The seven lives of Nelson Mandela

Mandela is a rare figure in history. Since 1980, the former South African President and ‘father of the rainbow nation’ witnessed his progressive transformation from political activist to universal icon. Mandela’s physical demise, when it does occur, will only claim the mortal remains of this international, larger-than-life figure. It was in 1980 that a South-African weekly first appeared with the now famous headline ‘Free Mandela!’. Eight years later, the BBC organized a mega-concert at Wembley Stadium where 72,000 men and women chanted those same words and the international anti-apartheid campaign began in earnest. One name associated with one cause. The previous ‘Down with apartheid!’ was replaced with a positive symbol of resistance and resilience. The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa was henceforth human and relatable.

Few may remember today that, prior to the late 1970s, Mandela had been all but forgotten. Placed in the dock of the Rivonia trial, named after the Johannesburg neighborhood where the police rounded up the ANC leadership in the summer of 1963, he encountered his first brush with death. At the time, Mandela was already being held in detention on other charges. His journal, however, had been discovered in the raid and he was indicted for ‘sabotage’ and ‘treason’ with the rest of his comrades. Subject to capital punishment, Mandela was the final defendant to address the tribunal. For four hours, he passionately pleaded in favor of “a democratic and free society in which all persons could live together in harmony and with equal opportunities”, concluding: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve but, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.

Due to international pressure, the lives of the ANC leadership were miraculously spared. Mandela and ten others were sentenced to life in prison and sent to Robben Island, the penitentiary off the coast near Cape Town. There, they vanished into oblivion. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela could not be quoted and his image could not be shown. Even outside apartheid’s jurisdiction, any mention of Mandela all but disappeared in the media for the 11 years between 1967 and 1978, soon eclipsed by Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness movement. During and after the Soweto uprising of 1976, only his wife Winnie perpetuated and eventually revived the memory of the imprisoned ANC leader. In its darkest hours, the “mother of the nation” held the Mandela name high.

In a bitterly ironic twist, Nelson and Winnie’s love, having survived twenty-seven years of incarceration, for him, and, for her, the harrowing daily fight against apartheid, would perish after Mandela’s triumphant release in February 1990. The couple split two years later. Six years later, they divorced. By then, Nelson was presiding over a government of national unity while Winnie was being prosecuted for her alleged role in the Stompie Moeketsi affair. The victims of the affair were tortured by members of the Mandela United Football Club, in reality a gang of township thugs doubling as Winnie’s bodyguards. In 1996, seeking divorce, Nelson characterized Winnie as “a perpetual source of both private and public embarrassment”. With her, however, he left behind part of his soul.

In power, President Mandela also lost his ideals and his innocence. The Socialist dreams enshrined in the ANC’s Freedom Charter, namely the nationalization of the South-African mining industry, were quickly abandoned. Mandela’s personal integrity notwithstanding, “make money by all means, legal or otherwise” became the de facto rallying cry for the ANC executives. Part of a generation reluctant to discuss sexuality in public, Mandela also failed to stem the rising tide of the AIDS epidemic and then kept mum in the face of his successor’s denial of the disease’s viral transmission. Because of Thabo Mbeki’s ideological stance, antiretroviral drugs were not delivered to hospitals in South-African and more than 300.000 patients needlessly died – the ultimate betrayal of Mbeki’s “African Renaissance”.

The failure of the ANC in government is the tragedy of Mandela’s own life.  Not only is South Africa a far cry from becoming the “rainbow nation” promised twenty years ago but, much worse, its ANC liberators have turned into the looters of the land for which Mandela fought. Within party ranks, corruption, incompetence and bitter factionalism have proven pandemic. Throughout the country, racial tensions are very much alive and socio-economic inequity has even worsened. To help overcome both is the best service we all – inside and outside South Africa – can render Mandela. After 95 years of combat, this living legend could perhaps expire in peace if only he felt the beating pulse of the “new” South Africa he gave his life for.

Ollivier is a writer now living in South Africa and was formerly a political adviser to then-French President Jacques Chirac.