Council strike with Oliver Tambo.
Already it was clear that nobody was going to tell this young man what to do, and when he discovered, on his return home, that his tribal chief and caretaker had decided it was time for him to marry a suitable girl, for whom labola (payment for marrying a girl of African decent) had already been paid, Nelson Mandela took the gap and ran away to Johannesburg.
Thus, at 22, he found himself working as a mine policeman, knopkiere (stick with knob at end) and whistle in hand, at Johannesburg’s Crown Mines. Contrary to his expectations of grandeur, the Mine offices were rusted tin shanties in an ugly, barren area, filled with the harsh noise of lift-shafts, power drills, and the distant rumble of dynamite. Everywhere he looked he saw tired-looking black men in dusty overalls.
The contrast from his peaceful rural life must have been a rude shock, and he rapidly learned the reality of the grinding poverty and inhuman exploitation of his fellow workers. Now, politics began to play a very significant role in his life. Stirred up at the humiliation and suffering of his people, and outraged at the increasingly unjust and intolerable laws of the country, in 1944, he, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo amongst others formed the ANC Youth League, and within a few years, Mandela became its president.
Fired with ambition and determination, he completed his law degree through the University of the Witwatersrand, and with Tambo set up South Africa’s first black law firm. Thus began the dangerous and dedicated life of full time struggle against the evils of apartheid. Mandela involved himself wholeheartedly in leading a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience, helping to organize strikes, protest marches and demonstrations, encouraging people to defy discriminatory laws.
Inevitably, as the people’s rage increased and repression cracked down, Mandela was eventually arrested for the first time in 1952, and experienced the other side of the dock, no longer an attorney, but now the accused. He was acquitted, but further harassment, arrests and detention followed, culminating in the infamous Treason Trial in 1958. A full four years after the trial began, Mandela gave his impassioned and articulate testimony, and was found not guilty and discharged. Until this time he had somehow managed to maintain his legal practice, but after the trial, with heightened repression and the banning of the ANC, armed struggle became the only solution.
Thus it was that he sacrificed his personal family life and his legal practice and took up armed insurrection. He went abroad for military training, and on his return he formed the ANC’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (meaning spier of the nation), taking on life as a hunted fugitive, constantly on the move, sometimes disguised as a chauffeur, sometimes as a laborer, evading his enemies so successfully that he earned the title “The Black Pimpernel”.
In 1962 Mandela was arrested for treason again, and sentenced to five years in prison. He made it quite clear that he was guilty of no crime, but had been made a criminal by the law, not because of what he had done but because of what he believed in. While serving this sentence, he was again charged with sabotage, and the Rivonia trial began. His eloquent and stirring address, lasting 4 hours, ended with his famous words: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony……It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
As we well know, in 1964 Nelson Mandela was convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced with his fellow colleagues the supreme punishment: life imprisonment on Robben Island, that flat disc in the foaming Atlantic ocean which represents more completely than any other patch of South African earth, that which has been unspeakable in the last three centuries of South Africa’s history.
There, on a grim, overcast day with the cold winter wind whipping through him, he was met by tense armed guards, ordered to strip naked while standing outside the old stone jail, and to put on the plain khaki uniform of the maximum security prison. Apartheid’s regulations extended even to clothing: in order to remind the black prisoners that they were “boys”, they received short trousers, a thin jersey, a canvas jacket and shoes without socks. Fellow Indian prisoners got long trousers and socks.
At forty-six years of age, he first entered the small cramped cell in Section B that was to be his home for so many years to come. It had one small barred window, and a thick wooden door covered by a barred metal grille. He could walk the length of the cell in three paces, and when he lay down, he could feel the wall with his feet and his head.