Personality of Nelson Mandela
“I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free. Free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies [corn] under the stars … It was only when I learnt that my boyhood freedom was an illusion … that I began to hunger for it.”
Nelson Mandela is seen as one of history’s most inspirational figures. He dedicated his life to speaking out for justice and changing inequalities of all kinds. He fought against the apartheid regime of South Africa and endured 27 years in prison. Mandela was South Africa’s first black president and is held up as one of the greatest leaders the world has ever seen.
He was a charismatic leader, a hero to his people, a man who gave up his freedom to fight for the freedom of others. Even after his death he remains a symbol of democracy, equality and peace. He was loved and admired throughout the world, and he never lost faith in his dreams and aspirations for his country despite all his hardships. He changed the course of history and even today inspires and empowers millions of people around the world. So, what was it that made this man stand out? What was it that made him give up on his personal life and stay true to his cause?
“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed. “
A brief look into Mandela’s personality traits.
At first glance, Nelson Mandela had all the personality traits of an effective leader. He was a visionary who fought for his beliefs. His fight against the racist system gave strength, inspired and motivated his people. Mary Benson, friend, confidante and biographer of Nelson Mandela, described him as “a born mass leader who could not help magnetizing people.” Mandela had excellent communication skills. Although his public speeches were very formal, he always enchanted his audience. He used to speak slowly, carefully selecting his every word. His commitment, charisma and humour were prominent in every speech. He had the ability to empower his audiences, fill them up with confidence and encouraged them to follow in his steps and fight dangerous battles. He articulated his vision for “a better future” and gained millions of followers.
To his followers, Nelson Mandela was a role model who motivated them into exceptional accomplishments. They shared common beliefs, emotions and practices. He was like a father to them. He had the power to unite people towards a common goal: resistance against racial segregation.
According to psychology, followers place more emphasis on the image of the leader than on any other characteristic. Mandela’s official biographer, Anthony Sampson, described Mandela as “master of imagery and performance”. Mandela always took extra care of his appearance in public and in press photographs. His correct manners and his modulated public speech helped him cultivate the image of the “African gentleman”. Because of that, Tom Lodge characterized Mandela as “one of the first media politicians […] embodying a glamour and a style that projected visually a brave new African world of modernity and freedom”. It seems that Mandela did not only cultivate an image, but he created a myth as well, both of which helped him achieve his goals. It leaves us wondering, was this a gift or skill? Well, it seems it was both.
Despite all that, his intelligence and his unique way of thinking were what turned Mandela into a successful leader. He faced reality with courage, no matter how hard it was and had the unique ability to adapt quickly and easily to everything new. In addition, he was an honest, dutiful, respectful and righteous man. He was known for his ability to find common ground with people of different mindsets.
Nelson Mandela strongly expressed his intellectual and revolutionary ideas. He pursued his beliefs to the very end of his life, and he shared his vision with the world. He was undoubtedly a man of genius, devotion, and determination. Considering knowledge as the greatest good, he never stopped learning. Even during his time in jail, he kept his mind busy searching for new ideas.
Mandela was an ambitious person with big dreams for his country. That ambition was his driving force and what made him take the lead and achieve success. This is what great leaders do. They do not only envisage a better future but also believe in its possible reality and take part in its creation. Till the end of his life, Mandela worked hard, with determination towards his lifetime goal to win freedom and equal human and democratic rights for his people. But he wasn’t just a great leader. He was a great human being whose mental toughness helped him endure great difficulties. He never gave up and always found a way to overcome even the most tremendous obstacles. Mandela was a living example of hope and bravery and inspires people to believe in what they are really capable of, if only they would truly believe it!
“By ancestry, I was born to rule”
The early life of Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela, in full Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, was born, into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the village of Mvezo, in Eastern Cape, South Africa, on 18 July 1918. He had a poor but otherwise happy childhood.
His father Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa was headman of the Mvezo people and part of the Madiba clan – a subdivision of the Thembu tribe. He was in charge of his people and took every decision on his own, but always under the supervision of the British government authority. His every decision was carefully considered and made with the best interests of his people according to what was fair and reasonable. Even the name of his son “Rolihlahla” was thoughtfully considered. It is literally translated as “pulling the branch of a tree” or more colloquially “the troublemaker”. Was this a coincidence or could Mandela’s name have influenced his destiny? One thing is for sure, that no one could have predicted this boy’s future and that his name would match his actions later on.
“My mother was my first friend in the proper sense of the word.”
Nelson Mandela’s family
Mandela’s father served as a counsellor to tribal chiefs for several years. His strict attitude and discipline earned him the respect of the others. Mandela himself highly respected and admired his father as well. As a boy, he would take white ash and rub it into his hair in imitation of him. Not only that, but he also observed his every move, the way he talked in front of an audience, his facial expressions and his body movements. Despite the fact that he was illiterate, he was considered to be a great orator. Mandela looked up to his father and wished to be like him in the future. Who could have guessed that he would eventually surpass him!
Apart from the fatherly figure, the family environment can also shape a child’s personality. Mandela grew up in a big family. His father had four wives (Great Wife, Right Hand Wife and Mandela’s mother – Noqaphi Nosekeni, Left Hand Wife, Wife of the Iqadi) and a total of thirteen children – four boys and nine girls. Mandela was the youngest of his father’s sons and his mother’s first child. He grew up with love, respect and lots of care, elements crucial in a child’s upbringing and in the formation of one’s personality.
“Children are the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures.”
The difficulties of his childhood
A few years later, in 1926, when Mandela was still a little boy, his father was involved in a dispute that deprived him of his chieftainship. At the time Mandela was told that his father lost his job for standing up to the magistrate’s unreasonable demands. Apart from losing his job and his title, Mandela’s father also lost a big part of his fortune, since he was deprived of most of his herd and land, as well as his income.
As a result, they had to move to Qunu, a nearby village, and live there a humble life. There was great poverty in Qunu but despite the straitened circumstances Mandela had some very happy childhood memories there. One of the most serious problems was the lack of food. Mandela recalled only eating corn, sorghum, beans, and pumpkins whilst tea, coffee, and sugar were considered luxury. Education was also considered a privilege.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Mandela’s school years
Even though both his parents were illiterate, his father was dreaming of a better future for his son, and thus at the age of seven he decided to send Mandela to school. Because of their Christian beliefs, Mandela’s mother thought it would be better for him to attend a Christian school nearby.
Going to school was something very special and unique for a child back then. On the first day of school, Mandela’s father gave him his first pair of pants and some advice on good behaviour and let him go to school alone. There, one of the first things his teacher did, was to give each of the students an English name, in accordance with the custom of giving all schoolchildren “Christian” names. She told him that his new name from then onwards would be Nelson. Primary lesson at school was the English language, whilst British ideas and British culture played a major role in the school’s educational system.
From a young age Mandela’s personality stand out. All of his teachers were very proud of him. He was a diligent student, he always followed his teacher’s instructions, he had an excellent behaviour, and he was always one of the best students in the class. He tried his best to earn a better life for himself and his family.
“Apart from life, a strong constitution, and an abiding connection to the Thembu royal house, the only thing my father bestowed upon me at birth was a name, Rolihlahla.”
The death of his father
Two years after his first day at school, when Mandela was nine years old, his life turned upside down once again. One night, he went home to find his father lying in the hut, feeling weak and having severe pain in his chest. Mandela presumed he had a lung disease, although it was never diagnosed. His father remained in the hut for several days only getting worse. He was neither moving nor talking. Mandela had a bad feeling and thus he never left his father’s side. One day, he hugged his mother and promised her that he would take his father’s place and that he would protect her no matter what. A few days later, after fulfilling his last wish to smoke his pipe, Mandela’s father passed away.
After the death of his father, Mandela’s life drastically changed. Undoubtedly, the sudden death of a parent is certainly among the most difficult situations an adult – as well as a child – may ever face. Children however are sometimes dealing better with death than adults. They understand that death is permanent and final and that it cannot be reversed, but they lack the necessary life experience to realize that death is inevitable for all living things, themselves included. So, when that time comes, the process of grieving after a loss varies from child to child.
Mandela felt deep sorrow from losing his father. He did not only lose a parent, but also a person who he trusted and admired more than anyone on this world, his mentor and his role model in life. Even so, he tried to conceal his sorrow in order to protect his mother and siblings. He showed incredible inner strength and courage for such a young boy. Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean that the death of his father didn’t leave a scar on his soul.
On the contrary. This tragic event of his life changed him and made him realize that he had to follow his father’s advice and finish off the work he started, choosing to take a road against submission and injustice.
“Friendship and support from friends is something which is a source of tremendous inspiration always and to everyone.”
Mandela’s new life
Soon after his father’s death Mandela’s life changed drastically. His mother was unable to provide for him on her own and took the decision to send Mandela away from the Qunu village. Her decision shocked Mandela deeply, but he knew that it was for his own good. She wanted to give him a chance to live a better future. It wasn’t an easy decision. Soon after the loss of her husband she had to let go of her son as well. Mandela on the other side had never lived outside the village and away from his tribe. He felt that he was abandoning everything he loved, his home, his friends and family. But he had no other choice.
His mother took him to the “Great Place” palace at Mqhekezweni, the royal residence of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the regent of the Thembu people, who offered to become Mandela’s guardian. Seeing the wealth and the beauty of his new home, he realised that a new life was starting for him. As the days were passing by, he was missing his mother and his life in Qunu, but he was having a great time in the Great Place.
There, at his new school he studied English, Xhosa, history, and geography and he was a very good and hardworking student. He was also getting along with the regent’s children, Justice and Nomafu, very well. All three of them were treated the same and felt like siblings. Moreover, Mandela looked up to Justice, and the two boys quickly became best friends. Justice had become quite a hero in Mandela’s eyes.
“Democracy and human rights are inseparable.”
The tribal meetings and consultations
What contributed greatly to Mandela’s later notions of leadership were the tribal meetings that were regularly called at the Great Place. They were discussing national matters such as the droughts, new laws and policies. He was observing the language used by the speakers, all their moves, expressions and arguments. Soon he distinguished among many different techniques that people used to persuade their audience with. He also realized that despite the hierarchy everyone was welcomed to attend the meetings, speak and express opinion on the matters freely.
The regent would speak last, and he would sum up the discussion so far. He wouldn’t force his decisions on people who disagreed. On the contrary, in case of disagreement, they held another meeting some other time. Later in his life, Mandela followed the same principles he first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place and this is maybe what distinguished him as a leader.
“Without education, your children can never really meet the challenges they will face. So, it’s very important to give children education and explain that they should play a role for their country.”
Mandela’s secondary education in Clarkebury
Growing up, Mandela’s destiny was to become councillor to the Thembu royal house and not a worker at the gold mines like most at the time. To do so, he had to acquire the necessary education. Thus, in 1933, he set off to Clarkebury Boarding Institute in Engcobo, a Western-style institution and the largest school for black Africans in Thembuland, where he began his secondary education.
In Clarkebury everyone was treated the same: “I had to make my way on the basis of my ability, not my heritage” he said. Apart from studying, Mandela often participated in sports and games and socialized with other students. He also became best friends with a girl for the first time in his life – a girl named Mathona, who he despised at first.
Through lots of hard work and determination he completed his Junior Certificate in only two years instead of the usual three. And that because he never forgot his original goal, to gather various experiences, learn new things and become more mature and wiser like a king’s councillor should be.
“I have always believed that sport is a right, not a privilege.”
Two years later, in 1937, when Mandela was nineteen years old, he was sent to Healdtown, a Wesleyan College in Fort Beaufort, the usual college for Thembu royalty. Justice was already a student there. Ιn Healdtown there were studying more than a thousand students of both sexes from all over the country. There, Mandela made new friends from other tribes for the first time and found new hobbies: long-distance running and boxing. He was also appointed a prefect and had many responsibilities and chores throughout the day.
“Thinking is one of the most important weapons in dealing with problems.”
Fort Hare University
In 1939, when Mandela was twenty-one years old, he got accepted in the University College of Fort Hare. Fort Hare was an elite Institution with only one hundred fifty students and Mandela felt really lucky and proud to be there, whilst Justice had remained at Healdtown for he wasn’t a very diligent student.
In his first year, he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law. He also attended interpreting courses which he loved the most and dreamt of becoming an interpreter in the magistrate’s office or a clerk in the Native Affairs Department. In his free time, he kept active and did lots of sports. He liked playing soccer and cross-country running the most. He also joined the drama club and took ballroom dancing lessons. Moreover, he became a member of the Students Christian Association and taught the Bible on Sundays in neighbouring villages.
Fort Hare University was a dream come true for Mandela. Being able to get a bachelor’s degree at the time was a major opportunity. He thought that he would be able to help his mother and sisters live a better life in Qunu. He wanted to provide them with the life they had lost when his father died.
“There are few misfortunes in this world that you cannot turn into a personal triumph if you have the iron will and the necessary skill.”
Mandela’s first conflict with authority
In 1940 Mandela got suspended from the university. During his second year he got involved in the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) boycott against the bad quality of food. Unless the authorities accepted their demands, they wouldn’t give up on their goal.
Mandela was called in to see the principal, who asked him to reconsider his actions or else he would be expelled from Fort Hare. Mandela faced a huge dilemma that day. “I found it difficult to swallow the idea that I would sacrifice what I regarded as my obligation to the students for my own selfish interests” he said. As much as he wanted to see his dream come true, at the end of the year Mandela left Fort Hare without taking a degree. Just like his father, he was determined to stand by his principles at any cost and refused to bend to authority. It is obvious that this was a strong – perhaps inherited – and recurring trait of his personality as we will see later on.
“You are responsible for your own future, and with hard work you can accomplish anything and make your dreams come true.”
A fresh start in Johannesburg
Mandela had no other choice than to return to Mqhekezweni and live once again in the Great Place with the regent’s family and Justice, who had long returned back home. However, the regent’s decision to arrange marriages for both of them shortly after his return, shocked them both. If he chose to disobey the regent, Mandela knew he could no longer remain under his roof and guidance. Justice was of the same mind, and so they decided that running away together was their only option. Inevitably, the two young men set off to Johannesburg.
The fact that Mandela defied the regent’s wishes had a pinch of irony in it. “It was the regent himself who was indirectly to blame for this, for it was the education he had afforded me that had caused me to reject such traditional customs. […] I was a romantic, and I was not prepared to have anyone, even the regent, select a bride for me” Mandela said. A year later in 1941 and a few months before his death, the regent visited Mandela in Johannesburg and forgave him for his actions.
Johannesburg in those days was rapidly growing and life there wasn’t easy, mostly because of the racism and the poverty. The demand for labour was high as more and more Africans from the countryside were seeking work there. In the meantime, Mandela’s dream had changed, and he envisioned himself as an attorney. At first, he worked as a security guard for Crown Mines but later he got a job as a clerk in a law office. At the same time, he decided to complete his bachelor through the University of South Africa (UNISA), that offered credits and degrees by correspondence. He got his degree at the end of 1942. Later on, he also enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand, or else “Wits”, for a Bachelor of Laws degree. He was the only African student in the law faculty. He met new people and made new friends who had fresh ideas and revolutionary political beliefs, loved politic and wanted to make a difference even if they had to sacrifice themselves for the cause of the oppressed.
“Mass action is a peaceful form of channeling the anger of the people.”
Mandela’s first steps into politics
During his time at Wits, Nelson Mandela became increasingly aware of the racial inequality and injustice faced by non-white people. In 1943, he decided to join the African National Congress ANC and actively take part in the struggle against apartheid. At first, Mandela was simply attending its meetings but later he joined ANC in a bus boycott and protested against the bus ticket’s rising price with great success, what got him more involved. In 1944, along with other party members they formed the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). Its primary purpose was to give direction to the ANC in its quest for political freedom. Thanks to his commitment to the cause Mandela rose rapidly through the ranks of the ANC.
“To be in love is an experience that every man must go through”
Mandela’s first marriage
In 1946, Mandela met and quickly fell in love with Evelyn Mase. They got married within a few months of their first date. Soon after their marriage, they got a son Madiba “Thembi” Thembekile and a year later a daughter Makaziwe, who died aged just nine months. This was a huge loss for Mandela and the worst time of his life.
It is often said that there is no greater loss than the loss of a child. It feels completely unnatural for a child to die before his or her parents and there is nothing one can say or do to lessen the pain of the parents at the time. A piece of themselves is lost forever and only time can heal the pain.
After the death of his daughter, Mandela tried to keep his mind constantly busy. He worked long hours. He departed early every morning, only to return home late at night, and he had no time for his family and no personal life at all. His career and his political action seemed to be more important.
“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion.”
The start of a long fight
The general election of May 1948 in South Africa brought the National Party to power. The government immediately began enforcing strict and more systematic policies of racial segregation and developed a political and social system known as “apartheid”. Mandela and ANC wanted to encourage serious action against apartheid and a non-violent resistance through boycotts, strikes and demonstrations.
A few years later, in 1952 Mandela and his friend Oliver Tambo opened a law office in Johannesburg called “Mandela and Tambo”. It was one of South Africa’s first black-owned and operated law firms aiming to defend Africans’ rights in court. “For Africans, we were the firm of first choice and last resort. To reach our offices each morning, we had to move through a crowd of people in the hallways, on the stairs, and in our small waiting room,” Mandela said. After all, offering help to those in need was the reason Mandela became a lawyer.
In the meantime, Mandela organized and took part in major campaigns against the apartheid, gave significant speeches and got a couple of times arrested. He soon drew the government’s attention. They considered Mandela to be a threat and had to take actions against him. They forbid him to travel outside of Johannesburg as well as attend any meetings or talk to more than one person at a time. He couldn’t even attend his son’s birthday party for that reason! A nine-month prison sentence was suspended because of a fair-minded and reasonable judge who accepted that the ANC was committed to peaceful and non-violent action.
In 1956, Mandela and 155 more people were arrested and accused of high treason and of an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government. They were kept in prison for two weeks but soon freed on bail. The trial itself lasted for five years till 1961. Due to insufficient evidence they were found not guilty.
“The beauty of a woman lies as much in her face as in her body.”
Mandela’s divorce and second marriage
In 1950, Mandela and Evelyn had their second son, Makgatho. However, Mandela’s hard working schedule and his devotion to politics increasingly took him away from home. In 1954 the birth of Mandela’s second daughter, named Makaziwe, in honour of their first baby girl, failed to save their marriage. In 1956 when Mandela got out of prison, Evelyn had already moved out. They took divorce the next year.
In 1957 Mandela met a woman sixteen years younger than him, Winnie Madikizela, a medical social worker at the Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. They got married in 1958, but four months later the ANC got banned and Mandela got once again imprisoned. In the same year and while pregnant, Winnie took part in several protests and got arrested. Soon after her release she gave birth to their daughter Zenani, on February 4, 1959. A year later they had their second daughter, Zindziswa (Zindzi).
“Men must follow the dictates of their conscience irrespective of the consequences which might overtake them for it.”
State of Emergency
On April 6, 1959, PAC (Pan Africans Congress) a new organization was founded. All they wished for was a “Government of the Africans, by the Africans and for the Africans”, and thus they organized many campaigns and protests. However, on 21 March 1960, in Sharpeville, what started as a peaceful march took a sudden turn; 69 of the protestants were killed and many more were injured when the police suddenly opened fire against them. This resulted in many strikes all around the country and subsequently the government declared a State of Emergency. Both the ANC and the PAC were banned and declared illegal organizations. Mandela along with many other party members were arrested under the State of Emergency and taken to prison, where they were all mistreated.
The Emergency was lifted five months later, and Mandela was let go. The event however destroyed his carrier as a lawyer and ANC. Yet, he couldn’t stay idle. He took part in secret meetings of the ANC and went underground organizing strikes. Mandela realised that the non-violent tactics and the peaceful protests of ANC so far had failed them. His actions during those years earned him the nickname “The Black Pimpernel” and another warrant for his arrest, but he chose to fight than surrender; “I have chosen this course which is more difficult, and which entails more risk and hardship than sitting in gaol. I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my mother and sisters to live as an outlaw in my own land. I have had to close my business, to abandon my profession, and live in poverty, as many of my people are doing […] For my own part I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days,” he wrote in a letter he released to the press at the time, whilst he also held secret meetings with reporters and gave his first TV interview.
Mandela knew what he wanted from the very start. He would not hesitate, not even for a single moment, to give his own life for the freedom of his country. His determination and resilience were remarkable and inspiring. It was hard for him to imagine how one could go against, shoot and kill innocent, unarmed people that all they wanted was a chance for a better life.
“If the criticism is valid, it must be made.”
A lonely fighter
The days when Mandela was an innocent child playing in the fields of his village were long gone. In 1961, Mandela wasn’t just a country boy anymore. He was an underground fugitive and one of the most wanted men in South Africa. What made him stand out and separated him from the other leaders was that he wasn’t in the spotlight. Mandela hid from the world and was acting from the shadows mostly during night hours. He refused to play by the government’s rules and played with fire instead. But he couldn’t care less.
Despite his open and friendly personality Mandela loved solitude. Being alone enabled him to move undisturbed, carefully calculate his next moves and think his plans throughout without unnecessary interferences. On the other hand, he was unable to keep a healthy relationship with his family once again. He was away from his wife and children and rarely saw them in fear he would get caught. Yet Winnie was a person with great understanding and patience.
“Let us keep our arms locked together so that we form a solid phalanx against racism.”
The beginning of the armed struggle
Up until this point ANC was against using or advocating violence during their protests, but in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre ANC decided that it could no longer remain an organization of passive resistance and that they should change their tactics. Thus, they formed an armed wing named uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK for short) to fight against apartheid.
Mandela was a man with an enquiring mind and a desire to learn and make a difference. He read many books about war strategy and fights of the past as well as African history and was ready to start a real revolution. At the time he sought shelter at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, in northern Johannesburg under the alias of David Motsamayi posing as a caretaker. The farm was also used as hideout for many other anti-apartheid activists.
On 16 December 1961, on the annual national holiday “Day of the Vow” MK launched its armed struggle. They committed several acts of sabotage that continued throughout the year. They carried out numerous bombings mainly against government structures such as military installations, power plants, and transport links in various cities such as in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban and during night hours, when civilians were not present to ensure minimum casualties.
“Mass action is a peaceful form of channeling the anger of the people.”
Mandela’s African journey and arrest
In 1962, Mandela decided to leave South Africa in secret and seek political and economic support, military training, as well as boost MK’s reputation in other countries. He pursued his cause throughout Africa and travelled among others to Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Senegal. Later on, he travelled to London as well. Upon his return to South Africa on 5 August 1962, Mandela was however arrested and accused of inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country illegally. On November 7, he was sentenced to five years in prison.
“I realized that they could take it all except my mind and heart. And I just made a decision not to give them away.”
Rivonia trial and imprisonment
A year later in 1963, while Mandela was serving his five-year sentence in Johannesburg’s Fort prison, the police arrested several MK leaders in a raid on Liliesleaf Farm that served as their hideout and discovered many incriminating documents as well some of which mentioned Mandela. All of them including Mandela were prosecuted in the Rivonia Trial –named after the suburb where the farm was located – and charged of sabotage and conspiracy. The alleged offences were punishable by death but those who were convicted, were sentenced to life imprisonment instead.
Mandela was already gaining popularity and had become a symbol of justice. The trial itself gained international attention and is considered to be one of the most important events in the history of South Africa. Mandela gave a historic three-hour speech from the dock, in which he explained and justified their actions. “Your Worship, I hate racial discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all my life, I fight it now, and I will do so until the end of my days. I detest most intensely the set up that surrounds me here. It makes me feel that I am a black man in a white man’s court. This should not be” he said.
Mandela later made it clear that he was ready to sacrifice his life for the sake of his country; “I have fought against white domination. I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people live together in harmony and equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve but if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Mandela was taken from the courthouse directly to Pretoria Local Prison.
“After one has been in prison, it is the small things that one appreciates: being able to take a walk whenever one wants, going into a shop and buying a newspaper, speaking or choosing to remain silent. The simple act of being able to control one’s person.”
The life of a prisoner
A life behind bars isn’t easy and no one knows what it’s like unless they go through it themselves. Prisoners are confined in a certain environment where they have to adapt quickly if they want to survive. They have no freedom and no identity and as a result prison affects every aspect of one’s life. It not only has an impact on one’s mental well-being but over time also shift’s one’s personality, leading the prisoner toward becoming a different person, especially after long-term imprisonment.
Prisoners are made to wear the same cloths as everybody else, eat the same food every day and follow the exact same schedule. Friendships in prison are a matter of controversy as well. Being very close with someone isn’t advisable. All contacts are strictly monitored and can turn out dangerous as well.
Life after prison isn’t by any means easer. Getting out of jail isn’t the end of it for most people. Starting a new life after prison from absolute scratch seems hard, and the reintegration of prisoners into society is a struggle. The deprivation of liberty and the lack of privacy scar them for life.
Mandela wasn’t like the rest of the prisoners. Even in jail he tried to make a difference. He was scared for sure but knew very well how to hide his emotions and over time he got tougher. He chose to be put in isolation than wear short trousers and eat stiff and cold food, where he could eat and wear whatever he wanted. Mandela spent a couple of weeks there completely alone, but soon he realized that nothing is more important than human companionship, and he gave in.
“The suffering of the people of any single country affects all of us no matter where we find ourselves.”
The Robben Island prison
After a while Mandela and the other convicted leaders were transferred from Pretoria to the Prison on Robben Island. Mandela was 46 years old at the time and would remain in the Robben Island prison for 18 years until his next transfer.
There were no black guards and no white prisoners in Robben Island prison. The guards used threats and intimidation to enforce the regulations but soon Mandela realized that they had to be friendly with them in order to earn their favour. Hostility wasn’t serving anyone.
What saddened Mandela the most was that the rules regarding correspondence were very strict. Mandela, as a D Group prisoner, was allowed only one visitor, and to write and receive only one letter every six months with word restriction. All letters were censored by the guards. But that wasn’t the worse; “In prison, the only thing worse than bad news about one’s family is no news at all. It is always harder to cope with the disasters and tragedies one imagines than with the reality, however grim or disagreeable. A letter with ill tidings was always preferable to no letter at all,” Mandela said.
Racism and repression were the same inside and out of prison. The discrimination in diet was also clear, Coloureds and Indians received better food than Africans. Furthermore, Africans were given to wear short trousers once again. But Mandela didn’t give up the fight so easily. He tried his best every day to keep his dignity intact. He kept a positive attitude, never letting himself fall in despair. Mandela believed in humanity and looked forward to a better future.
On a more positive note, prisoners were allowed to study and thus at nights Mandela worked on his Bachelor of Laws degree which he was obtaining from the University of London through correspondence. Prisoners were allowed books but no newspapers by any means making the latter “more valuable to political prisoners than gold or diamonds”. The possession of a newspaper was punishable.
As the years were passing by, prison conditions improved, and the prisoners were treated better. African prisoners were given to wear trousers, they were allowed to play games at the weekends and attend religious services. From 1967 onwards, when Mandela became an A Class prisoner, he was allowed more visits and letters.
“The advantage of prison life is that you can sit and think and see yourself and your work from a distance”
The daily prison schedule in Robben Island
Prisoners followed a daily schedule and every single day was exactly the same; time was passing by slowly. Just a few days in prison seemed like a decade. The Rivonia Trial prisoners were spending their days hammering rocks into gravel until they were sent to work in a lime quarry in 1965. The schedule was as follows:
05:30 – Wake-up
06:45 – Cleaning and tiding up the cells
07:00 – Breakfast
07:45 – Inspection
08:00 – Work
12:00 – Lunchbreak
12:45 – Resume work
16:00 – Inspection
16:10 – Shower
16:30 – Supper
17:15 – Free time
20:00 – Sleep
“The wounds that cannot be seen are more painful than those that can be treated by a doctor.”
Coping with family separation and loss
Mandela missed his family the most. Winnie wasn’t able to visit him regularly, for she was being imprisoned a couple of times for political activity herself. Mandela was constantly worried about her and the thought of her being in prison too was agonizing. The few letters they send to each other weren’t enough to fill the emptiness in his heart and words couldn’t express what he felt.
In 1968, Mandela’s mother accompanied by his son Makgatho, his daughter Makaziwe, and his sister Mabel visited him in Robben Island. He hadn’t seen his children in years due to strict prison regulations that didn’t allow children between the ages of two and sixteen to visit a prisoner. He was deeply shocked to see how time had changed them, especially his mother who looked old and worn. His fear that this would be the last time he saw her came true as she died of a heart attack a few weeks later. His request to attend her funeral was turned down. Mandela felt great sorrow along with some guilt; “A mother’s death causes a man to look back on and evaluate his own life. Her difficulties, her poverty, made me question once again whether I had taken the right path,” he said.
A year later in 1969, Mandela experienced another insufferable loss. His first and oldest son, Thembi, had been killed in a motorcar accident at 25. He left a wife and two small children behind. The news struck Mandela hard. He was forbidden from attending his funeral as well and sat powerless grieving for days in his cell.
In 1975, Zindzi turned fifteen. Having her documents modified by her mother, she was able to visit her father a year sooner than allowed. She only knew him through photographs, but it turned out to be a very touching moment for both of them.
“To deny any person their human rights is to challenge their very humanity”
Thoughts of escape
In 1969, the Bureau of State Security, South Africa’s secret intelligence agency was plotting Mandela’s death. The plan was to shoot him dead during an escape attempt. They sent a young guard to persuade Mandela to escape. His plan seemed far-fetched and unreliable and Mandela was wise enough not to trust him. Why would a guard risk his life to free a prisoner after all?
But this wasn’t the only scheme against him. Mandela was many times tempted to escape, but he never went through with the plans at the end, either because he realized it was an ambush or he thought of the consequences. He would have to live with the fear of being traced and caught again, and he knew they would never stop looking for him.
“There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires”
The autobiography of Nelson Mandela
In 1974, on Mandela’s 57th birthday, his comrades suggested he should secretly write and publish a book with his memoirs and thoughts as a reminder to people of what they had fought so far and give them courage and strength to keep fighting. Mandela decided to go through with the idea and started writing the same night. He was sleeping during the day and writing at night making the guards suspicious.
It turned out to be a five-hundred-page manuscript of which they also made a copy for safety. One was kept in the cells and the other was buried in the courtyard’s garden. The buried manuscript was discovered when a wall was built at the site. Mandela was accused of abusing his study privileges in order to write the illegal manuscript and his study privileges were being suspended for four years.
However, his efforts did not go in vain as they managed to smuggle the copy in London in 1976. Mandela resumed the book after his release in 1990. The manuscript constitutes the core of his autobiography under the title “Long Walk to Freedom” published in 1994.
“When we read, we are able to travel to many places, meet many people and understand the world”
The last years in Robben Island
At last, in 1977, after many strikes and demands by the prisoners, the authorities put an end to manual labour, and let prisoners spend their days in their sections. Mandela spend his free time gardening and playing tennis in the courtyard. He also began to exercise again and read books. He was reading books mostly about South Africa or by South African writers, all the unbanned novels of Nadine Gordimer, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and War and Peace by Tolstoy. The authorities also allowed prisoners to watch selected films and documentaries once a week such as “The Mark of Zorro”, “The Ten Commandments”, “The King and I” and “Cleopatra”. Finally, in 1980, A-Group prisoners were allowed to buy one English-language and one Afrikaans newspaper a day.
“To overthrow oppression has been sanctioned by humanity and is the highest aspiration of every free man”
Mandela’s transfer to Pollsmoor prison
Without any previous notice, on 31 March 1982 Mandela and his comrades were transferred to Pollsmoor Prison, in Tokai, Cape Town. Authorities wanted to isolate them and lessen their influence on younger activists. Change was always hard for Mandela. Having lived for 18 whole years on Robben Island, he got used to it. The unknown and the lack of stability frightened him.
The Pollsmoor prison was according to Mandela “a world of concrete” but not only were the facilities and food much better but also the new prison allowed contact visits between inmates and their family members. After all these years Mandela was finally able to hug and kiss his wife. “It had been twenty-one years since I had even touched my wife’s hand,” he said.
Outside of prison the political climate was tense, and violence was escalating across the country. On January 31, 1985 the state president Pieter Willem Botha offered Mandela his freedom under the condition that he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political instrument,” expecting that Mandela would betray his people and abandon his fight. On 10 February 1985 Mandela’s daughter Zinzi read a statement on his behalf at a rally in Soweto: “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.” With those words Mandela rejected yet another offer of conditional release. In the past he was offered his freedom as long as he accepted to confine himself to Transkei.
For the second time in history the South African government declared a nationwide State of Emergency on 12 June 1986. Thousands of people were arrested. A month later USA approved the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, a law which imposed sanctions against South Africa and requested the end of apartheid.
In the same year Mandela was diagnosed with an enlarged prostate gland and underwent surgery. After his recovery he was taken to a new cell in a completely different wing away from his comrades. It was perhaps an attempt to isolate him and make him give in.
“In my country we go to prison first and then become President.”
Victor Verster Prison and release
In 1987, suffering from a bad cough and a general weakness, Mandela was taken to the hospital in Cape Town, where they found water in his lungs. He was operated and diagnosed with tuberculosis, probably due to the dampness of his cell. Thus, after many complaints, in December 1988, Mandela was moved to his “last home before becoming a free man”, to Victor Verster Prison near Paarl in order to recover. Mandela was 70 years old at the time, and he spent there the last 14 months of his 25 years of captivity. He was not given a cell but a large warder’s house in the grounds of the prison instead, with a big garden, a swimming pool as well as a personal chef. Mandela said that he had the illusion of freedom. He could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted, as if he were a free man. Among other activities, Mandela spent his time to complete his LLB degree.
It’s strange how things sometimes turn out. On 18 January 1989, president Botha suffered a mild stroke. He resigned and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk. De Klerk had a few meetings with Mandela to discuss the situation. He agreed with Mandela to unban the ANC and all other banned political organizations (including the armed wing of the ANC), lift the country’s State of Emergency, release all political prisoners, and allow the exiles to return. His friends were the first to be released but Mandela knew his own freedom wasn’t far away.
Finally, the most awaited day had come! On 11 February 1990, after 27 years of imprisonment, Nelson Mandela was unconditionally released and walked out of the Victor Verster prison as a free man, holding Winnie’s hand in front of a large crowd, photographers and reporters. Mandela wasn’t prepared for such a scene, nonetheless he felt great excitement; “I felt — even at the age of seventy-one — that my life was beginning anew. My ten thousand days of imprisonment were over,” he said.
Right after his release Mandela was driven to Cape Town’s City Hall and gave a speech from the balcony. The crowd was huge and cheering. Mandela expressed his hopes for reconciliation but declared that the ANC’s armed struggle wasn’t over. They were close to their goal but there were still many things to negotiate with the government. Two days later Mandela gave a second speech to a crowd of 120,000 people at Johannesburg’s Soccer City.
“Life is like a big wheel: the one who’s at the top, tomorrow is at the bottom.”
Path to presidency and the end of apartheid
During the following years Mandela travelled to Africa, Europe and America in order to gather political support, meet world leaders – such as François Mitterrand, Brian Mulroney, Margaret Thatcher and George Bush – and draw attention to his cause. In the meantime, on 5 July 1991, at the ANC’s national conference in Durban Mandela was elected ANC President, replacing Oliver Tambo.
On 10 December 1993, Mandela was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk at the Nobel Peace Prize Award Ceremony in Oslo, Norway. “A man does not become a freedom fighter in the hope of winning awards, but when I was notified that I had won the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Mr. de Klerk, I was deeply moved. […] To make peace with an enemy one must work with that enemy, and that enemy becomes one’s partner” Mandela said.
After four long years of negotiations, April 27, 1994 was set as the date when South Africa’s first national, non-racial, democratic, one-person-one-vote election would take place. According to the polls, ANC held a clear advantage over its rivals, but Mandela never took victory for granted. He knew very well that his major opponent had more experience in these matters. ANC’s campaign slogan was “A Better Life for All”, but Mandela never lied during his campaign: “Life will not change dramatically, except that you will have increased yourself-esteem and become a citizen in your own land. […] if you want better things, you must work hard. We cannot do it all for you; you must do it yourselves.” And so, April 27th or else “Freedom Day” became an annual celebration that commemorates the day in 1994 when the country’s apartheid system of racial segregation came to an end as a result of years of struggle and sacrifice. The black majority was able to go to the polls and elect their own leader. That day, at Inanda, Durban, Mandela voted for the first time in his life too and he voted for himself for president. The ANC won these first historic elections with a vast majority (62.6%) and was qualified for 252 of 400 seats in the national assembly.
“Poverty is man-made and can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings”
Mandela’s presidential years
A few days after South Africa’s first national democratic elections, on May 10, 1994, Mandela’s inauguration took place at the Union Buildings in Pretoria replacing F.W. de Klerk. The event was witnessed by over one hundred thousand people on site, and millions of others around the world. At the age of 75 Mandela became South Africa’s first black president. “We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” Mandela declared in his inaugural address.
Mandela tried to stay true to his word. After all, this wasn’t just a promise to his voters but to himself as well. It was time to tread a new path and he had to lead the way. Through the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), ANC tried to deal with the country’s severe social and economic problems and focused on people’s most immediate needs. RDP’s general goal was to boost the collapsing economy and alleviate poverty. They dealt with issues of major importance such as proper housing and land reform, nutrition, access to clean water, electrification, transportation, telecommunication, healthcare and children vaccination, unemployment and public works. Also, one of the primary tasks of Mandela’s presidency was national reconciliation. He wanted to reassure South Africa’s white minority that they were protected and represented.
In February 1996 the new South African government took things a step further establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Its purpose was to investigate crimes and uncover the truth about human rights violations that were committed during the period of apartheid (from 1960 to 1994) by both the apartheid state and the ANC. The hearings lasted for about two years dealing with cases of tortures, bombings, abductions and assassinations. Information were gathered from victims, witnesses and offenders, and the Commission issued a final report. No individuals were prosecuted for crimes of the past. According to Mandela the commission did an excellent work and helped the country “move away from the past to concentrate on the present and the future.”
With age being a strong factor, in December 1997 at the party’s conference, Mandela stepped down as ANC President, and in March 1999, after just one term as President, he closed the book on his presidency with a farewell speech to the Parliament. By the 1999 election, ANC had achieved many of its goals; millions of people were connected to the electricity grid and to telephone lines, hundreds of houses were constructed, and even more households got access to clean drinking water, millions of children were brought into the education system, and a significant number of hospitals were constructed.
“I am not nervous of love for love is very inspiring”
Mandela’s 2nd divorce and 3rd marriage
In the midst of political turbulence and social change, Mandela had little time for his personal life and thus his marriage with Winnie suffered. Winnie had distanced herself from him and rumour has it she had an affair. Mandela utterly disappointed in her described that time as “the loneliest period of his life.” He announced their separation in 1992, and they divorced four years later.
After so many years without affection, Mandela didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in loneliness. And so, when Mandela met Graça Machel – a woman 27 years younger than him and widow of former president of Mozambique, Samora Machel – he envisioned a future with her. The couple decided to get married in 1998, on Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday. “Late in life, I am blooming like a flower because of the love and support she has given me,” Mandela told reporters.
“I have retired, but if there’s anything that would kill me it is to wake up in the morning not knowing what to do.”
Despite his retirement, Mandela didn’t give up completely on his people. For several years after his retirement from active politics, he got engaged in several philanthropic activities. He continued his contribution to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (NMCF) which he set up in 1995, aiming to help hungry, abused and homeless children. In 1999 he established the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF), a non-profit organization focused on continuing Mandela’s legacy for equality, justice and peace. Last but not least, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation offers scholarships to African students who dream of using knowledge to change the world.
In July 2001, aged 83, Mandela was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a seven-week radiotherapy course as treatment. The cancer wasn’t of a high grade and didn’t require chemotherapy or surgery. However, as Mandela grew older and his health declined with age, he wished to stay away from public life as well and enjoy a quiet life with his large family (he had 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren). Yet the requests for public appearances and interviews were too many. “I do not intend to hide away totally from the public, but hence forth I want to be in the position of calling you to ask whether I would be welcome, rather than being called upon to do things and participate in events. The appeal therefore is: don’t call me, I’ll call you,” he said politely.
But life is full of unexpected turns and his happiness was shadowed by the pain of losing another son. On 6 January 2005, his eldest son Makgatho died of AIDS. AIDS epidemic posed a serious threat to Africa and the infection rate grew rapidly. At a time when taboos still surrounded AIDS, Mandela socked the world by announcing the cause of his son’s death. “Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like tuberculosis, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS, and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary,” Mandela said at his son’s funeral. Following the tragic event Mandela became an active AIDS campaigner. He also started a charity for HIV awareness and prevention, called 46664, named after the prison number assigned to him in Robben Island prison.
“Even if you have a terminal disease, you don’t have to sit down and mope. Enjoy life and challenge the illness that you have.”
Nelson Mandela’s death
During his last years of life Mandela battled with health issues that led to numerous hospitalizations. In February 2011, at the age of 92, Mandela was hospitalized with a respiratory infection and was released in a stable condition. A year later in 2012 he was re-admitted shortly for a lung infection. In the following years his lung infection took a turn for the worse and in June 2013, he was admitted to the hospital in serious condition once again. Although his condition remained unstable, he was discharged. Unfortunately, the illness advanced and on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95, Mandela passed away at his home in Houghton, Johannesburg.
President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s death on television, “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” he said, and the South African government declared a 10-day national mourning as a mark of respect. From 11 to 13 December Mandela’s body laid in state at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and two days later on 15 December 2013 a state funeral was held in Qunu. More than 80 representatives of foreign states travelled to South Africa to pay their respects. Nelson Mandela’s death had shaken South Africa to the core and the whole nation mourned for him, for they felt they had lost their hero.
“It becomes important, the older you get, to return to places where you have wonderful recollections.”
What made Mandela a successful leader
Mandela succeeded because of his strong will. Throughout his life he proved that only sky is the limit. Nothing is impossible as long as we never give up. He never gave up on justice, his beliefs, his hope for equal rights and his desire for freedom. He wasn’t vindictive and despite the horrors he had to face he didn’t believe in the eye for an eye justice. It’s good to always remember his words: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”
Only few will understand in depth his complex personality. He found the inner strength to fight his own battles. He came to this world to make a difference and hold his head up high. Mandela made history, he left his mark and touched people’s lives. He lived a unique life and took hard decisions. He was prepared to sacrifice his life for the freedom of his country, a sacrifice that very few would make.
Mandela was a remarkable man, and he never stopped trying for the best, because, like he said: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” The road to freedom was a difficult one, and Mandela opened the door to a better future, but a joint effort is required to keep it on the right track, and according to Mandela’s favourite quote “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
Recommended by Motto Cosmos Nelson Mandela’s books.
Quotes of Nelson Mandela
Get inspired from Nelson Mandela’s most important Quotes:
Nelson Mandela Mottos Collection (Phrases) (The biggest in the world).
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Nelson Mandela Mottos (Pictures) (The best in the world).
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Tributes, honours and awards
Mandela received more than 250 awards, honours, honorary degrees from universities and other recognitions. Some of the most important ones are listed below:
1988 – Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought
1991 – Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize
1993 – Nobel Peace Prize
1993 – Philadelphia Liberty Medal
1994 – Anne Frank Medal
1994 – Olympic Gold Order
1994 – The Hunger Project’s 8th annual Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger
1996 – Freedom of the City of London
2001 – International Gandhi Peace Prize
2002 – Presidential Medal of Freedom
2006 – Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award
2009 – The United Nations General Assembly declared 18 July to be “Nelson Mandela International Day” or else “Mandela Day”
Nelson Mandela Books
Nelson Mandela has written numerous books, mostly autobiographical ones that provide great insight into his life and help us understand better the horror of apartheid and the struggle for freedom. Others include speeches, letters and quotes of him and address readers of all ages. Some of them are:
1970 – Nelson Mandela: I Am Prepared to Die
1973 – No Easy Walk to Freedom
1978 – The Struggle is My Life
1980 – In His Own Words
1990 – Nelson Mandela Speeches, 1990: Intensify the Struggle to Abolish Apartheid
1991 – How Far We Slaves Have Come! South Africa and Cuba in Today’s World
1993 – Nelson Mandela Speaks: Forging a Democratic, Non-racial South Africa
1994 – Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela
1996 – Mandela: An Illustrated Autobiography
1998 – The Essential Nelson Mandela
2000 – Words of Wisdom: Selected Quotes
2001 – Nelson Mandela
2002 – Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales
2005 – Prisoner in the Garden: Photos, Letters, and Notes
2009 – Selected Speeches and Writings of Nelson Mandela: The End of Apartheid in South Africa
2010 – Conversations with Myself
2010 – Quotes of Nelson Mandela
2011 – Nelson Mandela by Himself: The Authorised Book of Quotations
2012 – Le Temps est venu
2012 – Notes to the Future: The Authorized Book of Selected Quotations
2013 – Long Walk to Freedom: Illustrated children’s edition
2013 – Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom: The Book of the Film
2013 – Meine Waffe ist das Wort: Mit einem Vorwort von Desmond Tutu
2013 – Un ideale per cui sono pronto a morire – Il discorso più bello di Nelson Mandela
2017 – Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years (released posthumously and completed by Mandla Langa.)
2018 – The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela