An irony of Nelson Mandela’s life is that the African National Congress freedom fighter will forever be remembered as a man of peace. That could not have been envisioned in 1961, when Mandela helped persuade the ANC that violence was necessary to get whites to share power with South Africa’s black majority.
Since 1912, the ANC had peaceably sought equality, but to no avail. So its leaders listened to Mandela and other militants in the ANC Youth League, including Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo.
The rest of Mandela’s story is more familiar. Convicted in 1964 of plotting to overthrow the government, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. Until 1982, he was incarcerated in the infamous prison on Robben Island, off Cape Town, and later transferred to the mainland’s Pollsmoor Prison. Finally, in 1990, he was freed.
Mandela became well-known outside South Africa during his 27 years of imprisonment. His face, printed on posters and T-shirts, became a recognizable symbol for freedom movements across the globe. Mandela played a significant role in creating a new South Africa as white leaders strategized with him to chart the country’s future during his last years of incarceration.
Once released, Mandela took over the ANC presidency from Tambo, who was in failing health. He put aside the animosity any other person might have had toward the government that wrongly imprisoned him, and he worked with South African President F.W. de Klerk to finally end apartheid. For their collaboration, the two were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. The next year, Mandela was elected president of his country.
No one was more suited for that job at that moment than Mandela. His stature as one of the ANC’s staunchest warriors during its fight for freedom gave him the standing to insist that there would be no retribution against whites for their past policies.
His demeanor comforted whites, who had seen the ANC “necklace” traitors, fitting tires around their necks and setting fire to them. They feared being ejected from their homeland, as whites had been in other African nations where blacks ousted their colonial rulers. But that didn’t happen under Mandela, who understood that his country’s economy would fail amid that type of upheaval.
Mandela served only one five-year term, which was what he had promised. How easy it would have been for him to declare himself “president for life,” as too many others had done in postcolonial Africa. Instead, he did his best to make sure his country’s financial and cultural institutions were protected, and that the rights of all of its people — black, white, and mixed — were guaranteed.
Mandela, who died Thursday, was a strong man, having lived to the age of 95 despite his 27 years of imprisonment and the ailments associated with it, including the tuberculosis he contracted on Robben Island. But his strength wasn’t just physical. It was his intellectual capacity and spiritual growth that made Mandela such an effective, commanding agent of change.