Nelson Mandela, the man who was one of the world’s most recognized leaders and who brought an end to apartheid in South Africa before being elected to the nation’s presidency, died on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. His death followed months of failing health, much of which had been covered extensively by the media since June.
Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, announced Mandela’s death to the public, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Zuma stated, “Our beloved Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the founding president of our democratic nation, has departed. He passed on peacefully in the company of his family around 20h50 on the fifth of December 2013. He is now resting. He is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father. Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
Within hours of the announcement, mourners in South Africa and throughout the rest of the world expressed their sorrow at the news of Mandela’s passing. Dozens of world leaders spoke out on what Mandela meant to them.
President Barack Obama spoke admirably of the former South African president: “I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life.” He stated in the same speech, “For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived, a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice. May God bless his memory and keep him in peace.”
Other leaders ranging from British Prime Minister David Cameron to F.W. DeKlerk, Mandela’s immediate predecessor who served as the last white president of South Africa, expressed their sorrow over his death and remembered his life’s work.
Millions of South Africans, both black and white, chanted in the streets outside Mandela’s home to celebrate his life and show the world how much he meant to their country. Black South Africans chanted his birth name, Rolihlahla and remembered the man who suffered through so much in his life, first as an oppressed black South African who stood firmly opposed to the rule of apartheid in his country, and then as a prisoner for nearly 30 years because of his political beliefs.
Likewise, Mandela’s time as South Africa’s first post-apartheid president and his ability to promote peace and forgiveness in the divided nation are also what millions remember. But the fact of the matter was that, as recently as 20 years ago, this celebration of such a man by so many diversified people would have been controversial.
In order to fully understand Mandela’s influence on South Africa, one would have to look back on both his life and the history of his people and country.
He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in what was then known as the village of Mvezo, Union of South Africa, located in the Southern Cape Province, according to NBC News. His family descended from the Thembu tribe, some of whom had high power. His father Galda, like many other males of such background during this time period, practiced polygamy and had several wives. It was Galda’s third wife, Nosekeni Fanny, who would give birth to and raise his most famous son. Mandela’s mother was a devout Christian and raised him in her faith, which would prove to be highly influential to him throughout his life.
Although Mandela had the disadvantage of being black in South Africa during apartheid, his family nobility granted him more privilege than others of the same race, particularly in education. After receiving basic education, Mandela was able to attend The University College of Fort Hare, which at the time was the only college available for blacks in South Africa, according to The New York Times. Many of his allies believe his education was partially responsible for his belief that he was equal to white South Africans. Mandela eventually became a lawyer and began the activism that would make him famous.
For the most part, his activism was non-race based except for a brief time in his youth.
As Mandela put it, “I was angry at the white man, not at racism,” according to NBC News. However, his actions grew more militant in the early 1960s, mainly due to frustration with the violent actions being carried out towards blacks by the white minority government. This shift was one reason the apartheid government imprisoned Mandela. He was put on trial due to his association with the African National Congress in 1964, and was sentenced to life in prison.
Mandela spent the first 18 years of his sentence on Robben Island, where he faced harsh conditions and abuse from the white guards, but remained persistent in his activism. He would regain popularity in the late 1970s following the murder of another influential black activist, Steven Biko.
The 1980s marked a decade of change where the entire world began to look negatively on the apartheid government in South Africa. Many western governments began to slowly place sanctions on the apartheid nation, although much of this was due to pressure from citizens than from actual leaders. Some of this reluctance was caused by the fear that the ANC was more sympathetic towards the Soviet Union than the West, a sentiment believed partially by the U.S. government. In fact, Mandela had been considered a terrorist by the CIA until 2008, according to CNN.
However, Mandela’s influence, as well as the realization by South African president F.W. DeKlerk that apartheid could not last, brought about its gradual end. Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990. This was celebrated around the world, and he was eventually elected the first post-apartheid president of South Africa in 1994.
Mandela’s presidency was considered a success for the most part but was nevertheless met with some criticism. Some have criticized his failure to end the inequality between the poor black majority and wealthy white minority. Another problem was his inability to prevent the corruption of many members of his political party, the ANC.
Nevertheless, many credit his presidency as being successful for preventing civil war as well as being able to make a transition towards peace. Over a decade after leaving office, most people agree that Mandela’s presidency was a tremendous asset for South Africa’s progress.
It was for these reasons that Mandela will be undoubtedly judged as one of history’s greats.
Information from CNN, NBC News, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times was used in this article.