When Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, his first name was not the “Nelson” by which the world has come to know him. Rather, Mr. Mandela was given a more traditional African first name at birth. The South Africa into which Mandela was born was a country where citizens who were black and other persons of color lived under the racially segregated, white minority-dominated system of government known as Apartheid. Until he moved to Johannesburg in 1941 at the age of 23, Mr. Mandela lived in a tiny village, the name of which wasn’t mentioned when CBS News profiled his life on December 5, 2013.
In addition to being college educated, Nelson Mandela was also South Africa’s first black lawyer and co-founder of a legal clinic for citizens of color. The philosophy with which he viewed his country’s government was one of nonviolence, based on Mandela’s belief that change could be achieved by negotiation and peaceful demonstrations. Even though the activist into which Mandela was being transformed had attended African National Congress meetings, first informally and then served formally in several secretarial capacities, Mandela did not allow himself to be influenced by others whose approaches to change at least bordered on violence. All of that changed, however, in December 1960, when South African police killed 69 black demonstrators who were assembled peacefully in Sharpeville. From 1960 until 1963, when Nelson Mandela received a life sentence to prison for high treason, the man who now believed in violence to resolve difficult issues was living up to his African name which meant “trouble maker.” The prison to which Mr. Mandela was sent was on Robin Island, South Africa’s equivalent to America’s former facility at Alcatraz. About Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, ABC Talk Show host Lars Larsen said, “that prison on Robin’s Island was nothing like what we have in this country. Mandela was allowed only yearly visits from his family and he could only receive letters twice a year.” While imprisoned, this activist, who would one day become President, was cut off from not only his family but also the rest of the world.
During the 1980s, Congress voted to impose sanctions on South Africa to protest Mandela’s imprisonment and the system of Apartheid. Then-President Reagan opposed sanctions against South Africa on the basis that “they would not work.” Reagan’s opposition may also have been due, in part, to Mr. Mandela’s affiliation with the African National Congress, some of whose members were Communists. (It is worth noting, in fact, that, because of that affiliation, Mr. Mandela’s name was on this country’s “terrorist” list until 2008.)
On February 11, 1990, at the age of 71, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, though he would later confide to President Clinton during a visit to the United States that he “didn’t feel free.” “I was afraid and filled with hate,” Mandela continued “but then I realized that as long as I felt this way, I wasn’t really free because they still had me, and I wanted to be free.”
When he became South Africa’s first black President in 1994, Nelson Mandela crafted a new Constitution which established a Democratic, inclusive, multiracial government. In an interview with CBS in which he reflected on former President Mandela’s life and legacy, Bill Clinton described his longtime friend as “a wily politician.” As a man who sought reconciliation without thought of retribution, Mr. Mandela even included his former jailers and others who had been part of the Apartheid system in his government. During his presidency, Mr. Mandela changed the face and image of South Africa and changed the world in the process. “To go from prisoner to president shows the change that can be achieved,” President Barack Obama noted on December 5, 2013. Because of his achievements and significant impact on the world, President Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with former President de Klerk
In 2004, statesman Mandela retired from public office at the age of 84. Though officially retired, former President Mandela remained active in world affairs. In 2005, for instance, President Bush met with Mr. Mandela, who clearly expressed his opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq. In 2001, Mr. Mandela was just as firm in his support of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan as he would later be opposed to U.S. intervention in Iraq.
In June, 2013, Nelson Mandela was rushed to a South African hospital where he remained for three months, during which time he struggled to recover from reoccurring lung infections. Even when released from the hospital early in September, his condition remained critical. In fact, he received around the clock care in an environment much like a hospital’s intensive care unit. However, Mr. Mandela remained in critical condition until his death at home in Johannesburg on December 5, 2013. During news coverage of 95 year old Mandela’s passage from earthly life, mourners could be seen in front of the statesman’s home singing his praises. “Both Black and White South Africans will mourn Mandela’s death,” CBS news anchor Scott Pelley said. As a tribute to her longtime friend, renowned writer Dr. Maya Angelou wrote a poetic tribute to Mr. Mandela entitled, “His Life Is Done.”
Despite the hardships Nelson Mandela endured, he changed not only his nation; he also made the world a better place through his multi-layered legacy of persistence, inclusion and forgiveness.
Sources: news reports on KDKA TV, Pittsburgh’s CBS affiliate; CBS News Anchor Scott Pelley; comments from President Obama; and reflections from former President Bill Clinton.
In 1991, Nelson Mandela visited Pittsburgh and in 1999, Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood established “Peace Park” in Nelson Mandela’s honor. Tell us in Readers Forum if Nelson Mandela visited your city or town of residence and what your local community has done to honor him.