The Day Mandela was freed: Reflections and Lessons for Contemporary World Politics

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“In prison, you come face to face with time. There is nothing more terrifying”

 – Nelson Mandela

11th February, 1990 marks a significant date of the 20th century, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison to lead South Africa to democracy. This day’s event precipitated a paradigm shift not only in South African politics but also world politics.

He was born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo, a tiny village in the eastern Cape of South Africa. His clan name – “Madiba” is often used in South Africa. Named Rolihlahla Dalibhunga at birth, his English name, Nelson, was given to him by a teacher at his school. His father, a counsellor, died when he was nine and was placed in the care of the acting regent of the Thembu people, Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Mandela married Winnie Madikizela, in 1958. She took an active role in the campaign to free her husband from prison.¹ Women (like Winnie) are not only a fabric in the political and social milieu but are a thread that holds it together; they are and ought to be equal partners in championing change. 

Mandela’s passion for politics was fuelled after being exposed to liberal, radical and Africanist thought, as well as racism and discrimination during his studies for a law degree at Witswaterand University, where he met people from all races and backgrounds.¹

In 1956, Mr Mandela was charged with high treason, along with 155 other activists, but the charges against him were dropped after a four-year trial. Confrontation and pressure to apartheid regime grew, such as in 1960 when 69 black people were shot by police (Sharpeville massacre) and with the new Pass Laws, which dictated where black people were allowed to live and work.²

He was arrested and charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the government. Speaking from the dock in the Rivonia court room, Mr Mandela used the stand to convey his beliefs about democracy, freedom and equality. In 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison.²

In 12 months between 1968 and 1969, Mandela’s mother died and his eldest son was killed in a car crash but he was not allowed to attend any of these funerals. He remained in prison on Robben Island for 18 years before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland in 1982.¹

As Mandela and other African National Congress (ANC) leaders languished in prison or lived in exile, the youths of South Africa’s black townships did their best to fight white minority rule. Hundreds were killed and thousands were injured.¹ Youths are a useful resource for progress in politics.

An international campaign against apartheid was launched in 1980 by the ANC led by the exiled Mr Tambo. It ingeniously focused on one cause and one person – the demand to release Mr Mandela.²

This climaxed into a series of campaigns both locally in South Africa and around the world; like the 1988 concert held in London at Wembley stadium with 72,000 people – and millions more watching on TV around the world – sang “Free Nelson Mandela”.¹

It was ‘popular pressure’ that led world leaders to stiffen the sanctions first imposed on South Africa in 1967 against the apartheid regime. The pressure produced results, and in 1990, President FW de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC. Mr Mandela was released from prison and talks on forming a new multi-racial democracy for South Africa commenced. Enormous gatherings welcomed Nelson Mandela’s release.²

On 27th April, 1994, for the first time in South Africa’s history, all races voted in democratic elections and Mr Mandela was overwhelmingly elected president. After being jailed for 27 years, he became the country’s first black president and played a leading role in the drive for peace in other spheres of conflict.¹

In December 1993, Mandela and F.W de Klerk – his political rival, with whom he had a courteous but turbulent relationship with, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. F.W de Klerk (then South African President), deserved the prize in that he demonstrated a sense of willingness in negotiating a way forward for a country that was at the verge of collapse.²

The anti-apartheid icon, after spending 27 years in jail, was still strong and courageous. He rose to become one of the world’s most esteemed statesmen, who led the struggle to substitute the apartheid regime of South Africa with a multi-racial democracy.

His role in fighting racism in South Africa gained him wide respect, and for forgiving his former white jailers his release from prison.

He cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which he both hoped to live for and one for which he was prepared to die for.

Mandela’s concentration was on building a new international image for South Africa (not witch-hunting his perceived political enemies) by persuading the country’s multinational corporations to remain and invest in South Africa, which he successfully did. Since his release from prison, his schedule was crowded with numerous duties and responsibilities.¹

In 2004, aged 85, Mr Mandela retired from public life to spend more time with his family and friends and engage in “quiet reflection”.¹

‘The Elders’, a group of leading world figures, formed on his 89th birthday, aims at offering proficiency and leadership in finding solutions to some of the hardest problems that plague the world.

He unrelentingly journeyed the world, meeting leaders, attending conferences and collecting awards after stepping down as president. His charisma, self-deprecating sense of humour and lack of bitterness over his harsh treatment, as well as his amazing life story, partly explain his extraordinary global appeal.

Even from his deathbed, at the age of 95, Mandela continued to teach lessons – in patience, in love, tolerance, peace, reconciliation, justice, human rights, dignity and integrity. 1918-2013, the dash in between the years, represents Mandela’s life; as an enigma, an idea and possibilities. The day he was released out of prison redefined ‘world’ politics and is one peculiar happening that punctuates events of the 20th Century; with ‘essential lessons’ for humanity in today’s fractured ‘national and global’ politics. Though Mandela is gone, his heroic legacy lives on.

¹Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. London: Abacus, 2004


Written by Sanny Mulubale, edited by Michael Higgs