Nelson Mandela biography: A long walk to immortality - the life and times of Madiba


Thursday 05 December 2013 23:31 GMT

Nelson Mandela was the most respected, and probably the most loved of all world leaders in the late 20th century, and the most enduring of the heroes who emerged from the political convulsions of the 1980s. He personified the peaceful and rapid transition of power in South Africa that many had thought impossible, while his commitment to reconciliation was underlined by his own experience of personal sacrifice and forgiveness.

For 27 years in jail he refused to compromise his principles, while for most of that time his own party, the African National Congress (ANC), was broken. But he emerged in February 1990 to become the dominant influence in his country, without whom peace was unlikely. When he was elected President in April 1994, he was accepted by whites as well as blacks as the embodiment of his country's new democracy, with a unique moral authority.

The roots of Mandela's strength went back to his upbringing in the rural Transkei, the homeland of the Xhosas in the Eastern Cape province. He was related to the paramount chief of the Thembu people, to whom his father was chief councillor, and he was brought up with a strong sense of responsibility and tribal pride. "The elders would tell tales," as he later described it, "about the wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland."

His first influences were very local and tribal. His father died when he was nine, and he went to live at the paramount chief's Great Place, where he would watch the chief dispensing justice - which gave him an early interest in the law. But he soon absorbed a very English missionary education, at the local Methodist high school, and later at the black university college of Fort Hare, where he met many future black leaders including his closest friend, Oliver Tambo.

Mandela was dashing, ambitious, keen on ballroom dancing and boxing. But he was in a rebellious mood, both against the college - which suspended him and others for political agitation - and against the paramount chief who was planning his marriage and future chieftainship.

At 22 he sold two oxen to pay for a journey to Johannesburg, where he began a far more turbulent career. There, he became friends with a much more experienced black activist, Walter Sisulu, and his mother, with whom he stayed in the township of Orlando West. Sisulu became his indispensable political mentor, and introduced him to his cousin, Evelyn, whom he married.

When Mandela wanted to study law, Sisulu arranged for him to be articled to a white attorney, Lazar Sidelsky, who befriended him. Mandela studied law part-time at the University of the Witwatersrand; but he was soon drawn into militant politics through the ANC, the veteran black organisation that was now in the process of revival. He was inspired by a fiery young Zulu intellectual, Anton Lembede, who, together with Sisulu, Tambo and Mandela, set up a Congress Youth League in 1944 to press the ANC towards effective protest.

The Youth Leaguers were initially exclusively African nationalist and fiercely anti-Communist; but they soon widened their outlook, particularly after the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948 and enforced their apartheid policy.

Mandela and his friends found common cause with Indian and Coloured leaders and began to look to communists as invaluable allies. Mandela never joined the Communist Party, but he respected his communist colleagues in the ANC. As he put it in 1964: "For many decades the communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us, talk with us, live with us, and work with us."

Mandela continued his legal career, setting up a partnership with Tambo near the centre of Johannesburg, which helped black clients with their political and other legal difficulties.

But both partners were now wholly committed to the struggle against apartheid, and Mandela became more deeply implicated when the ANC launched its first passive resistance in the Defiance Campaign in 1952, for which he mobilised volunteers.

Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo were now seen as the "kingmakers" behind the more conservative leaders of the ANC. Mandela was the most imposing and charismatic of them, with his military bearing and chiefly confidence. He was tall, physically very strong, with a natural sense of command. But he was politically less shrewd and knowledgeable than either Sisulu or Tambo.

The Defiance Campaign was soon suppressed by fierce legislation, and subsequent protests against apartheid were met by mass arrests. In 1956, the police arrested 156 leaders of the ANC and its allies, including Mandela, and charged them with treason, in a trial that periodically immobilised them for four years.

But Mandela was growing in stature and his morale was strengthened by his second marriage in 1958 to Winnie Madikizela, a vivacious and attractive social worker who soon developed her own fiery political awareness, and would before long become a controversial politician in her own right.

Mandela faced a much greater challenge in early 1960, when the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) set a faster pace for resistance, and peaceful protests against passbooks were met with violent reprisals, culminating in the Sharpeville Massacre. When the ANC and the PAC continued to demonstrate and burn passes, they were both banned. Mandela was forced to go underground, travelling in disguise through the country as the "black Pimpernel".

Mandela was now the effective leader of the banned ANC inside South Africa, while Tambo led it in exile. Mandela threw all his energies into an ambitious stay-at-home strike planned for May 1961, when South Africa would become a republic. But the police massed in the townships with armoured cars, and the protest - though remarkably successful - was depicted by the press as a flop. Mandela was convinced that, as he said on British television: "We are closing a chapter on this question of non-violent protest".

South African president Nelson Mandela speaks at a conference in the early 1960s (AFP)

Mandela and his radical colleagues now persuaded the ANC leadership, with some difficulty, to form a separate military wing, called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), to embark on the "armed struggle" beginning with sabotage. Mandela became commander- in-chief; and MK set up a secret base on a farm at Rivonia outside of Johannesburg.

It was a much more dangerous policy than passive resistance and strikes, and conceived with inadequate planning, and bound to alienate many allies. But their sabotage was carefully limited to destroying power plants and communications that, Mandela hoped, would discourage overseas investment; and linked to appeals to world opinion to impose economic sanctions on Pretoria to compel it to abandon apartheid.

Soon after the first explosions, Mandela was smuggled out of the country to make his first journey abroad, appealing for world support. After addressing a conference in Ethiopia he travelled through North and West Africa and visited London, where he made influential friends including Hugh Gaitskell, the Labour opposition leader, and David Astor, the editor of The Observer. He returned to South Africa, back in disguise, and rashly visited political colleagues until in August 1962 his car was stopped by the police in Natal and he was arrested after 17 months in hiding. He was charged with incitement to strike and with illegally leaving the country. He conducted his own eloquent defence, insisting that this was "a trial of the aspirations of the African people". He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment with hard labour.

But while he was serving his sentence the police raided the farm in Rivonia, capturing other conspirators and uncovering documents revealing the plans for future sabotage. Mandela became one of the accused in the much bigger "Rivonia trial" with colleagues, including Sisulu, charged with organising sabotage and violent revolution, and furthering the aims of communism.

At the end of the massive trial, Mandela made his most historic speech, a four-hour exposition of his political philosophy and development, and his ideal of democracy, concluding with the words: "It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." The accused were found guilty and narrowly avoided a death sentence, but were sentenced to life imprisonment, and were sent to Robben Island.

Most white South Africans assumed that Mandela and the ANC would never again play a role in politics, and for the next decade the black opposition inside South Africa was virtually obliterated. But on Robben Island Mandela, Sisulu and the others maintained their optimism. They were encouraged in the late 1960s by the news of ANC guerrilla fighters entering South Africa from the north. But it was not until 1976 that they saw a revival of political militancy, when a younger generation rebelled against their schooling in Soweto. The revolt was suppressed with more ruthless detention, interrogation and torture by the police. But the influx of young, new political prisoners gave Mandela new cause for hope.

Mandela developed his inner strength and political judgement through all his years in jail; and his letters to his family show how consistently he retained his self- control and self-respect, and exerted his authority over the warders themselves. He was not a religious man; but he had a strong sense of human and family values, and a conviction that his cause would eventually win. He also used his prison experience to sharpen his mind by constant argument and later by studying for a law degree, which he took from jail.

By 1984, Mandela could at last see signs of more concerted world action against apartheid, as a new mass revolt was spreading inside South Africa, accompanied by massive international protest and the beginnings of effective sanctions, which were beginning to achieve what Mandela had anticipated a quarter century before. But he was surprised to find the most effective boycott coming from American bankers, who had helped to finance Pretoria's military state in the past, and were now abruptly withdrawing their loans and investments.

The first hopes of concessions from Pretoria were soon dashed, as the government imposed its severest state of emergency, detaining 20,000 people without trial. But the government was becoming painfully aware that its acceptance by the outside world would depend on Mandela's release; and some ministers believed that Mandela was more dangerous inside jail than at large.

In 1989, the State President, Pieter Willem Botha, had a talk with Mandela to explore a new formula for his release, and soon afterwards his successor Frederik Willem de Klerk quickly recognised that he must give way to world opinion and internal resistance and moved towards a more conciliatory agenda. In February 1990, De Klerk unbanned the ANC, and shortly afterwards released Mandela himself, after 27 years in jail.

It was a sensational emergence. Many observers had expected Mandela to appear as a weakened old man who would be out of touch with the modern world and the militant younger blacks. But from the beginning he was politically shrewd, loyal to the ANC and mastering new communications, including television - which had not existed in South Africa when he began his sentence.

Nelson Mandela addresses at a funeral of 12 people died during the township unrests in Soweto, 20 September 1990 (AFP)

His style was that of a statesman combining intimacy with a formidable presence and authority. But he remained a master-politician: and at 71 he had mental flexibility and openness to new ideas at an age when most people become more rigid.

Two weeks after his release he was confirmed as Deputy President of the ANC, serving alongside his old friend Oliver Tambo, the official President, who was recovering from a stroke.

In the following months, Mandela became still more clearly the key to future peace in South Africa. He betrayed no signs of bitterness or resentment, praised the integrity of President De Klerk and reassured white South Africans. But he continued to follow the ANC's official policy.

He refused to reject the armed struggle; called for nationalising the mines and industry; and, remained committed to sanctions.

But he was privately more conciliatory and far-sighted than many of his younger colleagues. He welcomed dialogue with international businessmen, and looked forward to overseas investment after sanctions were no longer needed. He was very aware of South Africa's interdependence with the world.

His public glory was accompanied by personal loneliness: after Oliver Tambo died in April 1993 he described himself as being "like the loneliest man in the world". He had separated from his wife Winnie in April 1992, after she had been convicted of kidnapping and accessory to assault; and he was painfully aware of his limited contact with his children. "To be the father of a nation is a great honour," he wrote later, "but to be the father of a family is a greater joy. It was a joy I had far too little of."

In the four years following his release he became that indisputable father of the nation. He demonstrated all of his political skill by maintaining his party's unity and the support of young militants while also working towards a government of national unity, in coalition with his former white enemies.

He could never wholly trust De Klerk, after he realised that he had endorsed a "double agenda" that included secret police support of Zulu killing bands; and he still felt the need to re-assert the ANC's power by demonstrations and strikes. But he was still prepared to negotiate with De Klerk - and with other Afrikaner politicians who had previously approved torture and murders.

And whites were increasingly seeing him as a national leader - all the more so after the assassination of his radical lieutenant Chris Hani. Temporarily, Mandela virtually took over the role of head of state in successfully appealing for calm.

When democratic elections were eventually agreed for April 1994, Mandela became a tireless campaigner, projecting his reassuring smile across the nation; but he was careful not to raise black expectations too high. The ANC victory in the elections automatically made Mandela President and Head of State. His inauguration ceremony in Pretoria revealed his full achievement in attracting the loyalty of whites.

He was welcomed emotionally by many former right-wingers who now saw Mandela bringing South Africa back to the world's fold. Mandela, at the cost of painful compromises, could now rely on the military chiefs to support him. When the generals saluted him, he reflected: "Not so many years before they would not have saluted but arrested me."

He had achieved the main purpose for which he had sacrificed much of his life, and he had maintained his fundamental principles. But he also knew that the hardest part was still to come. As he concluded in his memoirs, finished after his election: "The true test of our devotion to freedom is only just beginning."


Becoming president at 75, Mandela was aware that his powers were circumscribed.

For the first two years, he maintained the "government of national unity" with his former enemy De Klerk as one deputy president; and in many fields he regarded himself as head of state, rather than head of government, leaving most appointments and practical decisions to his other deputy, Thabo Mbeki.

When De Klerk left the coalition, Mbeki was more clearly emerging as head of government, and Mandela retreated further, sometimes leaving Mbeki to preside over the cabinet.

His relations with Mbeki were sometimes strained: he had been chosen as deputy not by Mandela, but by the ANC and its allies. Mandela worried privately that Mbeki was too suspicious of his colleagues, too dependent on a few cronies, and sometimes implied that he would have preferred Cyril Ramaphosa, who had left politics for business. But Mbeki was in many ways well-suited to running the government, under an increasingly detached President: he made many of the key appointments; he masterminded economic policy, and he remained a skilful negotiator and conciliator - particularly with Buthelezi, the troublesome Zulu minister for home affairs.

The sharing of power was often uneasy and confusing: Mandela often intervened, particularly in foreign affairs, without informing his colleagues, and his own office was sometimes muddled. He had made the inspired choice of Professor Jakes Gerwel as cabinet secretary, but Mandela did not always give a clear lead, and was criticised, particularly by business leaders, for not grappling with urgent issues including tackling corruption and crime.

Both Mandela and Mbeki were limited by the constraints of the ANC: the cabinet had to represent different strands of the party; including some ministers who had obvious shortcomings, particularly in education, health and home affairs. But the ministers who were in the most critical departments of economic policy and justice achieved remarkable stability and trust, gaining the admiration of foreign governments.

Mandela's overriding objective was to set a basis of reconciliation with the white population including his former enemies, which he achieved with the help of dramatic personal gestures, including visiting the widow of Dr Verwoerd and his former prosecutor Percy Yutar, and congratulating the leader of the Springbok rugby team.

February 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela (C) and his then-wife Winnie raising their fists and saluting cheering crowd upon Mandela's release from the Victor Verster prison (AFP)

His most obvious failure was in not confronting the growing disaster of Aids. Before he became president in 1994, he had avoided the subject in his election campaign because - as he later admitted - it was not a popular issue, at a time when many black South Africans were shy of condoms or contraception. And as president he resisted calls to lead a major campaign against Aids.

Edwin Cameron, the gay South African judge who was found to be HIV-positive, and became a prominent campaigner against Aids, later explained: "A message from this man of saintlike, in some ways almost godlike, stature, would have been effective. He didn't do it. In 199 ways he was our country's saviour. In the 200th way, he was not."

In his final two years as President, Mandela withdrew further from executive government and gave up the leadership of the ANC. But his role as the prophet of the new multiracial democracy and the spirit of reconciliation remained as important as ever.

He symbolised the rebirth of a country that had been nearly torn asunder by racial conflict.

His personal life was now more serene and fulfilled. He had divorced from Winnie and eventually married Graça Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique, who gave him the companionship and support that he craved, and eased his relationships with his children and grandchildren.

Graça was a politician in her own right, who was able to connect up the private Mandela with his overpowering public image, with her own practical realism. "I want him as a human being," she explained. "He is a symbol, but not a saint. Whatever happens to him, it is a mark of the liberation of the African people."


When Mandela relinquished the Presidency in 1999, to be succeeded by President Mbeki, the manner of his retirement was in itself a tribute to his achievement. Five years earlier most South Africans had doubted whether elections could be held at all, in the face of violent threats and bombs. Now they took for granted that their country was a working multiracial democracy.

February 1998: Nelson Mandela (L) hugs British supermodel Naomi Campbell in front of American actress Mia Farrow, British model Kate Moss (second from left) and model Christy Turlington (AFP)

For the first time since Mandela had left prison nine years before, he was now a private individual without any political position. For a short time he appeared content with a quiet life with his wife Graça and his growing family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, moving between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Qunu and Mozambique.

But he soon forgot about the quiet life, and he became more, not less, impatient: an old man in a hurry. "I have retired," he said at 84, "but if there's anything that would kill me it is to wake up in the morning not knowing what to do." "He needs to be very busy," his wife Graça confirmed.

"He is quite clear that if he slows down he will feel depressed. He'll feel he is not needed any more."

He established a Mandela Foundation that provided his base. His loyal Afrikaner secretary Zelda le Grange organised his endless meetings, travels and phone calls to the world's leaders. He kept flying across the world, particularly to Britain, America and the Middle East, often in a private plane provided by one of his rich friends. He embarked on the second volume of his memoirs, covering his presidential years, determined to write them himself, without being ghosted. He conducted his research with very personal methods, ringing up old friends and even former enemies, like ex-President De Klerk, to ask for their recollections of crucial meetings.

But he still enjoyed meeting sports heroes and film stars such as Whoopi Goldberg or Whitney Houston, whom he welcomed with outrageous flattery ("I'm only here to shine her shoes").

He sometimes seemed to be re-living his own youth in Johannesburg in the Fifties, when he was not only a politician, but a township hero, ladies' man, dancer and boxer, and loved talking about the old black musicians, writers and sportsmen.

He was lonelier in politics, at least 30 years older than most of the politicians in South Africa, and his contemporaries were dying. He often looked his age, and away from the cameras and with his staff he could be irritable. But he retained his powerful will to live. In 2001 he was diagnosed with cancer of the prostate, but after intensive treatment appeared fully recovered. "If cancer gets the upper hand I will nevertheless be the winner," he said. "In heaven, I will be looking for the nearest branch of the ANC."

He sometimes reflected about his past career with remorse, remembering neglected friends who had helped him on his way up. He worried about political colleagues who were forgotten, while he was so much honoured. When Walter Sisulu died in 2003, Mandela explained his crucial influence.

"By ancestry I was born to rule," he said. "[But Sisulu] helped me to understand that my real vocation was to be a servant of the people."


Mandela had warned that after he retired he would feel free to criticise the leadership "as an ordinary member of the ANC". But he knew that he was no ordinary member. He was careful not to upstage or embarrass Mbeki: he largely avoided commenting on domestic affairs and talked mainly about the need for reconciliation and peacemaking. But his relations inevitably became trickier.

At public occasions, Mandela inevitably overshadowed his successor and often won more applause. Some of his public statements went against Mbeki's policies; while in private he became more critical. "I don't want to be a praise singer," he explained after one closed ANC conference.

"I want to be objective, and I did indicate his weaknesses, which was unpalatable to many members."

Mbeki in turn became more obviously resentful of Mandela's prominence.He sometimes omitted Mandela from state occasions, and was often slow to return his phone calls.

Mbeki's handling of Aids provoked the most obvious tensions, as he delayed facing and publicising the problem while Mandela was impatient for bolder action; to make up for his own past neglect.

He was determined to break through the taboo. In August 2002, he publicly embraced a militant Aids activist Zachie Achmat who was HIV positive - a powerful image that was reproduced round the world. And Mandela disclosed that three members of his own family had died of Aids. "There is no shame," he said, "to disclose a terminal disease from which you are suffering."


Mandela still travelled tirelessly, making up for his lost years and relishing foreign friendships and grand occasions. In London, he often called on the Queen, with whom he enjoyed a personal friendship: he broke with protocol by writing to her as "Dear Elizabeth". He was the only foreigner to be awarded the Order of Merit.

He could still play a personal role abroad in encouraging peaceful settlements and negotiations. He preferred working behind the scenes. In dealing with Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, who he believed to be a brilliant politician who should never be underestimated. Mandela feared that overt South African intervention would be counterproductive, provoking a civil war in Zimbabwe that would bring force millions of people from their homes. But Mandela later became much more outspoken than Mbeki about Mugabe's tyranny.

Mandela had more success in Libya, where he enjoyed the unique trust of President Muammar Gaddafi. He and his representative Jakes Gerwel persuaded Gaddafi to release the suspects in the Lockerbie airline crash, to be tried in the Netherlands, in return for relaxing sanctions. And Gaddafi's trust in Mandela and Gerwel prepared the way for the later reconciliation between Libya and the American and British governments.

Mandela became more critical of American and British foreign policies, particularly after the Kosovo war, worried that they wanted to be "the policemen of the world" and Washington was undermining the fragile basis of international law. "They're introducing chaos in to international affairs," he said.

He was much more worried about American domination after 11 September 2001. When he talked with President George W Bush soon afterwards in Washington, he said Osama bin Laden should be held responsible, captured and tried. But his Muslim friends soon persuaded him to modify his support, and he explained that US policy could "be seen as undermining some of the basic tenets of the rule of law". He warned that the war against terrorism must not itself adopt the weapons of terrorism. And he was increasingly opposed to Israeli policies towards Palestinians - like many of his Jewish colleagues in the ANC.

15 November 2001: Nelson Mandela signs the Wall of Nations in New York City (AFP)

While he had enjoyed a close relationship with George Bush Sr, he distrusted some his closest advisers whom his son had inherited - particularly Dick Cheney, who had voted in Congress against calling for Mandela's release from prison. As the young Bush prepared for war in Iraq, Mandela stepped up his warnings of the dangers of ignoring the UN, without success. When he could not get through to Bush, he called his father and asked him to talk to his son. In October, he gave an explosive interview to Newsweek describing Bush's advisers Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld as "dinosaurs who do not want him to belong to the modern age". He attacked both America and Britain for racist attitudes. They did not criticise Israel for having weapons of mass destruction, he complained, because Israelis were seen as white, while Iraqis were seen as black. Mandela was emerging more clearly as the spokesman for the developing world, rather than the loyal friend of Washington and London.

As Bush and Blair prepared for war in Iraq, Mandela believed that neither was taking the UN seriously enough; he reminded Blair that Churchill had supported the creation of the UN as the safeguard of world peace. But he felt that Blair was closing ranks with Bush.

Mandela was still more outspoken in a speech to the International Women's Forums in January 2003. "It is a tragedy what is happening, what Bush is doing in Iraq," he told his surprised audience. "What I am condemning is that one power, with a President who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust."

Mandela still hoped to mediate to prevent a war. But his links with Washington were weakening, and his influence in Iraq was slight: he tried and failed to ring Saddam Hussein, and even offered to fly to Iraq himself, provided he was asked by the UN.

When the US and Britain finally went to war, Mandela avoided further criticism. But he was soon again denouncing US foreign policy - just before Bush visited South Africa and other African countries in July 2003.

He could still combine his friendships with the West with outspoken criticism. In July 2003, he launched the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation in London's Westminster Hall where he heard tributes from Bill Clinton and Tony Blair - who made an impromptu speech explaining how Mandela "symbolised the triumph of hope over injustice". Mandela warmly thanked Blair but did not conceal their difference about the Middle East: "We differ on one point; very strongly."

Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton in July 2003

He remained concerned about the mounting tension between Christians and Muslims. He was proud of the religious tolerance in his own government, which had included Muslim ministers, and he believed South Africa could help bridge the religious divide in the rest of the world.


Mandela was still a fairy-tale figure to millions of people around the world: the prisoner who became president, who caught the imagination of crowds and children. The name Mandela was attached to streets, squares, scholarships and buildings across the world - including an elegant new bridge across central Johannesburg that celebrated his 85th birthday.

The less heroic other world leaders, the more Mandela appeared as a solitary hero left over from an age of giants. And as an individual freed from the compromises of power, his icon shone still brighter.

But the myth was still connected to a statesman who could play a role in a dangerous and divided world. His long career had given him a deep personal experience of both power and powerlessness. He could speak for the huge populations in the developing world who were ignored by the richer countries, while he retained his moral authority in the West, even in America, as the champion of reconciliation and a multi-racial society.

Anthony Sampton's 'Mandela: The Authorised Biography' was published by HarperCollins in 1999.

In The Independent on Saturday:

A special supplement celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela

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