Celebrating Nelson Mandela at 92


There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

Rolihlahla “Nelson” Mandela from his speech as President of the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League on September 21, 1953 when he gave his Presidential address to the Transvaal branch of the ANC. The speech is reproduced in its entirety in the book Africa and the West: A Documentary History: Volume 2: From Colonialism to Independence, 1875 to the Present, written by William H. Worger, Nancy L. Clark and Edward A. Alpers.

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in Mvezo, a village in the Mtata district of South Africa. His parents were Gadla Mphakanyisawa, the chief of Mvezo and his wife Nosekeni. Mandela is a member of the Thembu people of the Xhosa nation.

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela details the history of his ancestry: “Each Xhosa belongs to a clan that traces its descent back to a specific forefather. I am a member of the Madiba clan, named after a Thembu chief who ruled in the Transkei in the eighteenth century. I am often addressed as Madiba, my clan name, a term of respect.”

Mandela was an infant when his father was stripped of his hereditary chieftainship by a White colonial magistrate. Chief Gadla Mphakanyisawa of Mvezo refused to recognize the assumed power of the White interloper settlers in his country and he suffered for that principled stand. He was charged with insubordination for refusing to accept that the magistrate representing the King of England had any legitimate power over him.

In Long Walk to Freedom Mandela writes: “There was no inquiry or investigation; that was reserved for White civil servants. The magistrate simply deposed my father, thus ending the Mandela family chieftainship. My father, who was a wealthy nobleman by the standards of his time, lost both his fortune and his title. He was deprived of most of his herd and land and the revenue that came with them.”

His family was forced to move to Qunu, the village where Mandela spent his childhood.

Mandela’s father was an excellent role model for a future leader; as a man who embodied strength of character and purpose, refusing to abandon the traditions of his people.

“My father remained aloof from Christianity and instead reserved his own faith for the great spirit of the Xhosas, Qamata, the God of his fathers.”

Mandela’s early education received from his father and community inspired him to become the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) in adulthood. He has written that the formal education he received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions, were automatically assumed to be superior. On his first day of school he was given the name “Nelson” to replace his African name, Rolihlahla.

Mandela wrote about the influence of the stories his mother told him as well as the history of his people that he learned from an elder griot, Chief Joyi.

“Chief Joyi railed against the White man, who he believed had deliberately sundered the Xhosa tribe, dividing brother from brother. The White man had told the Thembus that their true chief was the great White queen across the ocean and that they were her subjects. But the White queen brought nothing but misery and perfidy to the Black people, and if she was a chief she was an evil chief.

“Chief Joyi’s war stories and his indictment of the British made me feel angry and cheated, as though I had already been robbed of my own birthright. Chief Joyi said that the African people lived in relative peace until the coming of the abelungu, the White people, who arrived from across the sea with fire-breathing weapons. Once, he said, the Thembu, the Mpondo, the Xhosa and the Zulu were all children of one father, and lived as brothers.

“The White man shattered the ubuntu, the fellowship, of the various tribes. The White man was hungry and greedy for land, and the Black man shared the land with him as they shared the air and water; land was not for man to possess. But the White man took the land as you might seize another man’s horse.”

The queen referred to in Chief Joyi’s reminiscences was Victoria, who ruled the British Empire (1837-1901) including many colonized African countries.

Refusing to be content living as a second-class citizen in the country of his birth cost Mandela dearly. In his struggle to ensure the human and civil rights for Africans in South Africa, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 11, 1964, where he remained until February 11, 1990. The vicious White supremacist apartheid system (kept in place by brutal force from 1948 to 1994) ensured that he was not allowed to attend his mother’s funeral in 1968 or the funeral of his eldest son Thembekile, who died in a car accident in 1969.

Spending almost three decades in prison, Mandela may well have been forgotten by the world except that the phenomenal woman he had married shortly before being sentenced to life imprisonment would not allow that to happen. Mandela has acknowledged the role that Nomzamo “Winnie” Madikizela-Mandela played in the anti-apartheid struggle.

“My former wife is a remarkable person whom I respect even today. She suffered a great deal and kept the name Mandela alive when I was in jail. She also looked after my children and played a very prominent role in the struggle.”

Madikizela-Mandela documented that struggle including the years of police brutality, false imprisonment and harassment by the White supremacist culture of the minority settler community of Whites in South Africa in “Part of My Soul Went With Him” published in 1985.

Since Mandela’s release from prison and his election as South Africa’s first legitimate President (1994-1998), the world has celebrated his capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation. He has received accolades, honorary degrees and statues have been erected in his honour.

On Tuesday, July 1, 2008, just days before Mandela celebrated his 90th birthday, then President George W. Bush signed into law bill H.R. 5690 which took Mandela off the U.S. terrorist watch list.


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