The death of former South African President Nelson Mandela has caused immense sadness all around the world. The iconic leader of the campaign against apartheid and the father of the modern democratic South Africa was one of the towering figures of the past century.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison on the notorious Robbins Island, being freed in 1990 after an international campaign lasting many years. The image of him walking free, fist raised in salute, is one that will live long in the memories of millions. I will never forget standing in the street named after him in Glasgow with thousands of others, watching on as he raised his fist in triumph.
Nelson Mandela became radicalised at University in the 1940s and helped to form the youth wing of the African National Congress. He joined the ANC’s ruling National Executive in 1950 and quickly rose through the ranks. A lawyer by profession, Mandela opened his own firm with fellow radical Oliver Tambo, offering a rare black legal service.
An enemy of the white racist government, he was arrested many times. Mandela initially followed a non violent path, but by the mid 1950s he had become convinced that only an armed struggle would end the apartheid regime. In 1961 Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) with Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo. He became chairman and chief organiser of the of the guerrilla group, which was in effect the armed wing of the ANC, carrying out attacks of sabotage against economic targets.
Mandela and others were arrested in 1962 and after the Rivonia Trail, where he and his co-accused were charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. Spending 20 years on Robbins Island, a harsh prison with brutal conditions, Mandela was ill treated and abused, as well as being forced to carry out hard labour, breaking rocks.
As the struggle against apartheid continued, Mandela became an international figure, and the Free Nelson Mandela campaign became known in many countries. A concert organised for Mandela’s 70th birthday in July 1988 at London’s Wembley Stadium received massive publicity for his cause throughout the world.
Eventually economic sanctions and political pressure forced the South African government of FW De Klerk to act and Mandela was released on 11 February 1990. Now a statesman of international repute, Mandela was key to the negotiations that would finally see the dismantling of the hated apartheid state. In 1994 he was elected as President of South Africa. His inauguration was watched by a global audience of over one billion people. The “Long Walk To Freedom”, the title of his autobiography, was complete.
Mandela had only ever planned on serving one term in office as President, and gave his farewell speech on 29 March 1999, after which he retired. But he was to spend five more years in the public eye, still active in championing many liberal causes before ill health finally led to him “retiring from retirement” and leaving public life.
Few world figures held ever been held in greater esteem than Nelson Mandela. The man who led the fight for his people’s freedom, defeated an ingrained and repressive regime and founded a modern democratic nation is a hero to millions. Many have been described as great; Mandela was one of the few who truly deserved the accolade.
A tireless campaigner, Mandela received over 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom. He will be remembered as the man who ended the racist South African regime and stood up for justice and racial harmony.
Nelson Mandela was a unique figure who came to personify the fight for racial equality, and not just in South Africa. His courage and burning desire to free his people burned brightly and his achievements were immense. There have been very few figures in modern history with the stature of Nelson Mandela, very few who have ever come to mean so much to so many. He will be sadly missed.