ENID, Okla. —
They called him Madiba, this man who brought his country out of the dark ages.
It is a clan name, a term of respect, of familiarity.
It is indicative of how his people saw him, as a grandfather of sorts, a smiling, gentle soul.
It was not always thus for Madiba. He was born Rolihlahla Mandela on July 18, 1918, in Mvezo, Transkei. During his school years, a teacher gave him the name Nelson, keeping with the custom of giving all school children Christian names.
When Nelson Mandela was a young man, his nation passed a series of laws creating a state of apartheid, the government-mandated separation of whites and blacks. Black people were stripped of their citizenship, denied the opportunity to make a living and were forced to moved to designated “group areas.”
Under apartheid, as in the Jim Crow days in the American South, blacks were treated as somehow less than human.
As expected, black South Africans didn’t meekly accept this state of affairs. There were strikes, boycotts, acts of civil disobedience and occasional acts of violence.
Among those at the forefront of the fight against apartheid was Nelson Mandela.
But he was not a non-violent activist like Mahatma Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. In 1960, police shot and killed 69 unarmed black protesters in the South African township of Sharpeville.
Angered by the Sharpeville Massacre, Mandela went underground to form a new military wing of his party, the African National Congress.
During his time on the run, he traveled secretly under a fake name.
The press dubbed him “The Black Pimpernel,” after the “Scarlet Pimpernel,” the lead character in an early 20th century novel.
The ANC’s armed wing attacked the established government, incidents that resulted in civilian casualties. He was considered a terrorist by the South African government.
In 1964, Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government.
During his trial, instead of testifying on his own behalf, he opted to deliver a speech that lasted for more than four hours.
The speech concluded with the words, “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished an 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 spent the next 27 years in prison, 18 of them on Robben Island, South Africa’s version of Alcatraz.
Bowing to pressure from within and without South Africa, the government released Mandela in 1990 and began negotiations to end apartheid. Apartheid was officially abolished that year, and four years later, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president.
The one-time rebel thus became the leader of his nation. Thus it is not surprising Mandela has been called, in the days since his death, South Africa’s George Washington.
In truth, he was Washington and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one, since he was instrumental in freeing his country from the yoke of oppression.
Mandela was a statesman the likes of which we may not see again in our lifetimes. From his violent beginnings, he developed into a man of peace and forgiveness, who believed in freedom and equality for all.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,” Mandela once said, “but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
His example is one all world leaders should emulate.
Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.