An Unmatched Legacy: On Nelson Mandela and the struggle to end apartheid

7 Dec 2013

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." 
– Nelson Mandela

Most of the people I hold in reverence, such as Christopher Hitchens, Bill Hicks and Albert Camus, died before I discovered them. I never really had to deal with the blow of losing someone who I would regard as a hero. Yet when Nelson Mandela died, I felt a great sense of loss. He embodied so many of humanities greatest virtues. He embraced liberty, equality and forgiveness with open arms – united a nation and crushed apartheid yet still forgave those who before sort his death. He gained admirers from both the left-wing and the right-wing (yet the Left can gladly claim his as a political titan of theirs, much like the Right with Thatcher) and transcended above petty partisan squabbles. He wasn’t a representative of socialism, conservatism or any other ideology, he was a representative of humanity. A man who has monuments in several continents, wrote best-selling works and consigned bigotry to the dustbin of history – Mandela, dying at the age of 95, will be missed the world over. 


Mandela certainly was a controversial figure – as many hateful people insist on pointing out (some I suspect with a strange sense of glee) he had a background in the terroristic African National Congress (ANC). Certainly some of the actions of the ANC during Mandela’s time as a freedom fighter were unforgivable. Yet, I must find that it’s incredibly hard for us to judge from a relatively stable nation what the conditions were like for some of those freedom fighters. I haven’t experience oppression, political violence and segregation and hopefully never will thanks to the courage of figures like Mandela.  I can understand the motives as to why people would join the ANC – although I certainly won’t stick up for terrorism and never will, some of those within the ANC fought genuinely for freedom. I can’t imagine apartheid could have been broken in South Africa through the normal political process, as those who wanted to break it had no political voice. I’m only thankful that once Mandela entered the politics he left the worst parts of his radicalism behind. 

During his time as a freedom fighter, Mandela was arrested by the apartheid government and thrown in jail for a shocking 27 years. That amount of time is disgraceful. Yet, he didn’t give up in prison, saying after his release that “I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues.” The fact his first thoughts when entering prison were how he could continue the fight rather than giving up hope is testament to the fighting spirit of Mandela. He carried on, despite being kept in inhumane conditions, fighting the good fight. He began to study for a LLB and wrote a book – all whilst being held captive by the apartheid authorities. 

Yet Mandela’s treatment didn’t go unnoticed – left-wingers united internationally for the cause of freedom for both Mandela and South Africa. The Ska band The Special’s hit Nelson Mandela heavily publicised the cause and soon enough, the then president of South Africa, Frederik Willem de Clerk met with Mandela to arrange his freedom. It must be noted that de Clerk was one of the few honourable apartheid era politicians – he met with Mandela despite fierce opposition from his cabinet and also helped destroy apartheid once for all. He was one of the few people who actually deserved their Nobel Peace Prize. 

Then Mandela was released from prison – leaving not with a grudge to hold but a smile on his face and a fist raised defiantly in the air. He went on to deconstruct apartheid brick by brick and turned South Africa from a colonialist nightmare to a free nation. Yet, following this he didn’t turn on the white population – he didn’t turn to the hatred of so many other African dictators. He, and many other blacks in South Africa, extended the hand of friendship to the white population. Mandela preached of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ of South Africa that would incorporate all colours and creeds. This is what makes me admire Mandela so much – despite South African blacks suffering so viciously at the end of white South Africans, he didn’t choose to hate them – he forgave them. He even created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate the apartheid era crimes of not only the government but also the ANC itself. His policy of reconciliation made him the internationally renowned figure he is today. Indeed he said it better than me, stating that: "courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace." If only modern day world leaders lived by these words. Few people can claim to change a nation so drastically in a positive direction – and Mandela’s legacy in South Africa is permanently captured in its national anthem:  “Sounds the call to come together, and united we shall stand, let us live and strive for freedom in South Africa our land.”

Mandela went on to become an international statesman and a physical embodiment of the anti-apartheid struggle. He wrote books, met with world leaders and shared his view on modern day’s events well into his 90s. He was truly one of the best that humanity could offer. Although early in his life he had many immoralities about him, his policy of reconciliation and his warrior-like determination to ensure South Africa became an equal society made him a truly moral figure. It’s sad to know he has gone, yet I doubt the candles he lit in the name of liberty, equality and forgiveness will not cease to go out for many years to come.

Rest in peace Madiba. 

By Rory Claydon

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