Not an occasion to mourn the passing, but instead to celebrate the life of South Africa’s anti-apartheid hero whose remarkable influence had a profound impact around the world.
Known under the guise of many monikers during his lifetime, Nelson Mandela was born Rolihlahla Mandela, a Xhosa term, somewhat ironically meaning ‘troublemaker’. Mandela was given his English epithet ‘Nelson’ during his first day at school, a sign of the mentality within the region at the time. Later in life, Nelson Mandela became more affectionately known as Tata. As a measure of the deep respect felt by his fellow countrymen, Mandela was often described and thought of as the ‘Father of the Nation’. Mandela was also known by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba.
Madiba’s triumph over struggle has been an inspiration for decades. In his youth, he fled from an arranged marriage and studied law, a keen and enthusiastic activist who sought to end the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism and inequality.
Whilst living in Johannesburg, Madiba became involved in anti-colonial politics and became a founding member of the ANC’s Youth League. He was repeatedly arrested for alleged seditious activities but overcame this to rise to prominence as a freedom fighter in the ANC’s 1952 Defiance Campaign.
In 1961, he led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government, was denounced as a communist terrorist by critics and the following year sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the state.
After 27 years in prison, most notably on Robben Island, and following an overwhelming international campaign lobbying for his release, Madiba walked free during a time of escalating civil strife.
Following his release, Madiba joined negotiations with President F. W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections. In 1994, he led the democratic socialist party, ANC, to victory becoming South Africa’s first black president.
As the country’s leader, he focused his efforts on dismantling the apartheid system by fostering racial reconciliation. This was symbolised by the 1995 Rugby World Cup, hosted and won by South Africa.
Despite ending apartheid and combating poverty, Madiba recognised that his country remained racially and economically divided, crime was rife and racial tensions threatened to spill over into civil riots. Madiba recognised in the World Cup an opportunity to unite the country through the international language of sport.
The South African national rugby team, the Springboks, were largely regarded as a symbol of white supremacy amongst South Africa’s black community but Madiba enlisted the help of the Springboks captain, François Pienaar, in representing the country as one nation.
As the Springboks progressed through the first major sporting tournament in which South Africa was allowed to compete following the end of the apartheid, a rapport began to meld as the nation put aside their differences and generated increasing support for the Springboks.
South Africa made it to the final where they faced the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’, regarded as the best rugby side in the world. The day before the final, the Springboks visited the cell on Robben Island where Madiba spent the first 18 of his 27 years in jail. There, Pienaar remarked on his amazement that Madiba could ‘spend thirty years in a tiny cell, and come out ready to forgive the people who put [him] there’.
In the game the following day, an extra time drop kick gave South Africa a narrow victory in what has become recognised as the greatest and most significant event in sporting history. In the ceremony that followed, Madiba presented the Webb Ellis Cup to Pienaar in a Springboks shirt and cap. A moment that captured the success of the team and symbolised the unity of a divided nation.
During his tenure as South African President, Madiba also created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which investigated historical cases of human rights infringements, acted as an international mediator in bringing a peaceful resolution to difficult disputes, introduced measures to encourage land reform and expanded healthcare services.
After declining to run for a second term as president, Madiba concentrated his efforts on philanthropy. He continued to combat poverty and established the Nelson Mandela Foundation which was dedicated to curtailing the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Madiba made his last public appearance at the closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, also hosted by South Africa. He died on 5 December 2013 at the age of 95 following a prolonged respiratory infection, surrounded by his family.
Madiba received more than 250 honours in recognition of his contribution to activism, his fight against racism and his charitable work including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Idris Elba, who portrayed Madiba in the film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom said ‘What an honour it was to portray a man who defied odds, broke down barriers and championed human rights before the eyes of the world’.
Morgan Freeman, who also played Madiba in the 2009 film Invictus, a picture that captured the historic rugby World Cup victory, described him as ‘A hero who treasured liberty, freedom and the dignity of humankind’.
Barack Obama, the first African-American President of the United States, compared Madiba’s achievements to those of Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Rebel, warrior, freedom fighter and leader. A man who fought for injustice in the face of adversity. The prisoner who became president. The president who unified a divided nation. Farewell Madiba.