Nelson R. Mandela, the inspirational leader of the black rebellion against apartheid, has become during more than 27 years in prison a figure of almost mythic proportions among South Africa’s black masses, millions of whom have never heard or seen him.
The name Mandela is a rallying cry for black youths born years after he was sent to prison. “Mandela is with us!” say the graffiti painted on the walls of South Africa’s black urban ghettos.
His picture appears on clandestinely printed anti-apartheid pamphlets, posters and banners. Songs are sung and poems written about him in the urban black townships, and children are named for him even in the most remote villages.
“He is the symbol of our people,” Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner, has said. “His imprisonment represents our oppression. His self-sacrifice is what we would all like to be in resisting that oppression. His release has come to symbolize the liberation that we are longing for.”
Since he was arrested in 1962, convicted and sentenced to life after one of the longest and most important trials in South African history, Mandela has become the primary unifying force in the deeply divided politics of South Africa’s 27 million blacks.
Opinion surveys of urban blacks have shown again and again that he is more widely accepted than any other leader. Even rivals of Mandela’s African National Congress, the principal guerrilla group fighting white minority-led rule, have not dared to criticize him.
Black leaders, such as Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi, who split with the ANC more than 30 years ago, have repeatedly told the government that without Mandela, they will not enter negotiations to share political power with whites.
“No black leader worthy of the name will negotiate while Mr. Mandela and his colleagues are in jail,” Oscar Dhlomo, a Cabinet minister in Buthelezi’s Kwazulu homeland government, said after talks between moderate blacks and the white minority-led government fell apart last May.
“He is the only black leader still able to reach across the ideological divide in black politics,” Dhlomo added. “His years in jail have molded him into an astute and impartial elder statesman who can play a decisive role in capturing black unity.”
Mandela’s refusal to compromise his principles has given him an unprecedented stature in South Africa.
His life was at stake when, charged with sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government--capital crimes under South Africa’s security laws--he admitted leadership of the ANC’s armed struggle and argued that the country’s minority white government had given the black majority no option but violence to achieve equality.
Over the past decade, as international pressure has grown on the government to release him, Mandela rejected many government proposals that would have brought his release. He refused three times to accept banishment to Transkei, the nominally independent region of South Africa where he was born. He rejected exile, though he could have rejoined the ANC leadership at its headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.
And time and again, he has refused to forswear violence in the campaign against apartheid, because it would have meant backing away from the armed struggle that he started as commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation, the military wing of the outlawed ANC.
As Mandela pointed out at his trial, the ANC only reluctantly took up arms because 50 years of peaceful protest had failed to persuade the white authorities to remove apartheid and grant blacks equal rights.
“Only free men can negotiate,” Mandela declared in February, 1985, in rejecting a government offer to free him if he first renounced violence. “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. . . . I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.”
Worldwide pressure on the South African government to release Mandela grew to a frenzy on July 18, 1988, when Mandela turned 70. A rock concert in London, televised around the world except in South Africa, was held in his honor.
But the South African government banned all local celebrations and began to admit privately that it was being held hostage by Mandela’s imprisonment. Release him, they feared, and he might lead a bloody revolution. But let him die in prison and widespread unrest would be the likely result.
A month later, in August, 1988, Mandela contracted tuberculosis. He was transferred to a hospital and, after being successfully treated, to a suite in a private clinic to recuperate.
The country’s white leaders, shocked by Mandela’s illness, launched an elaborate plan to demythologize Mandela by “releasing him in steps,” as one government official put it.
The idea was to wash away the mystique that, to a large extent, the government itself had created by painting Mandela as South Africa’s most dangerous terrorist. Now, the government decided, was the time to show the world that it was removing Mandela’s chains and giving him more freedom.
Fully recovered from his illness three months later, in November, 1988, Mandela was transferred from the hospital to the Victor Verster Prison Farm in lush wine country near Paarl, about 40 miles from Cape Town. He was held in a three-bedroom house usually reserved for prison employees. A white cook and guard lived in the servants’ quarters in the back.
His visitation rules were relaxed and his wife, Winnie, previously restricted to 40-minute visits once a month, was offered unlimited visiting privileges. At first, she refused on the grounds that other prisoners were allowed no similar freedom. But soon Mandela was having lengthy visits, sometimes over lunch or dinner, with family, friends, current and former political prisoners--and even high-level government officials.
In July, 1989, shortly before Mandela’s 71st birthday, he met with outgoing President Pieter W. Botha, at the presidential mansion over tea. The government called it a “courtesy call” and said the two leaders had only discussed politics in broad terms, with both expressing their desire for peaceful change in South Africa.
Senior government officials had been meeting extensively with Mandela for years, but it was the first face-to-face meeting between the president and his most famous prisoner. It raised hopes in overseas capitals that Mandela’s release, and negotiations between blacks and whites over South Africa’s future, were near.
A week later, though, Mandela, in his first officially sanctioned public statement since his conviction, said his position had not changed in 28 years--that “the only way of ending violence and bringing peace to our country” is for the government to open a “dialogue with the African National Congress.”
But the government has refused to talk with the ANC until the organization renounces violence. And the ANC has refused to talk with the government until Mandela is freed, the state of emergency lifted and bans on anti-apartheid groups rescinded.
Mandela added that his release “is not an issue at this stage. . . . I only would like to contribute to the creation of a climate which would promote peace in South Africa.”
The government of President Frederik W. de Klerk, elected in September on a promise to lure blacks to the negotiating table, began to view Mandela as the key to opening that process.
“He’s someone the government feels it can talk to,” said a political analyst privy to the thinking of De Klerk and his Cabinet.
By all accounts, Mandela was instrumental in obtaining the October release of seven ANC leaders, including Walter Sisulu and four others who had been convicted with him in 1964. Mandela watched De Klerk announce those releases on television in his prison living room, surrounded by Sisulu’s wife, Albertina, and three other anti-apartheid leaders.
In December, De Klerk met Mandela for the first time, and the black leader offered a lengthy policy statement entitled, “A Document to Create a Climate of Understanding.” That document, the contents of which remain secret, is under study by the ANC’s exile headquarters.
Mandela’s carefully chosen words have long carried special force in South Africa.
During the trial in which he and seven other leaders of the ANC and the South African Communist Party were sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela testified that he had dedicated his life “to this struggle of the African people.”
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said then. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
That personal creed has echoed through the intervening years, becoming part of the political manifesto of South Africa’s blacks, and transforming Mandela into a larger-than-life figure, a Moses who blacks think will lead them to freedom.
He has been honored by the United Nations, European parliaments and human rights organizations. Universities have bestowed honorary doctorates on him, cities have named streets and parks after him and past winners of the Nobel Peace Prize have nominated him for the award. His face even appears on a postage stamp in Moscow.
Mandela’s refusal to compromise has been more than a matter of personal integrity. The government has tried to persuade blacks to work within the present political system, accepting advisory roles in the government instead of a one-person, one-vote system. Mandela’s stand has made it possible for others to campaign not for the reform of racial segregation and white rule but for its abolition.
“Many more people might have succumbed to this false promise of gradual change were it not for his example. Others, but for his counsel, might have rushed precipitously into revolution that would turn into a racial civil war that no one wants,” said Patrick Lekota, a leader of the United Democratic Front who served five years on a treason conviction that was recently overturned on appeal.
While on Robben Island, a penal colony off Cape Town and for seven years at Pollsmoor Prison in the city’s suburbs, Mandela trained two generations of cadres for the African National Congress and reshaped the outlook of scores of political prisoners, some of whom were ideologically opposed to the ANC.
Those who know Mandela best are confident that upon release, he will at once rejoin the campaign against apartheid. But they describe him as a practical man who will also reassure the country’s 5 million whites of his commitment to a nonracial society.
Helen Suzman, 72, a leading liberal member of the white house of Parliament, has seen Mandela a half-dozen times over the years. After lunch with him at his prison quarters last summer, she described him as “an extraordinary man.”
“As always,” she said, “I was impressed by his obvious leadership qualities, his moderation and his appreciation of the fear of the white minority. His unconditional release and his presence at the negotiating table is an absolute prerequisite to” peace in South Africa.
“Unlike white people anywhere else in Africa, whites in South Africa belong here--this is their home,” Mandela told Samuel Dash, a law professor and former chief counsel for the Senate Watergate Committee, four years ago.
But Mandela also made clear his determination to see apartheid ended completely, not adapted through the government’s step-by-step reforms, Dash wrote in the New York Times Magazine.
“If white leaders do not act in good faith toward us, if they will not meet with us to discuss political equality and if, in effect, they tell us we must remain subjugated by whites, then there is really no alternative other than violence,” Mandela told Dash. “And, I assure you, we will prevail.”
It was the same sense of conviction and reasonableness that he showed in 1964 when he explained why he had turned to sabotage after two decades of nonviolent protest.
“I do not deny that I planned sabotage,” he told the court from the prisoner’s dock. “I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.”
Mandela, born in 1918, was the eldest son of a chief of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu people in Transkei, and he was raised with the self-assurance of African royalty in the household of the Thembus’ paramount chief.
He studied at South Africa’s Fort Hare University, where Zimbabwe’s prime minister, Robert Mugabe, and other leaders of independent black Africa have studied. He was expelled for helping organize a student strike.
He went to Johannesburg, worked for a time as a mine policeman and clerk, graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand and then became apprenticed to a white law firm before he established his own practice with Oliver R. Tambo, a friend from Fort Hare, who is now the president in exile of the African National Congress. (He earned a formal law degree in 1989 through correspondence courses.)
In 1944, Mandela joined the congress, which had been founded in 1912, and with Tambo and other young men turned it from petitions for redress of blacks’ grievances to protests on a broader scale. When the National Party came to power in 1948 and began to impose its apartheid policies on the country, the congress, under Mandela’s and Tambo’s direction, launched renewed campaigns of civil disobedience.
Mandela was at first given a suspended sentence for violating the country’s security laws, then was silenced and restricted in his movements by a government “banning” order. Later, he was detained along with 155 others, charged with treason and, after a four-year trial that ended in 1961, acquitted along with the other defendants.
The African National Congress was outlawed in the wake of the protests that followed the fatal police shooting on March 21, 1960, of 69 blacks engaged in passive resistance at Sharpeville, a black township about 50 miles south of Johannesburg.
The congress then turned to sabotage and away from its campaigns of passive resistance that, following the example of India’s Mohandas K. Gandhi, were aimed at pressuring the government to end apartheid and convene an all-race national convention to write a new constitution.
Mandela was a central figure in this shift, drawing up the plans to establish the congress underground and becoming the first commander of its military wing. Sabotage was to be the strategy to disrupt the economy and scare away capital. But, to avoid loss of life, terrorism, guerrilla war and a full-scale rebellion were ruled out.
“There comes a time, as it came in my life,” he declared at his trial, “when a man is denied the right to live a normal life, when he can only live the life of an outlaw because the government has so decreed to use the law to impose a state of outlawry upon him. I was driven to this situation, and I do not regret the decisions that I did take.”
Slipping across the border, Mandela visited Ethiopia, Algeria and other African countries, arranging military training for congress members and undergoing a brief training course himself. His secret return to South Africa and his daredevil underground existence earned him the title of the “Black Pimpernel” and added to his romantic image among blacks.
He was caught eventually, sentenced to five years in prison for incitement to violence and leaving the country illegally. While serving that term, he was brought back to court, charged with treason and eventually convicted of sabotage along with most of the Spear of the Nation’s high command.
This was to be the temporary end of Mandela and of the African National Congress. Most of its leaders were in jail or exile, and scores of its grass-roots members were arrested. Its guerrillas made occasional bomb attacks, but were usually caught quickly. The underground organization was heavily infiltrated by the police.
Winnie Mandela, now 54, a social worker by training, took up the cause but was quickly “banned” herself, barred from politics and eventually exiled to the small farming community of Brandfort in the Orange Free State. She returned to Soweto in 1985, defying the government’s restrictions, and was allowed to stay.
Married 31 years, they lived together for only four months, and for only a few weeks at a time. For years, they were separated by thick glass when she made closely supervised visits in prison, unable even to touch. Not until 1984, when Mandela required surgery for removal of his enlarged prostate gland, did the whole family get together for the first time since 1962.
Their daughters, Zenani, 30, and Zindziswa, 29, have joined what is now a family cause, speaking and traveling on behalf of their parents. Mandela also had three children from his first marriage. One son, Makgatho, 39, runs a general store in the Transkei homeland, and a daughter, Makaziwe, 35, is working on a doctorate in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts. One son died in an auto accident several years ago.
When he was first imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela spent most of his time at hard labor, quarrying limestone, but through repeated protests he won permission to study and garden. In recent years, he has exercised vigorously, using an exercise bicycle.
With daily newspapers, a radio, television and a steady flow of books and magazines, Mandela managed in recent years to keep himself fully informed on developments in South Africa and elsewhere. Until 1988, political discussions with other black nationalist leaders who were his cellmates were daily fare.
Close friends said that although Mandela enjoyed the large house on the prison farm, he felt isolated and missed the daily contact of other prisoners, who were allowed infrequent visits.
Mandela’s long incarceration did not, contrary to the expectations of the government, turn him into a non-person, forgotten by his supporters. Instead, his leadership image of self-sacrifice and refusal to compromise with apartheid has been enhanced to the point of legend.