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Nelson Mandela: 1918 - 2013

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Yesterday came the news that Nelson Mandela, politician, statesman, Nobel Peace Prize winner and revolutionary, has died aged 95. 

In recent months South Africa has been anxiously standing in vigil, checking the news with trepidation and nervously praying for its former leader as he lay in a critical, and later a stable, condition.

Last night came the news that Mandela had passed away peacefully at home in Johannesburg. 

The myth of Mandela

Although Nelson Mandela as a political figure has often been mired in controversy (Margaret Thatcher branded him a “terrorist” as late as 1987) many South Africans uphold that it was he who raised South Africa from a period of scandal and disgrace to international acceptance and applause. It is his very trajectory from “terrorist” to worldwide symbol of peace that makes him so remarkable; his rise from a mythical figure obscured by the sweeping blanket of censorship, to a recognisable face and an emblem of hope for a country still riddled by unemployment and corruption.

Mandela was born in 1918 in a small Xhosa-speaking village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. In South Africa, he is often referred to using his clan name "Madiba" as he was only given his more recognised name by a teacher at school. In 1943, he enrolled for a law degree at Witswaterand University, where he had the opportunity to meet people from all races and backgrounds. It was this exposure to radical, liberal and Africanist thought that fomented a passion for politics. When examining his biography, his status as a political pioneer and daring innovator can be seen through a series of important landmarks: joining the African National Congress, later co-founding the ANC Youth League and setting up South Africa's first black law firm with Oliver Tambo in 1952.

As tension mounted against the apartheid regime, The ANC was outlawed and Mandela was forced to go underground.  Division and pressures soared in 1960 after the Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 black people were killed by the police. After calling an end to peaceful resistance, Mandela was eventually arrested and charged with attempting to overthrow government. He used his trial in 1964 as a platform for his political beliefs and an opportunity to show his support for equality of opportunity and freedom, asserting that democracy “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."

“Rainbow Nation”

Upon his eventual release from Robben Island in 1990, following 27 years of imprisonment, his political stance was not one of vengeance but one of peaceful reconciliation; he preached and espoused the merits of a Rainbow Nation, an end to racial divide, and Ubuntu, the idea that we are human through the humanity of others. It was in this period that Mandela emerged as a beacon of hope in a period of political division and dejection. He actively rejected bitterness and resentment and instead channelled his energy towards a collective aim, in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom he wrote: "as I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."

Mandela's legacy

In 1993, Mandela and then South African President de Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was later elected as the nation's first black president in 1994. In recent years, even as he has faded from the harsh glare of the spotlight and slowly stepped away from the political arena, his status as a hero of democracy has not wavered. Only last year, South Africa launched new banknotes emblazoned with an image of a smiling Mandela on the front.

In recent years we have witnessed Mandela's impact extend far beyond South African frontiers. After leaving office, he has mediated conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. His name has also been used as a street name in Glasgow, a nuclear particle, named ‘The 'Mandela particle' in 1973, in the physics institute at Leeds University and an orchid, 'Paravanda Nelson Mandela," named after him during a 1997 visit to Singapore. He was also famously represented by Morgan Freeman in Invictus, which examined national unity through sport in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

In death, Mandela will still serve as a symbol for the healing wounds of a nation left reeling from racial divide and poverty; an image of the transformed South African national psyche. His work will continue through The Nelson Mandela Foundation and through those he inspired. In his lifetime he addressed inequality, division and taboos: he urged South Africans to reject the silence that surrounded the AIDS epidemic and encouraged the peaceful transition of power. As South Africa continues to grapple with social inequality and an on-going imbalance of power that still favours the white population, Mandela's memory will remain as an image of hope for people still facing oppression, and for all those who oppose it. 




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