The Indispensable Man: Nelson Mandela (1918–2013)

Mandela made himself indispensable by dispensing with the things that empowered tyrants: pride, power, anger and vengeance

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David Turnley / Corbis

Nelson Mandela celebrates his victory in the South African presidential elections, April 1994.
Click here to see more of David Turnley's photos of Mandela.

No one is indispensable. Yet history is full of individuals whose absence or presence changed the course of human events and altered the fate of nations. Most of these were autocrats whose accumulation of power was itself the reason to fear the vacuum resulting from their departure. But Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday, Dec. 5, at the age of 95, became indispensable because he had dispensed with the things that empowered tyrants and with which they rarely parted: pride, power, anger and vengeance.

By the time of his death, he had not been President of South Africa for 14 years. Yet he remained first in the hearts of his compatriots who were so fearful of his passing that prayers went up from believers and unbelievers alike whenever he took ill. What they feared they would lose when they lost him was manifold: the wisdom to see racial reconciliation as a political and ethical necessity; the courage to choose the hard road of peace; the knowledge that pursuing justice can renew the human spirit. He was a repentant warrior and long-suffering martyr; a savvy saint and humble leader; he was both father of his nation and its conscience, the moral glue of its fragile polity. As long as he lived, so did the hope that he gave South Africa and the world with his epic life. For it was only when he emerged from prison after 27 years that his country itself began to be free. Will it know the road forward without him?

He was not Nelson Mandela at his birth in 1918. His father — a noble counselor to the King of the Madiba clan — gave the child the name Rolihlahla, a word meaning “troublemaker” in the tribe’s Xhosa language. It would turn out to be prophetic. Only later would a teacher at a Methodist school give him the English name Nelson at his baptism — no one seems to know what reason lay behind that. Mandela was the given name of his grandfather. As a privileged member of his tribe — his father was of royal lineage — Nelson Mandela would attend private schools, absorbing the diverse political philosophies circulating at the time. In the 1940s, he studied law and joined the country’s first black law firm, founded by Oliver Tambo.

South Africa, a construct of Dutch migrants and British colonial rule, had long curtailed black and Asian liberties with a combination of Roman-Dutch laws and white legislation, limiting the rights to travel and vote by the country’s nonwhite populace. Indeed, Mandela would not make his first white friend until he was in his 20s. But worse was to come. In 1948, the victory of the segregationist National Party made apartheid (literally, “apartness” in Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans of Dutch descent) the official policy of the country — banishing blacks to economically backward “homelands” in the interior of the country, not allowing them into areas where whites lived unless prescribed by the country’s stringent “pass laws.” In the cities, blacks were forcibly restricted to townships like Soweto, vast mires of poverty.

By this time, Mandela had joined the African National Congress (ANC) and, along with other activists in the party, led protests against the apartheid regime, which responded to such demonstrations with brutality and gunfire. Mandela began to ponder the merits of armed rebellion. “For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy,” he wrote in his autobiography, Long Road to Freedom. “There is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.” He was tried for treason, and acquitted. Then Mandela was arrested in August 1962 for setting up Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) — the ANC’s military wing. It had bombed three power stations in December 1961. In 1963, after a trial sentencing that extended his original five-year penalty to life imprisonment, he said, “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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.”

He knew he was headed for decades — perhaps a lifetime — of invisibility and isolation. (He would remain imprisoned for 27 years.) But he also sensed that he would not be powerless. “I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor,” he later wrote, “the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even within the fortress of the enemy.” Transferred to Robben Island, a former leper colony off Cape Town, he would spend years breaking rocks, mining in a lime quarry, sleeping on mats on icy floors, treated to the severe and petty indignities suffered by blacks under a racist prison system. But he would become the most famous political prisoner in the world — and the thorn in the side of the apartheid regime that would eventually tear it apart.

That was partly the result of the ANC’s decision to subsume its campaign against the country’s white rulers around Mandela’s persona and imprisonment. “Free Nelson Mandela” became the movement’s rallying call, and the slogan stirred up a global outcry not just politically but culturally as well, as pop musicians and writers and artists took up his cause. For the movement, it helped to have a living martyr to demand justice for.

Meanwhile, the South African government was dealing with the realization that apartheid was ultimately untenable. It was dealing violently with the revolt of its black townships and was increasingly a pariah in the eyes of the world. To the white regime in the capital Pretoria, Mandela suddenly became a way out of potential catastrophe.

In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela freedom if he would renounce violence. In a statement read in public by his daughter, the prisoner responded: “I am not a violent man. It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle … Let [Botha] renounce violence. Let him say he will dismantle apartheid … I cherish my freedom dearly, [but] what freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people [i.e., the ANC] remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. 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.”

Yet, in his prison cell, he was preparing to negotiate. It was a politically fraught decision. “Both sides regarded discussions as a sign of weakness and betrayal,” he wrote. “But there are times when a leader must move ahead of the flock.” As for his enemies, he wrote, “All men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency. If their hearts are touched, they are capable of change.” Negotiations would continue for the next four years, with Mandela trying to convince the white regime not to fear black retribution; and simultaneously charming ANC hard-liners into giving up their opposition to talking with a government they despised. As 1989 progressed, Mandela met with Botha and his successor F.W. de Klerk. And in February 1990 came momentous news: the ANC was no longer banned and Nelson Mandela was free. He walked out of prison on Feb. 11.

Even more notable than the developments was Mandela’s countenance. He did not emerge a firebrand waiting to be rekindled but a smiling, courteous, affable grandfatherly figure. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of the greatest antiapartheid fighters, later said, “[Prison] gave him a new depth and serenity at the core of his being, and made him tolerant and magnanimous to a fault, more ready to forgive than to nurse grudges — paradoxically regal and even arrogant, and at the same time ever so humble and modest.” Mandela himself said, “I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.”

Mandela’s charisma swept everything aside like a tidal wave. Even the ANC, which had engineered his cause, was overwhelmed, turned into a supporting actor in the dramatic transformation of South Africa, just as Botha and de Klerk were. There was no turning back. In 1994, Mandela cast his first vote ever in the election that saw him become the first black President of South Africa.

The personal costs had been high: he had divorced his first wife because she did not like politics; his second wife Winnie became one of his most visible champions during his years in jail, but two years after his freedom, they would divorce — a consequence of years apart and political differences that Mandela blamed only on himself. But throughout his presidency and in the ensuing years of retirement, he became a beacon for the good, not afraid to speak out against friend or foe, contributing his prestige and aura to causes at home and abroad all the while bringing the disparate parts of his own country together. The new South Africa of shared prosperity and, at least theoretically, equal opportunity is his vision. The greater achievement is that the vast majority of the country — of all races — bought into that dream.

But as he aged and fell ill, so has the South African dream. The ANC, which now rules the country, is dominated by the kind of arrogance and privilege that Mandela so deftly balanced with humility and moral standing. Many South Africans — black, white, Asian and colored — fear the future will be corrupted by an ANC that no longer knows the way forward or appreciates the necessity of keeping to the hard road of freedom.

What South Africans fear they will lose can be sensed in one word in Xhosa: mayibuye. Mayibuye has a beautiful range of meanings. It can simply signify a return and thus can be applied to the migrations and the movement of peoples — poignant for a nation constricted by pass laws. But it also has the sense of restoration, being returned to the perfect starting point, a journey back to Eden, to a place before original sin. It also has historic resonance. In the trial where he received a life sentence, Mandela was accused of backing Operation Mayibuye: a militant attempt to take the country from its apartheid rulers using guerrilla warfare. But he had always thought that strategy unfeasible, and in prison he converted to the road map of peace and reconciliation to bring South Africa to the place where it could begin again. South Africans have now lost Mandela; they don’t want to lose the way he found. Mayibuye.