After the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s death on the 5th of December, the world began to mourn. Tributes came in from all walks of life, from vox pops on the streets of major cities, to televised eulogies from world leaders. These took many forms. President Obama gave his from the White House, talking about Mr Mandela’s influence on his political career. David Cameron gave his from the steps of 10 Downing Street, describing Mr Mandela as “not just a hero of our time, but a hero for all time.”
Mr Cameron’s words sum up the general feeling about Mr Mandela; he was a great man, who embodied the best of the human spirit in the face of adversity. He was a man who had spent twenty-seven years in prison, and emerged to forgive his captors and the men who had sentenced him to life imprisonment-he met for lunch with his former prosecutor, Dr. Percy Yutar, and came to the conclusion that Yutar had simply been doing his duty as a government lawyer.) However, there was another side to Mr Mandela. In the early 1960s, after the Sharpeville Massacre, he had become a pivotal figure in Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of The Nation in the Xhosa language, often shortened to MK,) the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC.) His links with MK were strong, and he was tried three times between 1962 and 1964 for being a leader of MK, and signing off on acts of terrorism and violence, such as bombings, crop burnings, and general damage to infrastructure. Mr Mandela outlined the policy of MK in his “I am prepared to die” speech, given to the court during his 1964 trial for treason; “We felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy.” This speech made headlines round the world, and played a key part in forming the image of Mr Mandela in the eyes of the media.
After being released from prison in 1990, after years of pressure upon the National Party and Apartheid system, Mr Mandela was elected President of South Africa in the country’s first multi-racial elections in 1994. At his inauguration, Mr Mandela stated that his aim for South Africa was to: “…build the society in which all South Africans, white or black, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
This address built upon his earlier aim for a “democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities.” Whether he created that society remains a matter of contention. What does remain however, is the fact that he gave South Africa the chance to become that society. Upon assuming power, it would have been incredibly easy for Mr Mandela to wreak vengeance, and turn South Africa into an unstable, racist state, with the ANC becoming a party along the lines of Zanu PF in Zimbabwe, indulging in state-sponsored terrorism and violence. The fact that he didn’t, and instead tried to make South Africa into a society in which all were free, speaks volumes for Mr Mandela’s character. While his legacy is being debated, and his time in office is studied and critiqued, the fact that South Africa is able to indulge in such a degree of introspection shows that it at least has the courage to do so, and the stability to debate. To create a peaceful, non-racial South Africa would have required a saint, and as Mr Mandela admitted himself, he was “not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Lewis Thomas is a junior at the OHS.