A giant amongst men

Wouldn’t it be something to be giant amongst men? A revered leader? Someone who perseveres in the face of extreme adversity and inspires many? That’s what Nelson Mandela was/is to me and many others.

I recently went to the Nelson Mandela exhibition at Eden Park in Auckland. I already knew quite a lot about this remarkable man but I was pleasantly surprised by how much more I learnt from the exhibition.

Firstly, I learnt just how incredibly strong Mandela was. He was tough as nails. Tougher than nails, Mandela was stronger than titanium. Not only did he have to spend years of his life in hiding from the authorities – constantly travelling ‘undercover’ around South Africa, sleeping on friends’ couches for 2.5 years – not only did he go through circumcision (with a spear) as a 16-year-old (a standard Xhosa tribal right-of-passage ritual – an experience he described as being like “fire shooting through my veins”) but he also maintained his dignity, sanity, purpose and integrity whilst incarcerated in disgustingly primitive conditions for almost three decades of his life.

Twenty-seven years in solitary confinement, forced to undertake back-breaking, monotonous manual labour. It was during this time two of his immediate family passed away and his wife was harassed and arrested.

Mandela was unbreakable. He was also driven. Driven in the extreme. He had integrity. He was driven by a righteous anger that fueled an unrelenting rejection of the subjugation of his fellow black South Africans under the apartheid regime. He was never driven by hatred, he was always driven by a quest for equality of opportunity and basic human rights for his people. Mandela was without doubt, an inspirational leader and a giant amongst men.

He created an incredible legacy and it is terribly disappointing that his legacy has been severely tainted by the rampant in-fighting, tribalism and blatant corruption that has plagued (and continues to poison) South African politics since his death.

Here are some facts about Nelson Mandela:

  • At birth he was named Rolihlahla which means ‘troublemaker’
  • His father died when Mandela was 12 – he drifted for some time and he described this period as imbuing him with a sense of “proud rebelliousness” and “stubborn sense of fairness”
  • At this time he was adopted to another family and didn’t see his mother for many years
  • From the age of 19 he started to develop a passion for boxing and long distance running – later in life he met with Mohammed Ali on several occasions
  • He was expelled from university in 1940 for refusing to take his place on the Student Representative Council because he believed the voting process was corrupt. He had been studying English, Anthropology, Politics, Native Administration and Roman Dutch Law
  • In 1944 he became heavily involved with the African National Congress (ANC), forming the Youth League with a handful of close like-minded associates
  • In 1952 Mandela founded one of very few black-owned law firms in South Africa with his close friend Oliver Tambo
  • He was one of the organisers of the Defiance Campaign, the first large-scale multi-racial protest against apartheid
  • Throughout the 1950s Mandela was an attorney by day and a boxer by night
  • Mandela became involved with the armed wing of the ANC the Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) which lead to his arrest and trial for sabotage and in 1964, along with eight other defendants, he was sentenced to life imprisonment (solitary confinement) – he went on to serve 27 years of imprisonment
  • His cell on Robben Island measured 2.4 metres by 2 metres – he was 183 cms tall. You do the math – that’s seriously cramped
  • Two of  Mandela’s immediate family members died while he was imprisoned: his mother Nosekeni and his son Thembi – he was not allowed to attend either funeral
  • In 1985 President PW Botha offered to release Mandela and other political prisoners in exchange for a pledge that they renounce violence – he refused to be released under those circumstances, stating that violent protest was the ANC’s only option as all other non-violent protest had failed
  • In 1988 he was moved into confinement via house arrest and by 11 Feb 1990 he was set free by then President FW de Klerk
  • Mandela and FW de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Dec 1993
  • The election of 26-29 April 1994 was the first South African election in which people of all races could vote – the ANC won by almost 63% and the new government elected Mandela as the first ever black South African President
  • On his 80th birthday in 1998 Mandela married his third wife, Graca Machel, a Mozambican politician and humanitarian
  • Mandela died at the age of 95 on 5 December 2013. South Africa observed a 10-day period of mourning. 4,500 people attended his state funeral

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