20 Year Anniversary: Nelson Mandela’s Release From Prison

20 years ago, today, the world stood still in anticipation of the realization of the news announced just a week earlier by the South African government that the world’s most famous prisoner was going to be given his freedom back. On 2nd February 1990, then South African President Frederik W De Klerk had announced to the nation that he was lifting the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) and that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was going to be released. On 11th February 1990 Mandela was set free after more than two decades of unfair and unjustified incarceration by the then white led apartheid regime.

It has to be said though that there had been false promises and rumours before his actual release. This is the man who had been behind bars for 27 years and, it is fair to say, his sympathizers and the majority of the South African black population believed from the day he was imprisoned that he would be released soon. This belief never materialised soon enough and so it is understandable that 27 years later, the majority had lost hope except Mandela himself. Therefore, when the dream was finally realized and the man of the people was paraded to the masses that had been waiting for his arrival, it was the happiest the world has been. The man many believed they would never see alive again walked literally to freedom. The multitude of people that thronged to meet him and the mixture of races that were on hand to see their hero bear testimony to the nature of the man that is Mandela.

Why is Mandela revered?
Over the years, people have gradually (and maybe conveniently) ignored the fact that Mandela abandoned the concept of non-violence as a means to an end. He had until the Sharpeville Massacre believed in the teachings expounded by his hero, the Indian legend, Mahatma Gandhi who had advocated for peaceful means to fight evil. In fact, Mandela also went against the beliefs of most senior members who thought peaceful means were better than violence. Mandela broke loose and established an underground movement known as Umkontho we Sizwe. Mandela in abandoning peaceful means in fighting what was widely accepted as an evil regime seemed to have accepted and believed that the concept put forward by the American black civil leader, Malcolm X spoke volumes of the only language that the apartheid regime appeared to understand. In fact, Mandela did not just believe in Malcolm X’s method but he publicly quoted his famous statement “We declare our right on this earth to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence…by any means necessary”

In this regard therefore, it is possible to argue that Mandela, despite being perhaps the most admired figure of our age, falls short of the giants of the past. In fact, Mandela himself has been modest about this when he conceded that “I was not a Messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

However, in fairness to Mandela, he arrived at the crossroad after seeing that years of persuasion and peaceful marches were not working against a regime that gave no care to the black people of South Africa. In fact, he once equated peaceful protests and demonstrations as a means of surrender. He had fully embraced violent marches and methods as if to fully give effect to his middle name that simply translates into “troublemaker”. It is because of his massive support, commitment and involvement in these violent acts that he freely admitted guilty to charges of capital crimes of sabotage which (together with a charge of conspiring to help other countries invade South Africa that he did not admit but was found guilty of) led him to be imprisoned at Robben Island.

However, if the racists regime thought Mandela was going to go down quietly to prison they could not be further away from the truth. In his statement from the dock he justified why ANC had resorted to violence and how the all white regime had failed the South Africans. He closed his statement with words that have been widely quoted and, if ever there was any doubt, words that set him to the world stage “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. 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.”

This is the man that had no iota of doubt in what he believed in. This is the man that had unbelievable hope and determination. Even when behind bars, and dare I say helpless, Mandela never doubted his strength. There were countless examples of this but one that stood out for me is when he refused to jog from the harbour, where the ferry docked, to the prison gates. The warden in charge warned him bluntly that unless he started obeying, he might quiet simply be killed and that no one on the mainland would ever be the wiser. Mandela quietly retorted that “if you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and when I finish with you, you will be as poor as a church mouse.” Amazingly, the warden backed off.

It has always been evident that Mandela is his own man with a clear picture of what he wants. He does not belong to leaders of his time that were all too happy rushing to Lancaster and similar places to cut deals that guaranteed them power. Mandela put his people first and was prepared to stay in prison until people were given proper freedom. It was therefore not surprising when he turned down the offer to be released if agreed not to engage in violent political activities. Mandela flatly rejected the offer through his daughter and asked, “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner can not enter into contracts.”

Mandela’s release
Mandela’s stature grew so huge and as the world changed so did the pressure on the South African regime. World leaders began bowing to citizenry pressure, as the Free Nelson Mandela campaign grew stronger and stronger. Eventually, the apartheid regime had no choice but to unconditionally free the man the whole world wanted to see free. Mandela had the belief that his release was not conditioned on the person in control but on circumstances of events. It is small wonder that after he had been released, and before he assumed power, he publicly labelled the then President (and the person who had authorized his release) as a head of  “an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime.”

Mandela went on to accuse De Klerk’s government of complicity in the killings of 1992. However, before Mandela had become president, his biggest test and some say his finest hour to show that he was indeed a statesman came rather tragically when ANC lost its influential and charismatic leader in Chris Hani. He was assassinated in April 1993. This threatened to bring South Africa into turmoil even before Mandela had finished touring his new home outside prison. However and despite the accused in the assassination being white, he appealed to both white and black to remain calm in the wake of what he described as a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster.

Mandela did galvanize the country and elections were held in April 1994. What stood out for Mandela was not that he took part and won the elections. It was rather the enfranchisement of all adult South Africans regardless of race. Mandela’s journey, for many, may have concluded with him assuming the presidency but not for the man himself. He was interested in seeing true unity, forgiveness and working together as equals. He accepted and welcomed those that tormented his people, those that killed his people. Mandela wanted to put closure and so he set up a reconciliation commission where people were immune from punishment no matter what crimes against humanity they committed under the apartheid era. This just pushed the super human Mandela into near mortal. Indeed some people have described Mandela as South Africa’s liberator and savior, its Washington and Lincoln rolled into one.

Mandela despite scoring a lot of success when he presided over a transitional government that culminated in South Africa hosting and winning the 1995 Rugby world cup further invited world adulation when he declared that he was only going to be president for one term of office. In a continent that up until now, people wants to cling on to power to a point of death, Mandela’s announcement was simply a breath of fresh air. If ever there was a person who was entitled to stay in power till dawn, it was Mandela. He had, in the eyes of many, earned the right to rule until his death. However, Mandela is no ordinary person and once again he showed the world how selfless he was.

Mandela and the world
Mandela has gone on to contribute a lot on the international stage. He managed to bring Libya back into the international community after he negotiated the handing over of the two Libyans accused of bombing the Pan Am flight over Scotland. Again, Mandela showed that he was not afraid to speak against injustice and wrongs when he bluntly warned Britain no one nation should be complainant, prosecutor and Judge. The case was later transferred to be tried in the Netherlands. Mandela was also vocal in opposing George Bush over Iraq. He castigated the Bush administration for wanting to go to war without UN mandate and called on the Americans to join massive protests against Bush. Mandela again showed leadership and in a direct jibe at Bush he declared “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.”

Mandela has also worked tirelessly in raising AIDS awareness through his 46664 campaign. He has also voiced his support to the make poverty history campaign. Mandela has risen beyond measure and is the mostly decorated living person in history. He is, of course, the noble prize winner but the award that must stand out the most is the one that was recently bestowed on him by the UN. In an unprecedented move, the UN General Assembly in November 2009 declared that Mandela’s birthday, 18th July, would be observed as Mandela Day marking his contribution to world freedom. He is again the only person in living memory that will be recognized and observed by the international calendar. Would it not be even greater if South Africa and other countries could go one better and mark it as a public holiday so as to entrench it even further in people’s minds?

Mandela’s health
However after all is said and done, and as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. Mandela is now old and frail and at 91 years of age, there are rumors he is suffering from age related dementia. However, if we believe in rumors Mandela would have died first in 2003 when CNN incorrectly announced his death and then 2007 when rumors abound that Mandela had died. Mandela is no ordinary person; he kept the faith and has continued to do so. It is the ordinary people that have failed to keep the faith despite what Mandela has demonstrated to this day.

In June 2008 Mandela came to London to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Free Nelson Mandela London concert and his 90th birthday. He did not speak much but when he did speak, he said “Even as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete – our work is for freedom for all.” However, it was not until he said the following words “We say tonight after nearly 90 years of life, its time for new hands to lift the burdens. It’s in your hands now, I thank you.” that it dawned on people that after all Mandela may not be with us that much longer. Many in that hugely packed Hyde Park believed that his passing was imminent. This of course is in stark contrast to the beliefs held by people 20 years ago that Mandela was coming home.

Despite his modesty, Mandela is an extraordinary person like no other. People must believe that he has at least one final hooray to perform to the public. Surely, it is beyond the realm of reason to think that Mandela will hand the World Cup trophy to South Africa in the summer, isn’t it? But the average Joe still wants Mandela to be the one to hand over the trophy to whoever will win. That will be the curtain call leaving Mandela as the last black person standing.

On the occasion of 20 years of release of Nelson Mandela from prison, we have published above a copy of an article from lusakatimes.com. It is so well written that we have reproduced it as it is. We hope in the interest of educating people in India about Nelson Mandela, Mr. Anthony Kasonde will excuse us for reproducing this article.

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Nelson Mandela – What Makes Him a Legend in Modern World

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