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The Scarlet & Black

Hamba Kakuhle, Tata Madiba

Nelson Mandela, South African president from 1994 to 1999, died last Thursday at the age of 95. Mandela, known by friends as “Madiba,” fought white minority rule in South Africa and, having emerged from a 27-year prison sentence, peacefully lead the country into a constitutional democracy. In doing so, he became revered internationally as a symbol of social justice, integrity, and peace. Within South Africa, the country of the present author, we felt that he was an elegant and wise father. Translated from Xhosa, this article’s title reads, “Go well, Father Madiba.”

Nelson Mandela, grew up in the Qunu community in the Transkei, and was favored to be the royal successor of his people. His home village had been subjected to colonial administration, which dismissed his father from the post of headman after a political dispute. Madiba, whose first name, Rolihlahla, means “troublemaker,” thus had an intimate early experience of the injustice and intolerance of white rule in the country.

The most vividly described childhood memory in Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, “A Walk to Freedom,” is the Xhosa rite of passage that initiated him into manhood at the age of sixteen. The ritual was somewhat robbed of its significance by a severe speech made by his chief, who told the initiates that his people, the Xhosas, were “slaves,” whose “destiny in the place of [their] birth” was to “destroy their health, so that the white man can live a life of unequalled prosperity.” That night, Nelson did not perform the final stage of his initiation, which was to sleep with a woman; instead, he retired to his lodgings to mourn for his youth and consider his new role as a man. Following the ceremony, he had been given a new name: Dalibunga, “maker of parliaments.”

Mandela was one of 51 Africans accepted to Fort Hare University in 1939. However, he was expelled from the university after he refused to assume his elected position in the Student Representative Council, in protest for a canteen worker whom a teacher had slapped. Around this time, Mandela joined the African National Congress.

Although British governance of the country had been exploitative of African people, a greater evil was arising in the country. While South African troops were fighting the German Nazis on the western front in the early 1940’s, a secret and elitist Afrikaner group known as the Broederbond (“the brotherhood”) had formed a “purified” National Party based on racist ideology. This formation was a reaction to wartime urbanization, and the relatively liberal rule of Jan Smuts (who had established the League of Nations, and, as a British Commonwealth statesman, was the only one to sign all peace treaties after WWI and WWII.) In 1948, the National Party ousted Smuts, and over the next 46 years they established the infamous Apartheid (“apartness”) system of racial segregation. Under Apartheid, African schools became state-controlled; Africans were forced to live in assigned, and often practically uninhabitable regions of the country; no sexual relations were allowed across racial classifications, and Africans were required to carry passes indicating their rights to live in their hometowns.

Even under Apartheid, the ANC continued to assert itself politically and strategize for their inevitable revolution. At the time, however, there was a divide in its political thinking. Some advanced an African nationalism that had no place for whites. Others, like Mandela and Steve Biko, envisioned a cooperative, multiracial state. Although Mandela had advocated peaceful protesting, he became more militant after the massacre of 69 peaceful demonstrators in Sharpville in 1960. However, there is no evidence for Mandela’s hand in human rights abuse during this time. Four years later, The National Party regime imprisoned Mandela to a life sentence on the charges of sabotage and conspiracy. Mandela was 44 years old, and would primarily remain in the cruel confines of his Robben Island cell, frequently tortured and humiliated by his guards, until age 71.

People often say that racism is “discrimination.” Racism, however, is precisely the inability to distinguish and appreciate differences beyond skin color. Mandela heard individual voices, and felt the diverse nuances of his nation. He had learned about democracy at the feet of his tribal elders, who encouraged consensus and compromise. Sensitivity, grace, courage and humility were the foundations of his unique leadership, which peacefully guided our country through years of bitterness and uncertainty.


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