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Nelson Mandela - a Humanitarian

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Face of Nelson Mandela superimposed upon map of Africa.

Nelson Mandela's life has been dedicated to making South Africa a non-racist country and to have equal rights for black and white people. Even though he spent many years in prison, he provided hope for black South Africans over several decades, and eventually became the first black President of South Africa. His efforts, and the example of his beliefs, held so strongly despite his imprisonment, closed a gap between black and white people throughout the world.

Black people's rights in South Africa changed a great deal during his lifetime. When Mandela was growing up, and during his imprisonment, the laws of apartheid kept the races apart, with special 'white only', 'coloured only' and 'black only' facilities and whole areas. You needed several passes to be allowed into a 'wrong' area, and blacks were liable to be put in prison without reason. Thanks in no small part to Mandela's efforts, apartheid has been abolished, and black South Africans are now allowed to vote, become members of Parliament, get well-paid jobs, and now have the same rights as white people to public facilities such as public toilets, beaches and public transport.

Growing Up

Nelson Mandela was born on 18 July 1918, at Mvezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata, South Africa. His father named him Rolihlahla, which means in Xhosa (Mandela's tribal language) 'pulling the branch of a tree'. A more colloquial translation would be 'troublemaker'. Under tribal customs, Nelson's father had four wives: Nelson was the youngest of his father's sons, but the eldest of his mother's children.

Before he went to school, Nelson wore nothing but a blanket, as was the custom for boys in his tribe. When he went to school at the age of seven, his father cut off one of his own pairs of trousers for Nelson to wear. At school all the children were given English names by their teacher, which is how Rolihlahla became Nelson. Although he does not know why that name - the name of a great English naval hero - was chosen, that is the name that has remained with him all his life.

Nelson was still young when his father died. One of his father's friends, the regent of the tribe, took Nelson in as his own son. Nelson was treated like the regent's own children. One of these children, a few years older than Nelson, was called Justice, and Nelson admired him greatly. When he was older, Nelson was sent off to college, and attended three in turn. The first was a government college, Clarkebury, where Nelson studied law. The second was called Healdtown, which, under the apartheid laws of South Africa at that time, where different races were kept apart from each other, was the largest college for black people in the Southern Hemisphere. Finally he attended Fort Hare University, which had the reputation of being an elite school, with only 150 students. However, it was very strict, and Nelson was suspended for a year after student political events made him a target. Although he could have returned after his year of suspension, Nelson did not do so.

When he returned home the regent was very angry with this outcome, and wanted Nelson and Justice to be married to brides he had chosen. As they were not keen on marrying these brides, they fled to Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa.

Time in Johannesburg

Nelson's first job in Johannesburg was as a mine policeman. This involved him being a night watchman, and waiting at night next to a sign outside the compound entrance. The sign read 'Beware, Natives Crossing Here', and Nelson had to check the credentials of people passing through. Justice had another job in the mines. They worked the first few nights, but then the regent found out where they were, and called them back. Instead, Nelson went to the University of the Witwatersrand, where he studied law once again. Then he found a new job, and became a lawyer. He met other black lawyers, and, together with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, formed the first all-black law partnership in South Africa.

In 1942, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) which had a non-violent approach to seeking change to the apartheid laws. He began organising protests against apartheid policies. Mandela moved up through the ranks of the ANC. In 1956, he and 156 other members were brought to the court on charges of treason. After a trial lasting five years, all were found not guilty. Mandela soon realised that non-violent protests would not work, and turned to sabotage, forming Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) to act as the military section of the ANC. Certain that all he had done would lead him to be arrested again, he went into hiding.


Although Mandela was in hiding, he still managed to organise attacks by Umkhonto we Sizwe. Before long he was the most wanted man in South Africa, with the police calling him the 'Black Pimpernel' because he always eluded capture (a reference to the 'Scarlet Pimpernel' of the French Revolution written about by Baroness Orczy).

Not until 1962, however, was Mandela captured. For some time, he had been in hiding outside South Africa, but now he had returned, and was driving back to Johannesburg with a man called Cecil Williams. Nelson had to be disguised as a chauffeur because a black man travelling 'on equal terms' with a white would arouse suspicion. According to Mandela's autobiography, they were driving through a place called Howrick when a Ford V8 filled with white men shot past them. Nelson looked behind and saw two more cars, also filled with white men. The Ford signalled at them to stop, so they did. An unshaven and untidy policeman came up to the car, identified himself as Sergeant Vorster, and showed Mandela and Williams an arrest warrant. He looked as though he'd been waiting for them for days. In answering the policeman's questions, Mandela gave his name as David Motsamayi, but Sergeant Vorster said 'Ag, you're Nelson Mandela, and this is Cecil Williams, and you're under arrest!' When Mandela fell asleep that night in prison he thought 'At least tonight - 5 August 1962 - I do not have to worry about whether the police will find me. They already have.'

In Prison

Mandela was charged with 'inciting African workers to strike' and 'leaving the country without valid travel documents'. He was found guilty, and sentenced to five years in jail.

Although a prisoner, Mandela was still full of spirit. He had been in prison only a few months when he was taken to another prison, on Robben Island, with some other black political prisoners. Mandela did not like being treated as a normal prisoner, when he considered himself a political prisoner, so he and the other political prisoners (most of these were his friends from before) kept their dignity. They tried not to allow the warders to threaten them or speak to them roughly, and did not allow themselves to be forced to work too hard.

On 9th October 1963 Mandela and the other political prisoners at Robben Island were driven in a police van to the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. Mandela and ten of his friends were charged with 'complicity in over two hundred acts of sabotage aimed at facilitating violent revolution and an armed invasion of the country', and with being part of a plot to overthrow the government. The defence lawyers said they hadn't had enough time to prepare their case, so were given an extra three weeks to do so. The trial was postponed to 29th October. As Mandela wrote in his autobiography, he and his friends were technically free for that moment, but a few seconds later were rearrested.

Back in court in December, Mandela and his co-accused were alleged to have 'recruited persons for sabotage and guerilla warfare for the purpose of starting a violent revolution' and 'conspired to aid foreign military units to invade the republic in order to support a communist revolution'. All pleaded not guilty. The case continued for some months, with the verdict and sentence given in June 1964. Although a death sentence seemed likely, instead Mandela was sentenced to life in jail, and taken back to Robben Island.

The first few years after that were what Mandela later called 'the dark years', including the times when he heard that his wife, trying to continue the ANC's work, had been put under house arrest, and his eldest son, Thembi (aged 25, and the father of two small children) had been killed in a motor accident.

By 1969, however, the prison set-up improved slightly. New uniforms for the political prisoners meant they could wear long trousers instead of shorts (used for black people to imply that they were 'boys' not men). In 1975, Walter Sisulu suggested that Mandela write his memoirs, which he did by night, sleeping during the day. His friends Ahmed Kathrada (called Kathy) and Sisulu wrote comments and changes in the margin of the manuscript, before it was given to another prisoner, who copied it out in shorthand using minuscule handwriting. This was passed onto Mac, another prisoner, who smuggled parts of the manuscript out when he was released in 1976. Taken to England, this manuscript provided the basis for Mandela's autobiography. Meanwhile, the original manuscript was split into three parts, and buried in the garden on Robben Island. Unfortunately, workers were sent to dig in this area, to build a new wall, and one of the manuscripts was discovered and given to the prison warders. As a result, Mandela, Sisulu and Kathy lost study privileges for four years.


Eventually, and partly as a result of international pressure, including stiff sanctions, the Boer leader FW de Klerk started to dismantle the apartheid laws, when he came into government as President. The injustice of Nelson Mandela's continuing jail term had become an important cause of concern in several democratic countries, including Australia. There was even an international song, Free Nelson Mandela. These countries pressured the South African government to release Mandela and hold discussions with the ANC. After secret talks with the white government, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released.

The changes in South Africa moved quickly, with the ANC being allowed to be represented in free elections. As a result, Nelson Mandela became President in 1994. He appointed de Klerk as his Deputy President, and said they would hold hands and go forward together.

Why Is Nelson Mandela A Humanitarian?

Nelson Mandela could have chosen to do other things with his life. He had studied law, and was part of a law partnership at one time, so could easily have continued with that profession and ignored the civil rights issues. As a successful black lawyer in apartheid South Africa, he would have been reasonably well-paid, and much admired by the black population. Alternatively, Nelson could have incited a civil racist war, which would have caused much bloodshed and misery for millions of people.

Instead Nelson devoted his life to humanity as a whole, and aspired to change the racist laws in his country as peaceably as possible. He suffered 27 years in prison, mostly on made-up or unjust charges, for trying to make his country a better place. He bore his unfair punishments with barely a word of protest, except to repeat the need for justice for all. For example, his response in court to the charge of treason was:

I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Thanks to Nelson Mandela, South Africa is no longer a racist country. Through his example of continued tolerance and idealism, Nelson built bridges between black and white people everywhere. In 1993, Nelson Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with FW de Klerk. Together, black and white, they had brought peace and reconciliation to their country.

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