In DepthColumnsNelson Mandela, father courage


Posted on Friday, 06 December 2013 17:57

Nelson Mandela, father courage

It took a fellow South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to draw the clearest lessons from Nelson Mandela's life: tremendous courage and moral authority.

"Suffering embitters some people but it enobles others," Tutu said just hours after Mandela's death was announced late on 5 December.

"Prison became a crucible. People could never say: 'You talk glibly of forgiveness. You haven't suffered. What do you know?' Twenty seven years gave him the authority to say let us try to forgive."

First, came the courage. When Mandela and his comrades in the African National Congress (ANC) leadership chose to fight a military campaign against the apartheid regime, they were clearly putting their lives on the line.

Mandela's statement to the court – with the threat of a death penalty hanging over him – became the manifesto for every struggle against oppression and injustice

The biggest test of courage came with Mandela's arrest in August 1962 and subsequent trial after he had eluded apartheid security agents in his role as the 'Black Pimpernel' directing operations for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's military wing, over the previous year.

However impossible it seems today that even the apartheid regime could have sent Mandela and his co-defendants to the gallows, it was a distinct possibility when they faced charges of sabotage at the Rivonia trial in October 1963.

Three decades later, the then President Mandela described in a public lecture how he had tried to get some reassurance from a friendly warder on the evening before the final verdict.

Mandela told the warder that he assumed that he would get the death sentence – in the quiet hope that the warder would come back with a more cheering response.

But, said Mandela, the warder simply thought very hard and then concurred that the death sentence was indeed the most likely outcome.

Colleagues of the trial judge Quartus de Wet agreed that he had intended to hand down death sentences.

Mandela made the audience laugh as he de- scribed how he went on a marathon run around the prison yard the following morning to try to settle his mind.

Later that morning, Mandela made the statement that would secure his place in history no matter what happened next.

Mandela's lawyers advised him to omit the most powerful coda to his statement because they felt the spirit of defiant dignity in the words would ensure that De Wet would send him to the hangman.

But Mandela insisted on making the critical points: those words became the manfesto for every struggle against oppression and injustice.

"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."

As he spoke, Mandela looked straight into the eyes of the hanging judge.

That epic courage and the determination to emerge from jail with such clarity of purpose and to work for the remaking of South Africa with such generosity and intelligence, have been unequalled across the world. We celebrate his bravery and achievement when we pay tribute to Mandela, Africa's gift to humanity. ●

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is Editor-in-Chief of The Africa Report. He has edited the political and economic insider newsletter Africa Confidential since 1992 and was associate producer on a documentary about the 2004 coup attempt in Equatorial Guinea commissioned by Britain's Channel 4 television.


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