Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: The world celebrates July 18 every year as Nelson Mandela International Day to honor the memory of a truly transformative leader and to shine a light on the legacy of South Africa’s first President elected by its citizens of all races. Madiba Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, one of the greatest moral and international political heroes of our time, would have celebrated his 103 years today.
It is hard to write any man – to capture in words, not just the facts and the dates that make a life, but the essential truth of a person – their private joys and sorrows; the quiet moments and unique qualities that illuminate someone’s soul. How much harder to do so for a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice, and in the process, moved billions around the world.
Given the sweep of his life and the adoration that he so rightly earned, it is tempting then to remember Nelson Mandela as an icon, smiling and serene, detached from the tawdry affairs of lesser men. However, Nelson Mandela himself strongly resisted such a lifeless portrait. Instead, he insisted on sharing with us his doubts and fears, his miscalculations, along his victories. “I’m not a saint,” he said, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Former President Nelson Mandela feels more like a father and a grandfather than a famous figure to the like our young generation, who throughout our lives recognize him as the central persona in one of the most gripping and moving political dramas in the world. His story has been one of strife, great effort, obstacles, new hope, and ultimate achievement. Furthermore, even amid his darkest days, he demonstrated with vigor the task of a great leader by leading his country from the shallow hole into the elevated heights of freedom. He did this with the spirit of a saint and perception of strength, bravery, generosity, courage, and forgiveness. Nelson Mandela was a true freedom fighter whose love for his people has no end. His life and personal success will be remembered long after the world has forgotten the evils of the oppression that once engulfed his people. He was a star who has brightened many lives and set the ultimate example for all leaders in Africa because he will not compromise his people’s cause for self-interest. The radiance of his personality has touched the lives of many over the years, and we hope to continue drinking from his river of humanity as we pray he pulls through.
Fatoumatta: In a role seldom witnessed in Africa, he selflessly dedicated his life to fighting against one of the most powerful systems of oppression ever conceived. Today, he stands as a decisive testimony to the victory of nobility and hopes over desolation and odium, forgiveness and love over revenge and hate. His life personifies what a true patriot should do and how they should behave under the most trying of circumstances. The spirits of all the revolutionaries and freedom fighters of this world, past and present, surely would smile blessings upon him because he always stood fair against all kinds of domination and was willing to give his life for it. In his own words, Nelson Mandela once said, “I have fought against white domination and against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a free society in which all live together in harmony, with equal opportunities. 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”.
Growing up in South Africa as a young black boy in the first half of the last century must have been a real ordeal due to apartheid. Blacks were segregated, abused, persecuted, and treated little better than animals. The apartheid regime enacted laws that regarded them accordingly. However, despite such adversity, Nelson Mandela was always a fighter from a young age. Instead of accepting this unreasonable system of government, he decided to resist. Thus, he began his lifelong journey to free South Africa from the shackles of repression. Little did he know that his resolve back then would lead to the demise of apartheid, pave the road to the presidency, and the ultimate honor of a Nobel Peace Award. Today, thanks to the personal effort and sacrifice of men such as Mandela, South Africa is a free state with equal opportunities for all its citizens and the pride of Africa.
Of all his sacrifices, the most heart-wrenching is, without a doubt, the sacrifice of his private life and youth for his people. I once read an interview with one of his daughters in which she described the solitude of growing up with a father that was incarcerated and branded a terrorist by the government and the loneliness of having to share him with the whole of South Africa upon his release. However, even before his incarceration, Mandela was forced to live apart from his family. In an attempt to survive and evade the authorities, Mandela moved from place to place and adopted several camouflages. However, he became so good at avoiding the authorities stationed in every nook and cranny that he was labeled the ‘black pimpernel’ at a point.
Fatoumatta: His childhood and upbringing could not have been more apt for the life role he was to play. He was born in the South African town of Qunu, Transkei, in 1918. His father, Henry Mandela, was chief councilor to the acting paramount chief in his town. When his father died, Mandela became the chief’s ward and was groomed for the chieftainship. From a young age, he and his lifelong friend and fellow freedom fighter Oliver Tambo were driven to participate in the fight to free their people. As a student, he was said to both be extremely studious and ambitious and eventually ended up starting a BA degree. However, in 1940, he was expelled from University for actively participating in a student strike during his degree. He completed his degree by doing a correspondence course, after which he enrolled to become a lawyer. After joining the ANC, he helped found the youth league of the party in 1944. He put in many years of dedication to his cause. Eventually, He became head of the defiance campaign of the party. This empowered him to travel across the country to organize a resistance to discriminatory legislation campaigns. During this period, he was arrested and confined a couple of times, but that did not stop him from forming individual underground cells of the ANC upon his release.
In addition, he and Oliver Tambo proceeded to open the first black legal firm in the country. Even though the Law Society was petitioned to strike Mandela off the roll of barristers, his law firm and career survived. In 1960, after the Sharpeville massacre and after his release from yet another detention, Mandela as leader of the military wing of the ANC, went underground to lead a campaign for a new national convention. By 1962 he went to Algeria for military training and built a militia, but he was arrested upon returning. On a charge of leaving the country illegally and incitement to strike, Mandela conducted his defense but lost and was convicted for five years in November 1962. It was during the service of that sentence that he and seven others, Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Mosoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Ahmed Kathrada, were charged with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Mandela’s resolve was never faulted during this trial, and he continuously told the court, “I do not deny that I planned sabotage. However, I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor for the love of violence but as a result of a sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.” Nevertheless, despite their defense, the judge remained convinced that their behavior was not borne out of a need to attain equal rights for the African people but out of a warped desire for revolution and personal ambition. Luckily for the world, he stopped short of imposing the supreme penalty of death and instead opted for life imprisonment. While in prison, Mandela never compromised his political principles and was always a source of strength for the other prisoners.
The apartheid government numerously offered Mandela the reduction of his sentence as long as he abided by certain conditions. Still, every time they offered, Mandela would refuse on the notion that “prisoners were not able to enter into contracts, only free men could negotiate.”
Decades into his struggle for the liberation of black and people of color in South Africa, Mandela, together with Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Mosoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Ahmed Kathrada, was charged with sabotage and sentenced to life imprisonment. While in prison, Mandela never compromised his political principles. The apartheid government numerously offered Mandela the reduction of his sentence as long as he abided by certain conditions. Still, every time they offered, Mandela would refuse on the notion that ‘…only free men could negotiate.’
Fatoumatta: After decades of prison labor, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues were eventually released on February 11, 1990. On that bright day, at 4:14 pm, almost an hour late, a jubilant Mandela, dressed in a light brown suit and tie and holding Winnie’s hand, appeared at the gates of his prison, smiled at the ecstatic crowds, and punched the air in a victory salute before taking a silver BMW Sedan to freedom. Then, with his tenacity unblemished, he went back to his life’s work, determined to end the struggle he and others had set out to do almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC held inside South Africa, Mandela was elected President of the party. On May 10, 1994, he won and became the first democratically elected President of South Africa. Furthermore, unlike most other African leaders, even though he was at the apex, he retired in June 1999. He relinquished power with no fuss after only one term in office.
Before being admitted to the hospital, he peacefully resided in his birthplace with his third wife, Graca. His most private moments were filled with his greatest pleasure: watching the sunset while listening to classical music and reading to his grandchildren. Accounts suggest he usually got up by 4:30 am, exercised by 5 am, and took breakfast of plain porridge, fresh fruit, and fresh milk by 6:30 am while reading the day’s newspapers.
Despite severe provocation, Mandela never answered racism with racism but symbolized the triumph of the human spirit over man’s inhumanity to man. His life has been an inspiration to all who are oppressed and deprived and to all who are opposed to oppression and deprivation. He has never wavered in his devotion to democracy, equality, and justice.
Words cannot describe how blessed this generation is to have lived during a man like Mandela. Millions of people worldwide love him dearly, and I have learned so much from him and will continue to cherish him. If the world can have more people like him, it, indeed, would be a much better place to live in. He reminds me of a late woman named Aji Marie Drigis that I loved so much. However, more than that, when I think of him, I do not see a person; I see an institution of goodness and a beacon of strength…I see my conscience!
In his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom,’ Mandela describes his struggle as a journey. Of that journey, he says, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”
Fatoumatta: We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. However, let me say to the young people of Africa and young people worldwide that you can make his life’s work your own. Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land. It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities – to others and myself – and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today.
Furthermore, while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better. He speaks to what is best inside us. So after this great liberator is laid to rest, when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach – think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
What a great soul it was. We missed him deeply. May God bless the memory of Nelson Mandela. May God bless the people of South Africa.
Alagi Yorro Jallow